Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a really, really good looking game. I’m going to put that up-front because it has been the discourse that has plagued this game from day one, but I genuinely love the aesthetic. I’ve always been a fan of softer colours, be that watercolour or pastels, and I’ve always been a fan of Japanese aesthetics, which this game has in spades. As I have commented a couple of times, I immediately felt a kinship between Pokémon Legends and Monster Hunter Rise, because both games are unashamedly Japanese in visual design, after both their base series’ have spent much of their history trying to homogenise the aesthetic to become almost nondescript. I love the art direction in Arceus.
Even the game’s visual issues – and yes, I do realise it has them, such as severe pop in and poor levels of detail and texturing – are more than easy to forgive thanks to a combination of the art direction and the visual quality of the pokémon themselves. When it comes to the latter, most important element, Arceus absolutely nails it. I giggled in glee when I saw my first Psyduck. He was enjoying a casual doze in a pristine-looking river. He seemed very happy. Until I threw a pokéball at him. He wasn’t very happy with me then. That happened early on and set the tone for the rest of the game. It bubbles with a bright personality thanks to the excellent design, rendering and behaviour of the pokémon themselves. I know full well what’s going to happen in the comments for saying this, because people genuinely seem confused by the notion that aesthetic taste is entirely subjective, and they can’t actually determine for me what I find visually pleasing or not. Nonetheless, once again, I genuinely love the art in this game and it immediately put me in a good place for the rest of the experience.
The rest of the game is incredibly brave in so many ways. Even compared to the relatively experimental Pokémon Sword and Shield, Arceus takes the series in a dramatically different direction, and the decisions that were made are easy to approve of from top to bottom. Some will rankle at the removal of the gyms, and the somewhat grindy nature of progression, but for other people, the renewed focus on catching pokémon and completing the pokédex, despite being entirely structually different to previous Pokémon titles, has been implemented beautifully.
No longer do you complete a pokédex entry by simply catching one example of the species. Now you have to capture a large number of them, battle a large number more, watch them use specific moves, and so on. Each pokémon has a different set of conditions to properly complete their pokédex entry, and overall this game leans heavily into the idea that you’re researching pokémon more than any other game before it. Where the ‘dex was once a contrivance, designed to achieve little more than psychologically challenging players into the digital critter collect-a-thon, here it is genuinely core to the whole experience. This has also been baked into the narrative, as Pokémon Legends takes place in a very different time and place to other pokémon games. This time around you’re witnessing the very first interactions between humans and pokémon. There are no gyms because most people are still terrified of pokémon, let alone interested in watching or participating in battles between them. There isn’t the same journey from town to town, either, because this is a vision of a very primitive Sinnoh region in which humanity has not yet tamed the world around them. In other words, humans really know very little about pokémon this time around, and as you’re at the forefront of the discoveries being made, you do feel like an intrepid explorer and Darwin all rolled into one.
This very concept is genius and adds an all-new dimension to the Pokémon lore. I’ve been playing since Blue on the original Game Boy, and in all that time I’d never really thought about any of the worlds in Pokémon having a history. Vague hints of one here and there, sure, but this wasn’t exactly Zelda, with its elaborate time lines, or Final Fantasy, where you’re meant to get a sense of world history as you explore. Pokémon was always located firmly and exclusively in the immediate and preoccupied with giving players a functional space to explore and capture critters, rather than something that you wanted to learn more about. Until now. And for the first time I found myself actually caring about the region and setting of the Pokémon world that I was exploring.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is also so much different to the Pokémon norm, that you’ll wonder at times if Game Freak deliberately set out to subvert itself. Grass plays a role in catching Pokémon, but now it’s not an opportunity to encounter them. Rather it’s now part of a stealth mechanic that allows you to catch Pokémon before they see you and without having to battle them. Oh, yes, there’s no inherent need to battle a lot of the critters now. Now you’ll run through an area throwing a pile of balls at everything that moves, and tally up your successes at the end of the run. You can still battle pokémon, and the usual tricks work. Once in combat the goal is to reduce the wild pokémon’s health and paralyze/poison them and they’ll be easier to catch, but you’ll be doing that far less frequently, and there were times where I would throw dozens of pokéballs and capture so many ‘mons withought figting a single battle.
Then there’s the quest structure, where you’ll get inundated with missions from people that desperately want you to capture particular types of pokémon, or collect specific kinds of resources. Then there’s those resources and a crafting system that allows you to brew up potions and cobble together pokéballs on the fly to save you the need to travel back to town. Then there are the boss battles, which themselves don’t necessarily involve attacking them with pokémon. I could go on and on, but in so many ways Arceus feels like a complete departure from the formula that had been so firmly entrenched in a series that has been, typically, risk-averse. Game Freak has, right up until this game, iterated and added to the basic Pokémon formula. With Arceus, the formula was thrown out of the window, and this is either a very bold one-off experiment, or an entirely new direction for the series for the future.
Despite that, Arceus is also still distinctly a Pokémon experience. You’re still going to be capturing Piplup (the best pokémon), sweating over whether you’ve managed to nab a shiny or rare pokémon, and carefully selecting the moves and monster mix that will give you the perfect party. Arceus might not have the biggest pokédex, but it is perhaps the most mature pokédex, with the monsters being generally the more simple, cute, and adjacent to real-world fluffy things. Some of the later titles with the more expansive pokédexes would fill the roster with weird, random-looking critters that took away from some of the natural quality of the earlier games, and they were the weaker for it. Arceus, in this regard, finds itself almost nostalgic, and after dozens of hours of play, I still find myself fascinated by this seeming contradiction. You wouldn’t think that it would be possible to completely overhaul a beloved series from top to bottom while also maintaining a nostalgic quality to the adventure, but that’s what Game Freak has achieved here.
A final note must go to the story which, like everything else about Arceus, is brave for wanting to upend tradition. It’s as silly and self-aware as Pokémon narratives ever are (my favourite moments are right at the start where people are talking about terrifying monsters just outside the safety of the village, and you venture out and it’s… the sparrow-like Starly and beaver-like Bidoof), but this one is more cohesive. It’s not a series of vague events that track along with your discovery of each new town and city. Rather, it’s the narrative that drives your adventure forward, rather than fit in around it, and while it’s not going to be winning the narrative of the year award, it is filled with memorable characters, a sense of mystery (just why did you fall from a rift in the sky, anyway?), and it effectively captures the sensation of a grand adventure in an epic land.
Every time I think I’m losing interest in Pokémon, Game Freak does something to reinvigorate me. The Pokémon Pearl and Diamond remakes last year were fine, though I ended up spending more time just playing the original Pokémon Pearl again. I needed something like Arceus, I think, to get me to once again drop dozens of hours into a single game. This is a brave, bold game into new frontiers for Game Freak, and it confidently promises a new and revitalised future for the series.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb