Pokemon Legends Arceus Review: Into the Wild
A cuddly Teddiursa frolicks through the fields, oblivious to my presence. It doesn’t realize it, but soon, it will join a handful of its ursine brethren in the pastures of Jubilife Village, helping the Galaxy research team better understand Pokemon – or so I think. A stray move alerts the creature to my presence, and its shouts of alarm summon a mighty Usraring. In the time it takes the beast to blink its enraged, hellish eyes, it’s upon me, and my bruised self is carried back to the village on the brink of death.
Pokemon Legends Arceus should, in theory, be the opposite of fun. Pokemon want to inflict grievous bodily harm. There’s only one town in the entirety of Hisui, few trainer battles, and no way to challenge friends. And yet it’s the most fun Pokemon has been in decades, despite a few annoyances and the nagging feeling it could be even better.
Pokemon Legends Arceus Review: Into the Wild
Most Pokemon games start with you bidding your mother farewell as you head into the world to seek fame and fortune. Pokemon Legends starts with god (Arceus) ripping you from your own dimension, chucking you back in time, and giving you a snazzy god-phone (Arc Phone, if you want to be technically accurate) as compensation.
A man calling himself “something of a Pokemon professor” appears and asks for help recapturing three rare beasties who escaped. This man, Professor Laventon, belongs to the Galaxy Survey Corps, an arm of the Galaxy group setting up base in Hisui and trying to understand both the land and the creatures who inhabit it. You, naturally, catch all three with relative ease and eventually pass the trial to join the Survey Corps.
Which is good, since the Corps captain tells you the alternative is dying alone in the wilderness.
Pokemon Legends’ setup is one of its strongest features. Professors and well-meaning adults who want us to complete tutorials have told us for years that it’s dangerous to go into tall grass as we proceed to demolish the poor Rattata and Pidgey that cross our paths. Things are different in the Hisui region. That cute Psyduck waddling into the water could very well be your doom if you don’t tread carefully, and Shinx can, and will, fry your frail body just because you looked at it.
Hisui feels wild and exciting, surpassing even that feeling of adventure I first felt over 20 years ago when I stepped outside Palette Town, despite cutting back on nearly everything that made Pokemon… well, Pokemon. It turns out I don’t need Gym Battles and the Elite Four to go on a Pokemon adventure. I just need the lil’ – and sometimes very, very big and murderous – critters themselves.
And I need a lot of them. Your one goal in Pokemon Legends, aside from solving the strange mystery of frenzied Noble Pokemon, is creating the first-ever Pokedex, and that means observing, battling, and capturing hundreds of the monsters.
Each Pokemon has a list of research tasks, ranging from basic things like capturing or evolving them to seeing them use a specific move. It sounds grindy, and it is to an extent. You can complete an entry by marking off a handful of tasks, though, and I wound up with several complete entries without even realizing I’d finished the tasks. The endgame requirements are much more involved, and I don’t think I have the patience to tick every stage of each task just to capture god in a ball, appealing as that sounds.
It’s indicative of the somewhat nebulous position in which Pokemon Legends’ finds itself. The core loop of exploring the wilds and catching Pokemon somehow never gets old in Arceus, what with the clever implementation of stealth, throwing angles, crafting, and nearby Pokemon. I don’t think Game Freak could pull this off again without making some bigger changes, though.
There’s plenty to build on as well. While catching Pokemon occupies most of your time, Pokemon Legends also has the best cast of characters and story in any of the mainline games. Game Freak let its characters have actual personalities at last, and the result is much better than I even hoped for.
Take your rival, for example. Gary was a turd and only a turd. Hop was! Always! Excited! With hints of conflict between that optimism and his inferiority complex that got mostly drowned out by noise.
Your would-be rival in Pokemon Legends is an actual person. They’re competitive and prone to being grumpy, but also kind, sympathetic, and genuinely interested in working alongside you. They and your other fellow Galaxy members aren’t necessarily deep, but they are interesting and written very well, with nuanced personalities and quirks that endeared them to me much more than I expected.
The story also heads in surprising directions, though I admit I couldn’t help but think how it could be even better with more character interactions, higher stakes, and more meaningful things to discover in the semi-open world to help tie it all together. Even still, I was disappointed to roll the credits because it meant my time in Hisui was done for a while. However much Game Freak can, and should, improve Pokemon Legends in another installment, Arceus is an unforgettable adventure.
There is, however, something of a Donphan in the room: the visual presentation. It’s impossible to fully know Pokemon Legends’ development situations or what challenges there might have been in making Pokemon’s first fully 3D world. It’s also impossible to ignore it could be much better.
Texture and asset pop-in becomes a significant issue once you have Braviary as a mount and move through the world faster, and then there’s the problem of limited assets to begin with. Hisui isn’t exactly barren, but it’s not chock-full of detailed environments either.
Despite occasionally looking like a test build and not a finished product, Pokemon Legends has some genuinely gorgeous moments. The sky is absolutely beautiful, especially at night and when the sun rises. If you’re in the Crimson Mirelands’ boggy areas at sunset, you’ll see the light gradually turn its swamps a burning red befitting the name, and as seems to be the standard with Nintendo’s Switch generation games, the water effects are quite lovely.
Much more effort went into the Pokemon and their moves, it seems, which benefit from excellent new animations and more detailed models. Even mundane moves such as Bubble and Ember positively shine with character and color. The strategic power and agility system already reinvigorate Pokemon battles, but these extra effects make them feel even more fresh and exciting.
Better still are Pokemon interactions. I spent a happy five minutes watching Psyduck gambol along the riverbank before it took a mighty leap and plopped into the shallows, but it’s far from the only unique actions and interactions every Pokemon has. That’s not even taking into consideration how they interact amongst each other. Call your entire team out, and depending on who’s in it, you’ll get a range of different responses from them all.
Pokemon Legends Arceus Review — The Bottom Line
- Fantastic evolution of the core Pokemon concept
- Imaginative story and setting
- Interesting and well-written characters
- Fresh twist on Pokemon battles
- Feels more like a living world than ever
- Repetitive gameplay loop with few distractions
- Surprisingly barren in terms of textures
- Struggles to even accommodate what is there
I might have wanted more from Pokemon Legends Arceus, and it definitely deserves more, but I’m so happy with what I got. At last, Game Freak took the imaginative, fascinating world it built all those years ago and decided to build on what makes it special — the sense of wonder and, more importantly, the Pokemon themselves.
There absolutely should be a second Pokemon Legends to take these concepts and newfound worldbuilding to the next level, but until then, Pokemon Legends Arceus is one of the most satisfying and memorable Pokemon experiences to date.
[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Pokemon Legends Arceus used for this review.]