Wild new ideas appeared
The last time I left off with our Pokemon Legends review, I was both pleased and vexed by the advancements and lack of changes. Our relationship with Pokemon games is often like that, so join me as we parse out exactly what that means this time around.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Game Freak
Released: January 28, 2022
I’ll spare you the suspense! I liked it overall. But it was a journey to get to that place.
So Pokemon Legends is very good at drawing you into its world, where research matters more than becoming the next champion. It’s such a low bar to ask the developers to meet over the course of several decades, but this tried-and-true formula of catching creatures has survived this long for a reason: it’s still charming, and at its core, pure, in multiple respects.
Actually doing the job of a professor is a nice change of pace. To progress, you’ll acquire “star ranks,” which aren’t your typical badges. Instead you’ll be able to choose from an open-ended array of activities, like catching Pokemon in specific ways, battling them, or “seeing their moves in action.” You can do the latter from any side of the battle, so often times just running around catching things or fighting them will unlock copious amounts of research points needed to rank up.
I adopted a system of my own choosing, where I’d enter an area, and just catch Pokemon. Then I’d go back to the same zone and just battle. It’s a tact the game never explicitly tells you to do, but something I came up with on my own, and felt a sense of accomplishment as a result. In fact, the game as a whole doesn’t over-tutorialize everything, to its strength.
In a typical Pokemon game, you’d have your hand held through every single facet of the main village of Jubilife, but Pokemon Legends: Arceus holds back. You’re expected to discover the nuances of the city on your own, which is a refreshing change of pace from being led around by an NPC in a scripted scene going “do this, do this, do this.” You can probably hear the text-mashing noise in your head already.
“Chill” is the feeling that stuck with me after I saw the credits roll and started to air my grievances (which we’ll get to). After the story was done, I immediately went back to each zone and just walked around them for an hour each, catching and fighting. The “filling the Pokedex” goal is still the same in Pokemon Legends, but the means to get there is more involved.
The “mounts/vehicles” are a big part of why open-ended exploration is fun. You can gallop around, treasure hunt, swim in the water, and eventually, fly. Game Freak also made this system fairly slickly, in that you can seamlessly go from falling to flying, or jumping in the water to soaring in the sky, and so on. The mountain-climbing mount in the header image is one of the more fun open-world experiences I’ve had in a while. As a result, going back to old areas with new tricks is a blast, when you have the ability to actually swim or fly over somewhere you couldn’t before.
It’s just fun to roam around and see an insane red-eyed pumped-up Bibarel and laugh out loud at how absurd it looks. Crafting in the field is also an excellent way to keep people moving instead of laboriously going back to town to do X, Y, and Z. I spent most of my time actually playing the game and not in menus — this isn’t just a Pokemon innovation, but something I’d like to see in more games, period.
All of this should stay, especially the element of catching and fighting seamlessly. You can run away from every battle manually just by physically walking in the other direction with your trainer character, and move on to the next thing. You don’t need to sit through endless menus to watch your characters level-up or gain new abilities. (No thanks, I don’t need a menu every time someone learns a move!) You don’t even need to evolve them if they can right away! Instead, all of that — including open-ended move changing — is done in a menu whenever you feel like it. I can’t tell you how much I don’t miss the “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO WHAT YOU JUST SAID YOU WANT TO DO?!” prompts from the old games.
As for the story, I bought the fish out of water/ isekai premise as a whole of a stranger in a strange land, but not all of the story beats in Pokemon Legends: Arceus come together, particularly near the end. There’s a ton of buildup at the start and toward the middle of the campaign, followed by an abrupt ending. The experience was a blast though, and getting paid for researching and working for what is ostensibly a big company reminded me of getting a SEED salary in Final Fantasy VIII. It’s a unique hook, and the fresh take and lack of gyms had me invested until the finale.
Of course, the usual Game Freak annoyances popped up, because two steps forward and no steps back would be a big ask. My chief issue is that Legends could have been so much more with a little extra time in the oven to polish it up. As I noted in my initial review in progress, there are moments in the game with sweeping camera angles that are clearly meant to evoke some sort of spectacle, and fall so flat. The foliage and environments are a huge problem, and at one point a family member walked by and deadass asked if I was playing an N64 game. I get it!
While I’m willing to overlook the lack of polish and very rough assets, it does spill over into performance (framerate) from time to time, especially when it comes to discerning creatures that are really far away, but look like a slideshow. The lack of flair also impacts the environmental design, as some areas are literally just an empty cave with one straight path going through it. Zones are big enough to really spread their wings as the sum of their parts, but some individual sections are rough-looking.
It’s also easy to be disappointed by the lack of voice acting. If people don’t want the creatures to say anything, I understand that point of view. But The Pokemon Company as a whole very clearly has decades of experience in the field, and has found countless talent for the anime series. At the very least, key participants in the story, minus the player character, could talk: it wouldn’t be out of character for a franchise with a long-running anime. Personally, I also think it’s a bummer that even Pikachu has a really low-key sound effect instead of its battle cry.
The Switch is clearly capable of more, and Nintendo even did more itself throughout the course of the history of the console. Legends would have made a much bigger impact on me if I was completely drawn in by the visuals, instead of it being a vessel for the relaxed and fun gameplay loop. Some of my misgivings are small nitpicks, but they add up. And I absolutely don’t blame someone for writing it off for any one of them, as our tolerance levels are all different.
You need to buy into the theme to an extent to deal with some of the shortcomings. But Pokemon Legends: Arceus, compared to the series at large, excels at showing us how things can move forward in a meaningful way. I hope Game Freak uses this blueprint to do even better next time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]