Pokémon Legends: Arceus clears a compelling path forward for an often conservative franchise.
Despite its continued success, the Pokémon RPG series frequently struggles to satisfy its most vocal fans. Incremental changes to the formula have streamlined the experience and broadened its scope – Pokémon Sword and Shield, for example, are far removed from Red and Blue – but the underlying foundations have remained the same since 1996.
Game Freak’s balancing act of tradition and gradual innovation deserves some credit. The success of Pokémon is in no small part due to its ability to engage and entertain new and long-time players. Nonetheless, Pokémon Legends: Arceus shows that the critics have been heard.
In response, the studio has delivered the most radical departure for the series to date. And yet, it’s still constructed of elements familiar to anyone who has held a game controller over the past decade.
The game’s cloud-speckled skies and pastel-infused landscapes echo The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The patient cat-and-mouse of Pokémon poaching recalls Red Dead Redemption 2‘s trapper missions. The research tasks will be nothing new to players of New Pokémon Snap. And, of course, the spirit of Pokémon Go is felt throughout, especially in the action-oriented battles. The debts Pokémon Legends: Arceus owes are clear to see, but it all works, and works well.
Setting the game in the feudal past helps enormously, giving Game Freak the freedom to experiment without upsetting purists. The traditional Pokémon questline that takes you from town to town, clearing out gyms is absent. Instead, Capcom’s Monster Hunter series provides the template. There’s just one main settlement – Jubilife Village – from which you embark on a series of missions and side quests. The requests are not new – fetch this, find that, catch such-and-such – but the way you explore and interact with the world is.
Contrary to early impressions, the game’s Hisui region is not an open world. It’s large, certainly, but comprised of distinct areas, again like Monster Hunter. The evocative colour palette brings Link’s greatest adventure to mind, but Hisui is no Hyrule, either in graphical splendour or secrets to discover. The world can look rather rough at times and, apart from some occasional ruins, it’s a largely empty place.
What Hisui does have, however, is Pokémon. Lots of them. Here, the reward for exploration is the rare sight of a Pachirisu scurrying into the undergrowth or a chance encounter with a rage-filled Parasect. Think of Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s Wild Area, but on a massive scale.
Aside from the amusing and whimsical story, the motivator for getting out into that crisp, aliased air is to complete the game’s Pokédex. Doing so requires a considerable amount of effort, much more than in previous games. Hisui’s wild Pokémon need to be observed, captured, or battled multiple times to complete an entry. Like New Pokémon Snap, the emphasis on preparation and fieldwork conjures the sense of a grand anthropological adventure, including a slightly unfortunate endorsement of colonialism.
The familiar co-dependent domesticity between humans and Pokémon is also absent here. For the residents of Jubilife Village, Pokémon are a threat and something to fear, and so they should be. They are monsters once more, wild animals who don’t take kindly to being catalogued or snatched, and are indignant towards being “pocket” monsters. In a neat role reversal, it’s now the player who has to hide in the tall grass.
What results is an aggressively pitched and surprisingly difficult adventure. Many encounters – particularly those against the violent Alpha Pokémon – are best approached with a high degree of caution. Death may swiftly come at the paws of a disgruntled Lopunny.
The knock-on effect is a fun reworking of the standard Pokémon battle system. Pokémon still have abilities, but some moves now have new Agile and Strong styles that affect turn order. Frenzied Noble Pokémon also need to be calmed by throwing balms before you can engage in battle. And if events take a turn for the worse, you can run away from a skirmish in real-time, although you’ll likely be pursued.
The shakeup of these systems is invigorating, so much so it even manages to make Zubat encounters enjoyable for the first time in 20 years. The game deserves credit, just for that.
As with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, there are no complaints regarding the visual dynamics of battle. Encounters are energetic and immaculately animated, retaining their spectacle despite the camera now being in the hands of the player. When the environments do come up short, a delicate score, classic sound effects, and some strident new battle theme arrangements are there to compensate.
So, where does this leave the Pokémon series? In the space of three short months, Nintendo Switch owners have been served the traditional-to-a-fault remakes of Diamond and Pearl, and this unusually ambitious attempt at reinvention. Honestly, I don’t know what I prefer. The classic formula still delivers, but there’s no denying the potential of this new approach.
Somewhere down the line, there will be a Pokémon game that combines the best elements of Pokémon Legends: Arceus and its predecessors. That game will probably be the best Pokémon game ever made. Until then, this adventure – despite some rough edges – does more than enough to earn its place among the franchise’s best.
Let’s hope Game Freak is encouraged by its success to take even more risks, even if the studio again looks to other works for inspiration.
Game: Pokémon Legends: Arceus
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: Out now