I keep saying I’m not a Pokémon person, and that’s somewhat true. I hopped on the Pokémon train back in 2016 with PokémonGO, which, if you’ll recall, was the Wordle of its time. My main goal was catching weird little creatures while I was out for a walk or on vacation somewhere and seeing how diverse my Pokédex could be, but it didn’t much go beyond that. I took on the Pokémon Let’s Go series back when it came out for Switch in 2018 more for the pokéball controller than anything else, but when I reviewed it, it started to get its hooks in me. I found myself liking the world and getting into the “gotta catch ‘em all” spirit, though I just as easily put it down and walked away without much of a second thought.
You’ll understand my own surprise then, that even after getting on board the hype train for Pokémon Legends: Arceus in the trailers that showed off an open world reminiscent of Breath of the Wild with gorgeous vistas, mounts and crafting, I didn’t foresee myself becoming obsessed. But that’s exactly what happened. In just the few days I had allocated to play through Pokémon Legends: Arceus, I would find myself foregoing regular sleep and meals just to explore another corner of the Hisui region and find out more about the world, the lore and the various creatures that inhabited it. I had no idea that I’d wind up fondly referring to it as “Breath of the Pokemon Souls” or that I could easily discuss it with other fans and colleagues for two straight hours without missing a beat, but friends, that is exactly what happened.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a brand new type of Pokemon game that had a lot to live up to, and while there’s been a lot of debate about how successful it was at sating fans who’ve been obsessed since the 90s and letting those of us who only recently fell into the franchise explore even more, I personally think GameFreak killed it, and even though it’s just now February, can confidently say I expect it to make the list of one of my favorite games of 2022 even with a good 10.5 months to go.
Arceus is something new and different for the Pokémon series, and also serves as a prequel to Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, originally released for the Nintendo DS in 2006 and then subsequently shined up in remasters titled Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl that were released in November 2021. It’s also a sort of prequel to all of Pokémon, really, with events taking place at a time where there were no trainers and gyms, and the people inhabiting the Hisui region where Arceus takes place were largely afraid of these powerful creatures.
After you literally fall from the sky in a sort of space-time rift, you find yourself in the company of a somewhat too-familiar fellow called Professor Laventon, whose goal it is to research and document the powers of these strange creatures and help the villagers of Jubilife learn to live alongside them, and perhaps even partner with them. In exchange for somewhere to stay in this new dimension, you’ll earn your keep by becoming part of the Survey Corps for the Galaxy Team where your job will be not just to catch them all, but to do the research on them, too.
It’s the setup for what turns out to be a completely different way to play a Pokémon game, and though I’ve already said it before, I have to reiterate – it feels a lot like Breath of the Wild. That’s definitely not a bad thing though, as the kind of vast open spaces and epic adventures Breath of the Wild brought us back in the infancy of the Switch are still fond memories even now. What that means for Arceus though is that the sort of town by town, gym by gym, trainer by trainer linear nature of the Pokémon series has been traded for a much more open world that includes a brand new crafting system and the addition of mounts that allow you more easy access to the wide world of Hisui
The addition of this much wider open world are immediately apparent, as it really allows you to explore the way you want to without too many restrictions. It’s not an entirely open world, as you’ll have to work your way through the missions to unlock new regions, and within those regions, there are still invisible walls, but it’s far less locked down and much more welcoming to someone like myself with a predilection for wandering.
There’s also a new way to catch Pokémon, with the introduction of a noncombat catching mechanic. Using this technique, you can sneak up to or simply get in range of a Pokémon you’re after and hurl a pokeball at it and see what happens. There’s no frantic button mashing, and there’s even an indicator of how hard it’ll be to capture the particular critter you’re after. For me, this alleviated a lot of the frustration of former games, and made catching things a lot more fun. You can engage in combat, and if you come across aggressive Pokémon, you might have to engage in combat, but there’s less random encounters you don’t want to have while you’re on your way to do a mission.
Crafting is fun, and while I wish there were a few more recipes that were available at lower levels, for the most part not problematic. You’re able to craft your own pokeballs, revives, and special treats to lure and satisfy wild Pokémon and your own team alike. You can engage with the crafting system heavily or choose to buy most things, though I did find moneymaking a little challenging at the beginning of the game if you weren’t willing to go out and catch 30 of the same type of Pokémon in a row just to get the cash.
A few more additions to the game are the strong/agile style moves and the implementation of characters not forgetting moves. Strong/agile moves are more or less what they sound like. A strong attack uses more power points or PP but does more damage, and an agile attack is faster, allowing for possible subsequent hits without an enemy turn, and also uses more PP.
Mounts start unlocking pretty quickly into your journey, and make traversal and avoiding combat a whole lot easier. You can even gather most crafting materials while atop your Wyrdeer or other mighty steed, and in addition, there’s a fast travel system that lets you hop from camp to camp or to important locations without having to run for hours on end. All this makes exploring more enticing, as it gives you the option to run far and wide and still be able to be back to the main mission area in moments.
Much of the mystery of Pokémon Legends: Arceus revolves around you. It makes sense if you think about it, since you dropped out of the sky just as a giant menacing space-time rift opened up over the region’s main mountain wearing Muggle clothes and sporting a cell phone and an uncanny ability to catch and tame the Pokémon the villagers are so afraid of. It also makes you a little sus to the villagers, save for Laventon and his friends. This means your early interactions with the people of Jubilife village are often you trying to convince everyone you’re not the reason the sky is falling when honestly, you’re not even sure you’re not to blame.
You join up with the Galaxy Team’s Survey Corps simply to be able to make your way in the world with some sort of support system, and luckily, if you can catch and report on Pokémon, you can hang around. Try as you might there are still some who will be suspicious of you no matter what you do though, and things don’t exactly get better when you drop out of the sky. On the contrary, the noble Pokémon revered by two other clans (the Diamond and Pearl clan we mentioned before, in fact) have gone into a frenzy, becoming overpowered and distressed while posing a very serious threat to the village you’ve just showed up in. Since most people are afraid of Pokémon and there are very few people who’ve partnered with them, you and your knack for Pokémon catching are the only salvation for the land. It’s a weird spot to be in, and makes for an immediately intriguing story.
Your unique powers mean that you, along with Galaxy Team and Pearl and Diamond clan leaders, are going to be the ones who stop the frenzies, save the nobles, and help assuage the fears of the villagers. This is also where unique boss fights that take the place of gym battles come in. In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, you won’t just be fighting powerful Pokémon with your own team of six. You’ll be taking on the boss mano a mano, too.
Though the circumstances and biomes change, boss fights pretty much take the same format no matter which you’re fighting. They’re in a frenzy, which means they glow gold and are really, really big and powerful, and they will relentlessly attack you until you black out. Your job is to quell their frenzy by throwing “balms” at them while dodging their attacks. This is where the game reminded me a bit of Dark Souls, for two reasons. One is that you’ll need to learn the moveset in order to defeat the boss if you want to avoid multiple deaths and attempts, and the next is the main mechanic of your part of the fight involves the dodge roll so familiar to those of us who’ve played and loved Souls games. The dodge mechanic renders you invincible while you’re in the animation, and allows you to avoid the damage you’d take from lightning fast (and in some cases, actual lightning) attacks. Each boss has a frenzy meter and every time you successfully get it down a bar, you’ll stun it. It’s at this point you can send in your Pokemon to do battle. Once they successfully drain the boss’ lifebar, you’ll have a small opening of time to chuck as many balms as possible at the boss without fear of retribution. If all your Pokémon are defeated in the battle, you will simply return to the main dodge and throw parts of the battle. I wish that the boss battles were a little bit more varied, but for the most part I actually really enjoyed this addition.
Quelling frenzied nobles helps progress you through the story and gain access to new mounts, areas and items, and for those who like a challenge, you’ll find that these bosses are plenty challenging. For people who don’t have a lot of time to sink into the game, there’s a neat option that saves your most recent progress so you don’t have to start from scratch and gives you back your team of Pokémon at full strength. While some may balk at that idea, I found it made the game more accessible to people who have a full schedule and still want to enjoy the game and its story.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus has a pretty epic story, and there are a lot of ways I could spoil it, so suffice it to say that as the mystery about who you are and where you came from unravels, so many new threads and mysteries appear. People who you thought you can trust become sudden rivals and people who you may not have trusted become friends. One thing that I thought was particularly strong about Arceus’ story is the character development. I found that I really liked (and in some cases, disliked) certain characters, and it made any sudden and inevitable betrayals or twists that much more impactful. On top of that, though there’s lots of room for DLC, there’s also a lot of story in the base game. At several points I thought I was finally at the end and all would be revealed only to have something happen that was totally out of left field and end up on an entirely new mission. Towards the end of the main storyline, it almost became humorous in a “The princess is in another castle” sort of way, as every time I thought for sure the end credits were about to roll, I would end up wrong and facing an even bigger challenge.
If you play a lot of games like I do, even if they’re great games, there’s only a handful you end up thinking about in your free time,or wanting to return to just for another fix, but this was definitely the case for Pokémon Legends: Arceus. I found myself absorbed in the world, hooked by the story and characters, and, even with the gauntlet of final tasks to the main storyline, somehow wanting more.
Beyond that, I find that Pokémon Legends: Arceus more or less lets you play at your own pace in your own way, something that more devs should latch on to. You can spend a good long while catching Pokemon in the first area, levelling up your team and crafting, taking story bits at a leisurely pace and really soaking in the wonder of a semi-open world, or, like me, mainline the story missions and for the most part not get stopped by a heavy grind (though there are a few parts of the main storyline that require you to have a certain star rating with the Survey Corps, meaning a little bit more Pokemon hunting time). Furthermore, because you can play so freely with the moves, and with the addition of the strong/agile style, you aren’t necessarily tied down to have to use the “right” type of Pokemon for each area’s main type, and likewise, with the addition of mounts, you can skip some battles and ride straight off towards the sunset (or space time rift, whatever.)
The fact that Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a prequel also works in its favor as far as accessibility, meaning that people without a huge background in the franchise learn more and fans of the series who have a deep knowledge of it unlock little Easter Egg style nuggets of information that are a nod to some of the games they’ve known and loved for a long time. If I had to complain about anything specifically, my biggest complaint is a lack of variety in Pokemon throughout the regions, which makes the regions seem samey even if they look different. There’s nothing wrong with Starly or Geodudes per se, but when they show up in every region when you first get in, it knocks the wind out of your collector sails a little bit. That said, something like running into your first shiny in the wild or catching an alpha Ninetales that’s 20 levels above your highest partner Pokémon make it all worth it.
In the end, Pokémon Legends: Arceus tries to take the series in a whole new direction and does it well, while still paying homage to the established lore and the series as a whole. It’s epic, with a great story, memorable characters and great new mechanics, and though it may not quite push the limits of what even the Nintendo Switch can do graphically speaking, it is beautiful in its own way. Beyond that, it’s memorable, fun, and something I’ll come back to time and time again.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is available now on Nintendo Switch.