“This is what Pokémon was always meant to be.“
A Quick Story from My Adventure into the Hisui Region. . .
The sun was nearly behind the distant mountain range giving the surrounding rocks an orange hue. The wind was blowing around the tall grass I was hiding in. Snow was beginning to powder the mountain and my Pokémon were struggling after the many battles we had had on our long journey. I had no idea what I would find but once I found it, I knew the only option would be to choose a hide and plan. One false move and the imposing and powerful Alpha Garchomp would sense me and unleash its fury. I had hoped to get close enough to assess its level and try to throw a well timed Ultra Ball from behind to catch it off guard.
It turned its back but I was close enough to assess it so I left the safety of my grassy haven. I was close enough now and saw that its level is 85. My highest level Pokémon was my grass/fighting, Hisuian Decidueye which was only 62. Up close I realized the alpha is probably as much as ten feet tall and its eyes glowed crimson with malice. The alpha must be the ancient ancestor of the Garchomp used by the present day Sinnoh Champion, Cynthia.
If I engaged it in battle I would have lost decisively. I had no type advantages and was grossly under leveled. In my exposed position, I readied a ball to throw only to be spotted by a tiny Gible which alerts the alpha. The Ultra Ball bounced off the alerted titan and it knocked me to the ground with the shockwave of its roar. I got to my feet just in time to dodge roll an Outrage attack from the majestic dragon. Is this what Soulsbourne fans feel like? In the window between its attacks I summon a ride Pokémon, Wyrdeer, Stanler’s Hisuian evolution. I mounted the Hisuian Noble and rode with all haste, hoping the dragon misses me with its next attack. As I approached a cliff facing I switched to another Noble Pokémon, Sneasler, the Hisuian evolution of Sneasel, and climbed up the cliff facing in a Breath of the Wild like fashion.
In my new nest I crouched behind a boulder and waited for the beast to give up its hunt. After a minute or two, it grew bored and it began to walk away. Its back was vulnerable again. I readied my Ultra Ball and let it fly. It struck the monster in the back of the neck from above and the ball fell to the ground. The black and yellow ball shook once and a small firework display popped from the top of the ball that let me know that luck was on my side that day. I became the master of a level 85, ten foot tall, with special moves, Alpha Garchomp and I hadn’t even completed the game’s main story. I was elated. This is what Pokémon was always meant to be.
Pokémon may be my favorite franchise of all time so I have tried my best to make sure my biases and preferences do not color my opinion of this strange new evolution to the Pokémon formula. I want to choose my words carefully when assessing the successes and failures of any game but when I consider GameFreak’s new game, Pokémon Legends Arceus, I am left with only thought. This is what Pokémon was always meant to be. The story, the gameplay, and world building in Pokémon Legends Arceus (PLA) stand toe-to-toe with the greatest in the franchise and in many ways improves on its systems. As a fan of the franchise going all the way back to Pokémon Red, PLA may be my favorite Pokémon game to date.
PLA’s story takes place in the distant past of what would later be known as the Sinnoh region. The player, who I named Red, falls through a space-time distortion in the sky and is found on Prelude Beach by Professor Laventon. Laventon feeds and houses the player after the player assists in helping him recapture his loose Pokémon. The player has a knack for catching Pokémon and is recruited by Team Galaxy to conduct research and build the first Pokédex. Over time the player is introduced to a wide cast of characters, many of which look suspiciously like characters from modern day Sinnoh games.
Taking many notes from other notable RPGs, PLA tasks the player with side quests that allow him or her to upgrade local shops, collect crafting recipes, and earn valuable items. Being able to craft various Pokeballs and lures is a welcome enhancement to the gameplay loop. These side quest experiences give the player small stories revolving around this primitive village’s relationship with Pokémon around them. Pokémon are not treated as cute and cuddly partners as much as they are thought of as terrifying and dangerous Pokémon the Jubilife Village must be protected from.
As the story progresses the player is introduced to two rivaling clans, the Diamond Clan and Pearl Clan, that aid in tending to Pokémon Nobles. These powerful Noble Pokémon rule and watch over certain territories throughout the Hisui region and some of them have become “frenized.” Quelling the frenzied Lords, and Lady, make up the core push of the story and make for some awe inspiring boss battles that require skill and reactive timing to survive.
While I thoroughly enjoy the story of PLA, the gameplay is certainly where the franchise varies and excels from its past entries the most. Exploration and researching the first world’s Pokédex create near infinite replayability and can cause the player to forget there is a story at all. While many have had issues with whether or not the game is truly considered open world or not. It would be best to describe the game as having many open worlds that are massive. You will have to return to Jubilife Village before departing to another region, since it is not truly open world but each territory is littered with crafting resources, side quests, and most importantly, Pokémon.
The general gameplay loop consists of moving through these massive territories on foot and catching Pokémon in a variety of ways. Similar to the Wild Area of Sword and Shield, Pokémon can be seen in the over world but now caught without engaging in combat, like the aforementioned Alpha Garchomp. Some Pokémon will run, attack, and simply look at the player when approached. If the player is within range and the Pokémon is not actively attacking, the player is able to throw a Pokéball and potentially catch the wild Pokémon without engaging in battle. If this fails, the player can run, hide, and try again. If that takes too long, the player can go the old school route and engage the Pokémon in battle, weaken it, and then catch it.
Building the first Pokédex is not as simple as in previous installments of the franchise. There really is no data on Pokémon in this storyline so the player is tasked with collecting data. The player can do this interacting with the same species in different ways. For example if you were filling out the data on Bidoof, you could do so by catching and battling multiple Bidoof, catching the Bidoof at different times of day and of different sizes, watching the Bidoof use certain moves, and maybe even catching an Alpha Bidoof. Also, catching more Pokémon yields more rewards when research is submitted to Laventon. Research increases your rank which unlocks more benefits, quests, crafting recipes, and increases the highest level of obedience of a Pokémon. Pokémon that are released back into the wild after capture will give the player valuable items that can increase the Effort Values of their Pokémon allowing them to be more effective in combat. The added complexity motivates the players to collect hundreds of Pokémon throughout the journey.
One of the most welcomed additions to the gameplay aside from the addition of overworld spawns and catches is the addition of Alpha Pokémon. These Pokémon are powerful, gigantic, and scary. They will always attack the trainer and be spotted and are often over the player’s party level. They also may know rare moves that otherwise can only be taught through an in-game move tutor. These alpha Pokémon, and non-alphas as well, can be engaged in the overworld by the player who is able to take damage directly. By dodging and hiding, the player can create opportunities to throw items that can stun the Pokémon, lure it, or catch it without engaging in battle. However, if the player takes enough damage he or she will black out and potentially lose valuable items. If the player’s team of six is KO’d he or she does not black out, he or she is given the opportunity to run to safety and live to fight another day. This makes every single encounter more engaging and thrilling.
Battling the Frenzied Lords are exhilarating and at times extremely difficult. The first Frenzied Lord, which has been shown in trailers prior, is Kleavor, the Hisuian evolution of Scyther. The rock/bug Lord Kleavor is bathed in a mysterious golden light and the player must use balms to quell its frenzy long enough to engage in a battle, defeat it, and bring peace to the surrounding area. This will require the trainer to have good aim, well timed dodges, and a team that can handle the massive Pokémon. I actually blacked out in more than one of these encounters because I was not dodging as much as I was throwing. In battle, mastered moves used by the player Pokémon can be switched between “Agile Style” and “Power Style.” Agile styles can increase the frequency of attacks in exchange for a little power and Power Style is the inverse.
It is also worth noting that shiny variants of the Pokémon can be seen in the overworld. While explore one Hisui’s icy biomes I saw a blue Snorunt and literally screamed. It was exciting to say the least. There are also “Outbreaks” which will have many of the same Pokémon spawning in a given area. Space-time distortions can also form throughout Hisui and are areas where the exceptionally powerful and rare Pokémon can spawn. In one space-time distortion I encountered a level 77, Alpha Rhyperior that nearly wiped my team. Pokémon that previously required trade evolutions now can be given an item called a “Link Cable” to evolve and the entire Pokédex can be completed in game without trading. Every single game play addition has been improved from Pokémon’s more classic formula.
There are some things that I really wish had been added to the gameplay. More than anything, I wish it was an option to ride more than just the Noble Pokemon. Hisuian Arcaine is amazing and I want to ride it so bad. I would also have enjoyed having a partner Pokemon follow behind like in the DLC areas of Sword and Shield. I would like to see skill trees for the player character in the future. Let crafting, throwing, sprinting, and health improve throughout the story. I would like to be able to upgrade a homestead or make more improvements to the village. There have certainly been more RPG elements added to PLA but I want to see more. This is GameFreak’s first substantial change to the formula and I am confident we will see more installments similar to this one in the future which makes me hopeful for more enhancements.
One of the most divisive aspects of the PLA has been in its graphics. The world at times seems bland but is not void of variation and color. PLA, like many Nintendo first party games, is graphics will not be the selling point of this game. Occasionally I had issues with Pokémon rendering at a distance and there were issues with some Pokémon like Hisuian Goodra clipping through their own character models. Throughout my playthrough I had zero instances of glitching through objects but did have the occasional drop in frame rate. The art direction is not going for photo realism but has room for improvement.
There have been no noticeable changes to many of the sounds and music typical of the franchise. If you have enjoyed the music in the past you will likely enjoy it again. An interesting decision was to continue using the same “cries” of the Pokémon from previous games. It would have been interesting to see more variations of the cries since there are so many different ways to interact with the Pokémon that go around but that is purely preferential.
Pokémon Legends Arceus is GameFreak’s most expansive, unique, and immersive experience in the Pokémon franchise to date. It has been a long time since I have played a game that has pervaded my thoughts so much. My friends and I are able to describe different encounters that one another have not seen yet because of the open ended nature of the game. It’s so exciting! This departure from the norm was well worth the risk and will certainly produce more games in its likeness and I, for one, cannot wait! Let me go to ancient Kanto or Johto! Let me try to catch all the Pokémon that the somewhat limited PLA Pokédex left out! Let me see a regional variant of Charizard! PLA has made me want so much more from the franchise in the best way possible. In my dreamworld, I would love to see more traditional mainline games, Let’s Go remakes of previous games, and a new third path whose trail has been blazed by PLA! The Pokémon franchise is only getting better from here!
A Note to Parents
Tonely, PLA is slightly darker than in previous installments but is otherwise as safe to interact with as any other game. Its ESRB rating is “E for Everyone” for fantasy violence that is a typical of other installments. Pokémon are spoken often as “terrorizing” or “dangerous” often but that there is really isn’t anything that I have experienced that my young daughters would even consider “scary.” There will be a discussion of deity’s over space, time, and creation in the game similar to Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl.