Pokémon come alive in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. While the same can’t exactly be said about the expansive Hisui region that serves as the game’s backdrop, innovations on mechanics that haven’t been touched in 20 years don’t just bring a fresh perspective to Pokémon, they bring improvements to already incredible systems.
Few entertainment companies seem to disappoint its most vocal fans with the consistency that The Pokémon Company does with its eponymous franchise. Even though its mistakes could hardly even be called mistakes, and even though the games still sell ridiculously well and tend to be well-received by critics, you can head anywhere Pokémon fans exist on the internet and see them complain en masse about something small like a tree or a character’s outfit whenever a new trailer debuts. Pokémon Legends: Arceus might’ve had the worst lot of them all: hyper-critical fans took the framey animations, barren-looking environments and muddy textures in its reveal trailer to task.
Thankfully, Arceus mostly proves them wrong. It cements itself as an ambitious turning point for the franchise in a number of ways and serves as Game Freak’s strongest argument for Pokémon’s relevance in ages.
For skeptics, lapsed Pokémon fans and outsiders looking in on what appears to be the same game over and over again, Arceus is the antithesis to previous releases like last year’s Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, which played things too safe, even for a remake. That’s not to say Arceus points and laughs at dedicated fans of the tried-and-true formula, despite breaking it. It tills new soil in the same general turf Pokémon fans have been digging in for decades.
Eagle-eyed fans will notice that the Hisui region is the spitting image of the Sinnoh region, the setting for the fourth generation of Pokémon games: Diamond, Pearl and Platinum. The resemblance doesn’t stop with Hisui’s map and landmarks, either. Arceus is set some 100 years before the Sinnoh games and takes advantage of that time difference at every turn. Familiar faces and Pokémon occupy the game’s cast, with lookalikes for Sinnoh’s gym leaders, elite four, villains and even its champion, Cynthia, accompanying you on your journey to explore the nearly unsettled Hisui region. It’s nice to see Game Freak and Pokémon Company pay lip service to generations other than Red and Blue, but it’s not empty fan service, either.
Beyond its memorable (though frequently one-note) cast of characters, Arceus capitalizes on nostalgia in a far more interesting way than just retreading old ground. Its soundtrack is a perfect example of this: nearly every track in the game samples music from a corresponding location in Diamond, Pearl or Platinum. Battle tracks with new arrangements lend a newfound intensity to the already more bombastic battles.
There’s a clear love for the franchise’s history embedded deep in Arceus’ DNA. The game never obsesses over the past, though. In fact, Arceus usually shows its love for Pokémon by breaking the mold repeatedly.
Players expecting dozens of trainer battles in each area or the Pokémon League challenge might be disappointed. In fact, until the end of the game’s main story, there are very few trainer battles in Arceus. Instead the game encourages players to engage with the wild Pokémon and catch as many as they can.
Catching every monster in Hisui will undoubtedly prove more challenging than players might expect, though. That’s partially because the game encourages players to challenge themselves: characters repeatedly tell you that “Pokémon are terrifying creatures,” which the game underscores by populating its handful of environments with a staggering number of hostile Pokémon that you’ll need to confront to complete the Pokedex.
While not every Pokémon will outright attack your character, most will, even Pokémon you might not expect to act with hostility. You’ll also stumble upon the occasional Alpha Pokémon, which are bigger, badder versions of their normal counterparts. And yes, they’re literally bigger.
Running into them feels reminiscent of encountering an over-leveled monster in Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles games. They’re far more powerful than you and deeply intimidating, especially since being knocked out means you might lose vital crafting materials and other items. Thankfully, Arceus gives players some stealth and evasion options to avoid being savaged by an abnormally large, hyper-aggressive Eevee (yes, there are alpha Eevees, and they are hilarious).
In fact, the game’s stealth mechanics prove to be a standout addition to Arceus. Most of the game relies heavily on the franchise’s “Gotta catch ‘em all” mentality, so sneaking up behind a Pokémon you’ve had your eye on and throwing a Pokeball or one of your Pokémon at it isn’t just satisfying, it’s rewarding.
Stealth is a small example of the ways that Arceus follows in the footsteps of other breakthrough open-world games by rewarding player choice and freedom. You’re confronted with multiple ways to approach stalking a Pokémon. Between throwable berries and decoy dolls that might distract a wild Pokémon and mud balls that might stun them, the battle starts even before your Pokémon leaves its Pokeball.
There are Pokémon everywhere in Arceus. In fact, it’d be rare for a player not to see at least a few wild Pokémon on their screen at any given moment when exploring the wilderness. Unlike past games, Pokémon don’t just aimlessly walk around, either. Some Pokémon might curl up and take a nap. Others might interact with other nearby Pokémon. Mr. Mime mimes a chair for himself to sit on.
A number of Pokémon boast lively, fun animations outside of battle that lend much-needed signs of life to a franchise that so frequently feels stuck. This is actually one of the smarter design tactics that Game Freak has employed to mask the game’s lackluster world design.
The best open worlds are dotted with memorable landmarks and interesting locations. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is the perfect example of a world that’s mostly landscape, but still manages to have a number of interesting locations and memorable landmarks without being chock-full of them. You probably wouldn’t know it by looking at the two side-by-side, but Nintendo’s open-world support studio (and Xenoblade Chronicles developer) Monolith Soft supported development for both Breath of the Wild and Arceus. Arceus simply isn’t as defined or lived-in as that version of Hyrule. Arceus justifies its open-world nature by throwing a lot of Pokémon at the players, but the world never quite shines like in the best open-world games.
This points to a larger issue with the Pokémon franchise that Arceus has perpetuated: the Pokémon Company needs to give Game Freak and Creatures Inc. more time to develop Pokémon games. This extra development time wouldn’t just help relieve the games from homogenous, empty-feeling areas, but it might even quell some complaints about the way some of these games look.
Still, Pokémon Legends: Arceus turns over a new leaf for the Pokémon franchise. Not only does it prove that a new game doesn’t need a hundred or so new Pokémon and a shiny new region to feel fresh, but it also shows that Game Freak and The Pokémon Company are actually willing to experiment within core Pokémon games. It defies fan skepticism to deliver a truly rare thing: an ambitious Pokémon game that realizes so many players’ dreams of bringing everyone’s favorite pocket-sized monsters to life in an open world.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus was developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. It’s available for the Switch.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.