Wednesday, May 25, 2022

‘Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ Review: One of the Greatest Pokémon Games Ever

The latest video game entry in the world of Pokémon, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, landed on shelves last week. Arceus serves as a prequel to Diamond and Pearl, taking place in the Hisui region (which would later be known as Sinnoh) very long ago, when people had yet to understand and embrace the wild creatures known as Pokémon.

Pokémon is best known for its traditional gameplay model, which requires players to act as trainers while they work their way through a league. While other types of games have popped up intermittently — like Snap, Stadium, and Unite — the style of the main series games has been a staple of the franchise for over 25 years.

As someone who spent much of their childhood holed up playing Pokémon Red, precariously balancing a flashlight to help illuminate the dim screen of my Game Boy Color as I battled gym leaders late into the night, my love story with Pokémon has been a constant for more than half of my life. In more recent years, the release of games like Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee and Sword/Shield felt like a dream come true. Long gone were the days of running around as a tiny black and white clump of pixels; the possibilities that an advanced platform like the Nintendo Switch opened up for the franchise were endless.

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Initially, when it was first announced, the premise of Arceus seemed that it could be hit or miss. The absence of gyms, leagues, and every other facet of modern “Pokémon civilization” begged the question: what exactly are we going to do in this game, then? How could it possibly be as stimulating without the standard structure we have all come to know and love? For those that have yet to peel off the plastic on Arceus that still find themselves asking the same questions, I’ll put it simply: Arceus goes above and beyond all previous expectations, setting a new standard for the future of Pokémon games.

The story

Normally, each core series game introduces players to a new region bustling with towns, people, gyms, trainers, rivals, evil-doers, and new Pokémon. Arceus flips the script, exploring the origins of Sinnoh across an uncivilized, natural landscape, devoid of creature comforts like Pokémon Centers, Poké Marts, and the cute little house where you bid farewell to your mom before starting your journey. Instead, you’re a stranger in a strange land, thrust into the operations of an expedition team as you take on the task of building the very first Pokédex. I won’t get into the specifics of the plot for the sake of spoilers, but being able to actually experience a key part of the origin story of the Pokémon universe — instead of just hearing NPCs reflect back on it — is a fun and satisfying experience as a longtime fan.

Hisui Region Map
The Pokémon Company

Even though Arceus doesn’t have a league for players to battle through to get to the top, there’s still a major mission to follow in order to unlock areas and eventually reach the end of the “main” game. But what makes this game so fun (and so easy to lose hours at a time playing) is that players are also given smaller side missions called “Requests,” which will send you all over Hisui in order to complete tasks. And if just want to kick back and explore without any responsibilities? You can do that, too. It’s easy to get completely sidetracked just mindlessly dashing through open fields, standing in the rain, looking up at the stars, harvesting materials to craft items (have I mentioned that I love having the ability to craft my own Poké Balls?), searching for buried treasure, sneaking by Alpha Pokémon (or trying to catch them to add a wonderfully gigantic friend to your party), scaling mountains, and surfing along the coast.

“Open world”

To the dismay of many, it was confirmed — before its release — that Arceus would not be a fully open world game. While this is true, this shouldn’t dissuade fans from playing. In addition to the main hub, Jubilife Village, there are five zones for players to unlock and explore in the Hisui Region. Each zone is vast, complete with their own climates and geography and full of different types of Pokémon to complement them. It would be nice to have the option to freely walk between each area, but even so, they’re large enough to happily get lost in; they don’t feel confining. As you use various mounts to run, swim, climb, and fly, you’ll find yourself entirely immersed in Hisui.

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The freedom that this game allows viewers to explore and interact with their surroundings in the game is, personally, everything that I could have asked for. It scratches the itch that was prompted by the introduction of the Wild Areas in Sword and Shield. I do hope that the success of Arceus will lead to future development on a fully open world Pokémon title in the future, but for now I’m beyond satisfied.

Catching wild Pokémon

Most people that have played the core series games would agree that the repeated action of running into countless wild Pokémon and opening the battle screen can start to feel incredibly tedious at times. Arceus has revamped the entire concept of these encounters in a way that makes the playing experience feel much more realistic, reflecting living in a Pokémon world that functions like the anime series. While some Pokémon mind their business and look on with interest as you approach, others will begin to attack you and can cause you to black out in the field (without even sending member of your team out to fight). Berries and other types of items now feel more useful than ever, because they can be used to strategically attract, distract, or incapacitate wild Pokémon to allow you to either escape or catch them more easily.

Screenshot from Pokémon Legends: Arceus
The Pokémon Company

The revamped way to catch Pokémon is easily one of the game’s most enjoyable features. Pokémon GO introduced a concept of catching creatures without battling them, which was jarring at first but ended up being a fun way to play. Arceus offers the best of both worlds: you can sneak around tossing Pokéballs to your heart’s content, or you can start a battle and weaken your target first.

Beyond battling and catching Pokémon just for the enjoyment of it, the game gives players further incentive to do so as often as possible with two types of rewards: points for star ranks (which feels like Snap!) and money. For someone like myself, who absolutely thrives on this time of gameplay, this was a brilliant feature.

Battles

The template for the battle screen has come a very long way since the days of Red and Blue, gradually adding in color, backgrounds, movement, and animations. Arceus takes things a step further by allowing you to move around freely while your Pokémon fights, changing your perspective on the match. Was it necessary? Not exactly. Is it a fun feature? Obviously, because I can never just stand still in this game.

New features like move styles, effort levels, and the ability to maintain an interchangeable library of your Pokémon’s moves forces players to rethink the way they approach catching, training, and fighting. And while I initially found myself frustrated that a gang of Pokémon can attack you in battle, but you can only send out one yourself, I appreciate the feature now, because it’s refreshing to be presented with a new challenge where you can’t necessarily just blow through every battle anymore.

It’s too early to say what the success of Arceus will mean for subsequent Pokémon games (or what Game Freak may already be planning), but I, for one, am incredibly excited about all of the possibilities on the horizon — like in-game expansions with additional Pokémon and playable areas, a sequel that focuses on the origins of other iconic regions from previous games, or even a “current day” title that utilizes these new game mechanics. Whatever the future may hold, Arceus has certainly left an unforgettable mark on the franchise, because to me, it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest Pokémon games to ever exist.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is now on sale.

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