Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 02/10/2022 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
For over a decade, Pokemon fans have been clamoring for Game Freak to change the standard gameplay formula for the Pokemon Games. Let’s Go did that, but it seems like that was both too similar to Pokemon Go and not different enough from the main games for fans. That was one of the biggest complaints I kept seeing with Sword and Shield (other than the graphics) – it’s too similar. Well, that and several other complaints have all been handily addressed with the newest entry in the series, Pokemon Legends: Arceus.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus (hereafter simply “Legends”) takes place in Sinnoh but in the distant past before Pokemon Centers, before gyms, and before the region was even called “Sinnoh;” the region is called Hisui at this time. You are thrown into a space-time distortion of some sort by a mysterious voice. You wake up on Prelude Beach with nothing to help you and no idea where or even when you are. You end up being brought into the Galaxy Team Expedition’s Survey Corps to help the resident professor as he tries to complete the first Pokedex and learn more about the Pokemon of the region. During this time, very little is known about Pokemon, and most people still see them as monsters to be feared rather than intelligent creatures to be befriended.
Immediately noticeable is the change to the core gameplay. You can still battle Pokemon and catch them by weakening them before throwing a Pokeball as always, but you can also throw Pokeballs at them in the overworld and, provided your aim is good enough, hit them for a chance to catch them. Different Pokemon will react differently to you; some will just kind of ignore you and keep doing what they’re doing, some will run in fear as soon as they see you, and some will immediately attack you. You’ll need to utilize stealth and hide in tall grass to avoid detection. If you’re attacked by a Pokemon, you’ll need to throw out one of yours to battle or be quick to run away because they can and will hurt you and knock you out, not just your Pokemon.
The flow of battle has changed, too; it’s not strictly turn-based anymore. Your speed stat and the speed of individual moves now play a role in the order of battle, so you may find yourself (or your opponent) getting to attack two or even three times in a row. Each move, once mastered, also has three “styles” that you can use. The attack’s basic style is exactly like normal and uses one PP, but once you master the move, you can also choose to use either the Agile Style or the Strong Style for two PP. Agile style is faster but does a little bit less damage. Strong Style is slower but does more damage and is a little bit more accurate. This is a seemingly simple mechanic change that actually plays a huge role in strategy down the line; do you use a strong style move in hopes of knocking your opponent out in one hit, or do you use the agile style to gain an additional move and either use a different attack or throw a Pokeball?
Since there are no gyms or Pokemon League, progression is obviously quite different, as well. Instead of eight gym badges, you gain star ranks in the Survey Corps for completing research tasks in the Pokedex. Each Pokemon has around 20 or 25 research tasks to complete. The more tasks you complete, the higher your rank goes. This affects what level Pokemon will listen to you and what balls you can craft. You only need to complete a handful to get the dex entry to rank 10 and get the “complete” label, but if you complete ALL of it, you get the “perfect” label. These labels are also a part of why the game has a reputation for being so generous with shiny spawn rates. The base rate of a Pokemon’s spawning in its shiny form is just a little less than 1 in 4000. For Pokemon whose dex entry is “complete,” that drops to around 1 in 2000; if the dex entry is “perfect,” it’s about 1 in 1000. You also get the Shiny Charm when you “complete” every dex entry which further boosts your shiny odds, and there are “outbreak” events that will randomly spawn in one of the game’s regions. These outbreaks will cause anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen Pokemon of a specific species to spawn, and they have elevated shiny rates. Theoretically, if you had the shiny charm, a perfect dex entry, and an outbreak, your chances of seeing a shiny Pokemon are about 1 in 185 which is pretty much as generous as the series has been with encounter rates.
Pokemon has always been an RPG, but one common RPG staple that it’s never had is a formal quest system. Well, that’s been added here, too. You’ve got around two dozen main quests that progress the main story as well as nearly 100 side quests – “requests” is what they’re called. These don’t provide progress towards your star rank or even outright money rewards, but you do usually get items as rewards, and in a few cases, these requests are the only way to catch certain Pokemon. Some of these are stupid easy – “show me a Scyther” or “bring me three of this common item” – but others are EXTREMELY time-consuming, like the infamous “bring me a Buizel taller than 2’8”” request. I loved the side quests, though, and it gives some more meat to the game’s single-player experience.
There are some valid criticisms, though. The game honestly doesn’t look very good. It doesn’t look god awful or anything, but it does a bit like a Wii game that was just upscaled to 1080p in most instances. The Pokemon themselves look pretty good, and that’s what I care most about, and the attacks look awesome, but the environments themselves aren’t very impressive at all. The world also feels a bit empty after a while. There are lots of Pokemon to fight and catch, but the environments themselves aren’t that interesting to explore for the most part; there are only a few caves to explore, you can only climb mountains to a certain point, and there aren’t that many islands to explore. It’s serviceable, but it just feels a little lacking.
The game has some faults, and the fact that only about a quarter of the Pokemon in existence are included in the game is a bummer, but it’s still a ton of fun. The few new Pokemon and new forms are awesome, so that makes up for the relatively low number of Pokemon in the game, but I still find myself wishing there were more. Trying to finish every research task for every Pokemon will definitely keep me busy for a LONG time, though, so for those who thought Sword’s and Shield’s offline offerings were far too slim, Legends definitely makes up for that. It’s not my personal favorite Pokemon game, but it may well be the best one as far as refreshing the mechanics and making the world feel alive for players. If you’ve ever been interested in Pokemon, this is definitely a game to pick up and play no matter how long it’s been since your last Pokemon adventure.