Last month, Pokémon Legends: Arceus was released, and like many other people, I had the opportunity to play the game and experience a different take on the Pokémon formula. Since the phenomenon arrived on the shores of the United Kingdom in 1999, I have been hooked with the Pokémon franchise, and embraced almost everything it has to offer; from collecting trading cards, plush toys and stickers in my youth, to the video game series I continue to enjoy to this day. Last year when I saw the trailer for Pokémon: Legends: Arceus, I was deeply intrigued and excited by the idea of a video game with huge open areas where wild Pokémon roam, and the opportunity to create the first Pokédex for the region. Such a departure from the norm made me compelled to see what this fresh new take was all about.

As a Pokémon fan of over two decades, I hope my thoughts below will help people still on the fence, make an informed decision on whether to buy the game or not. For the purpose of this review, I preferred to play the game on my television, using a Pro Controller.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus
Nintendo Switch

Developed by Game Freak
Published by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company
Released: 28th January 2022
Digital copy provided by Nintendo UK

You begin your journey on Prelude Beach, a fitting name for the start of a grand adventure! After some introductions from the region’s professor (named Laventon), you are informed that you’re in a region known as Hisui, a land from long ago that fans will know as Sinnoh. Professor Laventon points out that you had fallen from the sky, and it would appear you have no recollection of the events that brought you there, or where your journey goes next. The professor is joined by three Pokémon at his side that players may recognise from previous generations, but the cheeky critters have taken this opportunity to run away! It’s up to you to chase them down and re-capture them on the professor’s behalf. This serves as an introduction to the mechanics of the game, showcasing the way items such as Pokéballs can be thrown at various distances, capturing different varieties of monsters, which may be familiar to people if they’ve played Pokémon Go and New Pokémon Snap in the past.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus breaks away from the traditional Pokémon formula of obtaining gym badges to become the champion, offering a vast open world to explore, with the ambition and ultimate goal of completing the very first Pokédex of the Hisui region as part of Team Galaxy’s Research team, based in Jubilife Village. The land is divided into five zones, and each area contains plenty of habitats where Pokémon can be encountered. Capturing and battling these Pokémon are necessary to accumulate enough Research Levels to unlock entries within the Hisui Pokédex, and expand it as much as possible. You will receive money for your hard work, which can be spent on items from the store or clothier in Jubilife village.

The story of the game revolves around a rift that has opened above Mt. Coronet, turning Pokémon frenzied. Your role, in addition to completing the Pokédex, is to quell the frenzied Pokémon, and restore peace to the Hisui region. Throughout your journey, you will encounter special Noble Pokémon, which you must calm through pelting them with items called balms. These balms are filled with the target Pokémon’s favourite foods, which will restore them to their natural state.

Controlling the game with the Pro Controller was easy to get to grips with, and the game utilises every single button, allowing you to cycle through your inventory and Pokémon with ease. Throwing Pokéballs, items and interacting with the world was a breeze, and helped the fluidity of the game, which I will expand on later in this review.

While the objective is simple and clear, Legends: Arceus doesn’t force you down a linear path to completion, it offers and encourages the flexibility to play the game exactly as you wish, which is something I truly appreciated. While you can absolutely take on each story mission and head straight for the end game, there are great opportunities to deviate from your journey, with plenty of requests from villagers and travelers to accept. I found myself roaming each zone and collecting as many items and battling wild Pokémon as I could, for hours on end. Not because it was a chore, or because I had to, but because I wanted to. It’s so easy to get lost in this world, exploring every inch of it for new discoveries, and at different times of the day, which is made easier by heading back to designated camps around each zone, and sleeping until a specific time. I enjoyed sending out my Pokémon to shake trees, break open ore deposits and destroy crates to uncover items for my journey, and there are even Pokémon that leap out at you in surprise, sending you into an unexpected battle!

I appreciated the opportunity to see the origins of Sinnoh throughout the game, such as Jubilife, and its humble beginnings as a growing and thriving village. But also hinting at areas such as Eterna Forest, Floaroma Town and Snowpoint City, despite the geography being off for many of them. Of course, Mt. Coronet takes center stage in the game, appearing in the backdrop of each area, and a location you can eventually travel to yourself. But it’s not just the landscape of this game that pay tribute to the past, some of the characters you meet in the game have a resemblance and connection to characters from previous games set in locations such as Sinnoh, Unova and Kanto, hinting that they could very well be ancestors of popular characters we have seen before. It was interesting to discover the comparison between them and their descendants, and that these characters we have known and loved for years, have a rich history. If you are a fan of Pokémon lore, this game has plenty of references you’re going to love, especially when it comes to the late game!

As Legends: Arceus progresses, you will encounter special Hisuian Pokémon that will befriend you, and can be used to explore each zone more easily, across ground, air, and sea. This helps make navigating the world a lot easier. One thing I must note is the fluidity of switching between the different Pokémon, which is pretty seamless! Moving between land and water was almost instantaneous, Pokémon would switch out promptly with no delay. Another example was flying through the air and hitting the water, then using that Pokémon to leap above the waves and back to flying again, so I could travel across the sea a bit faster. I found it especially useful to scale large rocky areas with one specific Pokémon, probably my favourite of the bunch. While these Pokémon may not be yours, they are an asset by your side throughout your adventure. Navigating your way across these huge landscapes are made even simpler with guidance markers. For someone with a horrible sense of direction, these were absolutely vital, and helped immensely.

It wouldn’t be a Pokémon game without battling, and Legends: Arceus boasts some great visuals in this area. Attacks and animations are solid, and you have the option to walk around the battle as it takes place, something that wasn’t possible in games before this point, allowing you to explore different perspectives of the battlefield.. It’s also possible to battle multiple Pokémon at once, in trainer battles or with wild Pokémon. Legends: Arceus features two battle mechanics known as Strong and Agile moves, which change up the formula considerably. Choosing a Strong move will boost the power of that move, but as a consequence will lower the action speed of the Pokémon using it, and it will deplete more PP (Power Points) than usual. Agile moves reduce the effectiveness of the move, but raises the action speed of the Pokémon using it, also requiring more PP to execute.

The battle system does have some shortcomings however. The move pool is significantly smaller compared to many other Pokémon games, and while there are some new moves exclusive to this game, it’s disappointing that we don’t have the same variety as previous titles. You can only use a single Pokémon in battle, while other trainers and wild Pokémon battles include more. The battle system itself can feel harsh at times, with enemy Pokémon attacking as many as four times before you can return an attack, in my experience playing. While I understand that this is due to the usage of strong and agile moves, it feels like an unbalanced mess, probably even worse than the original Red and Blue games from the mid 90’s that kicked off the series, and a core part of gameplay that isn’t fun to play at times. It’s probably a good thing that online battles weren’t considered for Legends: Arceus.

When it comes to the Pokédex, unlocking a full entry isn’t as straightforward as previous games in the series, you really have to work for it if you want to complete and perfect each one. Capturing and observing a Pokémon won’t be enough to satisfy the conditions required. Let’s take Pikachu for example: Defeating one in battle will give you one Research Level, but if you defeat multiple, you’ll unlock more. Observing specific attacks, evolving Pokémon, catching large and small specimens and obtaining different forms are some of the ways you can contribute to your Research Level. Initially, the thought of completing each entry was a little daunting, but once I realised that I could unlock multiple Research Points at the same time, it became much easier. For example, if I caught a Pokémon without being spotted, it would count towards the “Number caught” and “Number you’ve caught without being spotted” Research Tasks. The red arrows next to specific Research Tasks will offer more points to help you hit your goals faster. Some Pokémon have ridiculous criteria to meet, such as observing Magikarp use Splash, so if you really want to perfect every entry, I could see people playing the game for hundreds of hours, aimed at the very dedicated of fans!

There are also some great quality of life improvements that are present in this game that I hope continue to have a presence in future titles. One is the ability to switch moves whenever you wish outside of battle. Providing a Pokémon has learnt a move, you’re able to swap which attacks it should hold. This is a great way to experiment without the inconvenience of having to use a technical machine, or visit a Move Tutor to relearn forgotten moves, which was the norm in previous games. Even evolution is a choice you can make once the time comes, meaning you can evolve your Pokémon as soon as it hits the criteria, and there’s no need to press B to cancel it upon leveling up. This is exceptionally useful when you’re still trying to gather research tasks for the Pokédex. I strongly believe that these improvements should carry across to any future Pokémon titles.

Encountering shiny Pokémon in any game is a special moment, and in Legends: Arceus, the special shiny monster will give off a visual and sound prompt, to help you know when you’ve encountered one. This is very handy, considering that Legends: Arceus makes encountering shiny Pokémon substantially easier than in previous titles, due to the vast numbers you will come across on your journey, especially when they’re encountered in an outbreak.

The game will even tell you if you are about to release one, ensuring that you don’t accidentally throw away a special Pokémon by accident, something that should have always been the case, but i’m glad it’s part of Legends: Arceus. Shiny rates are increased dramatically during Pokémon outbreaks, where several of the same Pokémon will show up at once. Not only is it a great chance for a shiny, it can help you complete some of the more difficult research tasks for your Pokédex!

Unfortunately, a game is rarely perfect, and one of the biggest talking points about Legends: Arceus that I have seen online from others, is the negativity towards the graphics. While I agree that better graphics could have vastly improved the appeal of traversing the game, it didn’t personally distract me from the fun I was having. However, it’s difficult to justify, when you compare similar open world titles running on the same hardware, or even ports running on the Nintendo Switch from years prior which objectively look better, and my wish is that more attention and time would have been given to the world I was playing in, given that I spent so much time exploring it.

Another complaint I saw were the frame rates of wild Pokémon. While it is true that Pokémon do have a significant drop in frames when viewed from far away, it had zero impact on how the game performed when it mattered. Close-up encounters were absolutely fine, and the game appeared to run as smoothly as you would expect at 30 frames per second.

I would have liked to have seen more variety in the types of roaming Pokémon, especially at night time, where Driftloon and Drifblim were pretty much everywhere. Pokémon such as Duskull were confined to one tiny area of a zone, and I feel that once those areas had been traversed, those Pokémon could have migrated around and appeared in other zones to help each area stay fresh. Considering there are over 240 Pokémon in the game, this was an odd decision to make, and left things feeling stale.

For a Pokémon game that states that you must complete the Pokédex, I can’t help but feel it’s misleading not to make every single Pokémon accessible. For certain Pokémon, you can only encounter them in the game if you have save data from previous Pokémon games from your account. While they’re not mandatory in order to complete the game, or the Pokédex, I feel fans are being let down here. My hope is that there will be events in the future after this review has been submitted, that offers every player the opportunity to obtain these additional Pokémon, with no purchase necessary.

Music and sound design in Legends: Arceus was pleasant, but sadly repetitive after playing for almost seventy hours. While I appreciated the dynamically changing themes in battles and when switching between areas such as houses in the village, I would have liked to have heard more variety in them. It felt like every area had the same theme at night time, and I felt that the samples were a lower quality in some of the more intense battles than I would expect for such a grand adventure. This became more noticeable as the adventure went on, nearly seventy hours later. I must give props to the approach of Jubilife village however, with a theme which grew as your adventure went on, and as the village became more populated. Excellent!

Overall, I had a ton of fun on every excursion I took. From discovering new Pokémon, to being totally overwhelmed by wild Pokémon, having to make a quick escape when things got tough. Exploring caves, forests and the open sea catching all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures was such a refreshing change for the series, and I personally believe it’s the closest any game has ever got to achieving the vision of the series. I loved learning more about how Sinnoh came to be, and progressing some of the fun side quests, such as the one with the shopkeeper. Pokémon Legends: Arceus has breathed new life into a tired formula, and this cannot be the end, it has to be the beginning of a whole new kind of Pokémon game from now on.

It’s hard to go back to traditional titles and look at them in the same way, and I feel confident in saying that this title sits firmly within my top five Pokémon titles. After several underwhelming releases from The Pokémon Company, including Pokémon Sword and Shield, and the recently released Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl titles, I felt surprised by Legends: Arceus. While it did have a grind to it, it was fun, and I didn’t for one moment feel like I was wasting my time, catching every single Pokémon and filling up the Pokédex. I fully intend to continue playing and perfecting each entry in the Pokédex in the months and years ahead.

I cross my fingers that Game Freak will release DLC for Legends: Arceus, and build on this vision in the future with a new title for stronger hardware, preferably in the form of a Legends: Celebi title set in Johto.

Final rating – 4 out of 5

Darren is a huge Nintendo fan from the days of the Gameboy Color and his copy of Pokémon Blue. Over time, he developed a passion for many Nintendo franchises, including Metroid. His favourite system is the Wii.