I’ve gone on the record in the past concerning my thoughts on capturing Pokemon: I don’t like it. The elements of randomness that are tossed into trying to capture Pokemon has always irritated me. I’m the kind of player who in most games is going to prefer reliable, consistent mechanics that I as the player can manipulate or plan around. But while capturing can be made easier by specific actions, those actions are often time consuming, difficult to execute, or inconsistent. And certain rarer Pokemon have such low capture rates that the factors which should shift the odds in your favor don’t matter at all. For all these reasons, Pokemon Legends: Arceus was a game I was curious about. After all, it was advertised as changing the capture experience by allowing you to simply throw Pokeballs at wild Pokemon without battling them at all, sneaking up on them in the wild or feeding them in order to create the opening to capture them nonviolently. I stayed away from the game for awhile because I’d heard that while it was an interesting experiment, it had some issues. But now after playing Pokemon Violet, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty willing to deal with issues in exchange for an interesting experience. Luckily, the opportunity to try out Pokemon Legends: Arceus for myself came pretty soon after, as I received the game as a Christmas gift.
The story of Arceus focuses on a protagonist pulled from the modern day into a past version of generation four’s Sinnoh region, called Hisui. In Hisui, what will eventually become the bustling Jubilife City is a humble village built up around an organization known as the Galaxy Team. This group of explorers, security officers, doctors, and researchers tries to protect the community from Pokemon, which in this era are perceived at best as capricious animals and at worst as hostile monsters. Your character, by virtue of being from the future and a protagonist, is way more willing to get close to Pokemon than anyone else, which helps you to stand out to the Galaxy Team and to become a member of their survey corp. Your ultimate goal is to complete the first ever Pokedex, which coincidentally lines up quite well with the orders of the godlike being that brought you back in the first place. It’s a fine basic premise for a Pokemon story that feels pretty in line with most of the other games, although the world and its people are certainly emphasized as being far more hostile to you – or at least wary.
The beginning of the game works much like most other Pokemon titles: providing you the choice of your first Pokemon companion before giving you the basic instructions on important concepts like capturing and battling Pokemon. Of course, Legends Arceus has changed these familiar concepts up just enough to justify the tutorial a bit more than with some other titles in the series. As your character moves around the overworld you can walk, sprint, sneak, or dodge roll, the latter of these being particularly important because wild Pokemon can be aggressive in this game. Certain species of Pokemon will try to attack you in the wild, forcing you to leap aside as you prepare your own Pokemon team or equip an item to throw in retaliation. Other species are less aggressive and may even be downright skittish, requiring your sneak ability to get up behind them so they don’t bolt away. A Pokeball thrown at an unsuspecting Pokemon from behind has a greater catch rate, or if you start a battle instead the Pokemon will lose their first action in combat. The item menu versus the Pokemon menu is relatively easy to navigate, allowing you to switch between items and Pokemon with the X button, change your item or Pokemon with the L and R buttons, and then throw with the ZR button. Occasionally in a panic I’ve thrown the wrong thing, but the fact that the overworld in this game is active enough to bring that situation about is something I consider a positive.
Battles are mostly similar in structure to the way they work in other Pokemon games but there are a few key changes. The first major change is that battles are more lethal, both due to the way stats work differently in this game as well as a result of the changes to the move system. It seems like most status moves have been completely removed – none of my Pokemon nor the wild Pokemon I have battled seem to know things like charm or tail whip or baby doll eyes. Instead, unless the Pokemon’s modus operandi is to run away, they all have decently powerful aggressive moves right out the gate. Level differences make less of a difference and so encounters can go awry unexpectedly much faster than they do in mainline Pokemon titles. Probably the biggest change is how turn order works. Pokemon go in order based on speed like usual, but depending on how big that speed differential is, one Pokemon can actually take actions more often than another. Certain moves have a higher speed cost as well, and you can adjust this further by mastering moves in order to unlock the ability to use them in strong style or agile style. Strong moves hit harder in exchange for a longer delay between turns, while agile moves aren’t as strong as normal but bring you up quicker in the turn order. Making the decision between when to use these moves adds a bit of interesting consideration to battles; it’s an easier system to game and has greater potential for some combos that feel overpowered, but since multiplayer balance isn’t a factor in Legends: Arceus it allows for battles to feel a little more unfair – both in your favor and to your detriment, depending on the power of the foe. It has made me more cautious than I normally would be moving around a Pokemon world, as I want to make sure I’m in control and ready to make the optimal moves rather than getting jumped by something I’m not ready for.
The biggest difference though comes in the way capturing works, because in Legends: Arceus all you have to do to capture Pokemon is throw a Pokeball at them. This isn’t to say that they can’t break out, but shortening that process and being able to deal with it in real time rather than in a battle menu is such an improvement. And you still have tools at your disposal to make capturing easier. If you sneak up on a Pokemon unawares and hit them from behind with a Pokeball, that increases the capture rate. You can simplify getting them into this position by tossing them some food, with different Pokemon responding to different foods based on their species and typing. Distracted Pokemon are easier to approach from behind to catch them off guard. Alternatively, hitting Pokemon with something harder (like a spoiled apricorn or ball of mud) can stun them rather than distract them. This can be more useful against aggressive types, whereas food might be more beneficial against skittish types. While Pokemon still need to be battled into submission if they notice you and become hostile, sneaking up on a Pokemon and capturing them without a conflict feels great, and it makes capturing something that I want to do a lot more often.
It’s not just that capturing as a mechanic works better though – you have greater incentive in Legends: Arceus to capture frequently. Normally in Pokemon games you only capture Pokemon to build your team and expand your Pokedex. You capture one of everything just for Pokedex completion or to have things to fill out your party, and otherwise you can kind of ignore the capture mechanics altogether. In Legends: Arceus, capturing is incentivized in two different ways. The first is that completing the Pokedex is more complicated than just capturing a single Pokemon. Each Pokemon must be thoroughly researched to fill out their entry, and that means meeting a certain number of requirements out of a variety of options in the research log. You can eventually complete the research on a Pokemon just by capturing enough of them, but you can also get different bonuses depending on the Pokemon. Catching them unawares, catching them at night, evolving them, finding both the male and female variants, winning in battle, using certain moves – all of these things influence how much progress you are making in the Pokedex. And increasing your research ranks ties back to the second thing that incentivizes capturing: money. Most of the time in Pokemon you make money by defeating trainers and taking their money, with some support from selling valuables like nuggets, stardust, pearls, etc. In Legends: Arceus, your primary source of income is the reward you get for capturing Pokemon and bringing them to the community pasture to be researched and integrated into the community. Capturing feels like something worth doing when it is your primary source of income, and by using capturing to complete Pokedex entries, you can increase in star ranks in order to earn even more money from your capture exploits.
While capturing and battling are both greatly changed from mainline entries, there is also an important new system in Legends: Arceus that leans harder into the wilder, more survivalist setting. You now have to craft things. Wild Pokemon sometimes drop crafting materials when defeated, but you can also collect them by sending out your Pokemon to break ore, forage for berries on trees, or by plucking roots and flowers yourself from the ground as you explore. Crafting materials can then be combined at a base camp in order to fill your satchel with useful items. Your primary craftables are Pokeball variants and healing items, but you can also craft bait for Pokemon or useful boosters to improve your stats during combat. And your recipe selection expands as you rank up, make discovering, and use your money to buy them from the crafting store in Jubilife. Being able to craft your own necessities like pokeballs and potions feels great, because it then allows you to spend the money you’ve earned on services like training for your Pokemon, or on customization options like clothes. In most mainline Pokemon games, the majority of my money goes toward medicine and balls and I don’t spend a lot on other things. Legends: Arceus has allowed me to shift priorities with my money because I can make the essentials by hand.
This then is the typical loop in an Arceus play session. You head out into the wilderness in order to expand your Pokedex or progress a story mission. This involves capturing Pokemon by sneaking up on them, feeding them, or battling them, and changing your approach to suit the research goals for a specific Pokemon helps to move along your Pokedex progress faster. As you explore to find new species or improve your research progress on a species you’ve already discovered, you’ll also collect crafting materials from ore or plants to maintain your stock of Pokeballs and healing supplies. Once you’ve completed your latest quest or your team is too exhausted to continue on, you return to base camp and deposit the Pokemon you’ve captured for the day. You also report your research findings. After being rewarded with both cash and renown, you return to town to improve your rank, spend your well-earned funds, and gather up any new requests before heading out into the wilderness again. It’s a satisfying loop with a lot of reward mechanisms that work well together, each pushing and incentivizing the others so that you’ll most likely be engaging all of the game’s systems each time you play.
At the time of writing, I’ve made it to my first battle against a red-eyed alpha Pokemon. While the story doesn’t necessarily seem like anything to write home about so far, it’s serviceable as a Pokemon storyline and is made up for by the fun of seeing everything in a new context. Exploring Pokemon’s past is a fun idea and opens up a lot of opportunities for mechanics that I think add a lot to the experience. Capturing works better than ever and is more important than ever, battles have some interesting new wrinkles that make them more lethal than previous entries, and the way that the Pokedex research system encourages you to use all the verbs at your disposal makes for a satisfying gameplay loop – at least during the early hours. There are still mechanics I haven’t encountered yet or otherwise have not experienced enough of to be worth discussing, and I’ll be curious to see more of the story’s payoff as well as meeting new characters and getting to know the ones I have encountered so far. But my first impressions of Arceus are full of promise, and I’m hopeful that the rest of the experience can live up to them.