Okay, I Spoke Too Soon in My Praise of Legends Arceus

First impressions are generally a pretty reliable indication of how you’re going to feel about something moving forward. Most games I’ve played, my initial impressions are largely reinforced by the end of the experience, with perhaps a more nuanced appreciation or criticism of specific aspects of the experience or a better understanding for how the core loop lands after 40 hours instead of 4. This was my experience with Pokemon Violet: I started out largely positive with some specific concerns, and the positives held out and the concerns played out as expected. Pokemon Legends: Arceus, on the other hand, left a very positive first impression on me during the opening hours. But as time has gone on, I’ve encountered a lot of aspects of the game that are frustrating for me. Some are issues that could be fixed up with some quality of life touches; others are aspects of the core experience that simply do not work for me.

Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a game that greatly centers the experience of capturing Pokemon to fill out the Pokedex. It takes the normally simple relationship between the two – catch a Pokemon to fill out its entry – and adds layers of complexity. Multiple of the same Pokemon species must be caught, using different approaches in order to further your research on that Pokemon. Defeating them using specific moves, feeding them or stunning them with items, using the Pokemon in your party and changing up its battle styles are all methods that can help to further your research depending on the Pokemon species. The act of capturing Pokemon has also been expanded. You can catch Pokemon by weakening them and inflicting statuses on them in battle like normal, but you can also just whip a Pokeball at them on the overworld and hope they get captured. The likelihood of this succeeding is increased by using stealth to sneak up behind them and hit them in the back with the Pokeball. None of these facts by themselves constitute one of my issues with the game; rather, my frustrations are the result of other game mechanics that add unwanted wrinkles to the experience of capturing and researching.

The core issue arises from another aspect of the Legends Arceus game mechanics: hostile overworld Pokemon. A big part of the story in Legends Arceus is the emphasis on how Pokemon in the past were more dangerous. The relationship between humans and Pokemon was not yet cemented and using Pokeballs to capture them has only just been invented. Pokemon are seen as dangerous, and this is emphasized mechanically by having them attack you in the overworld. While some Pokemon species are timid and run away from you, many are hostile and will begin shooting lightning, sludge, or water blasts at you the minute they lay eyes on you running around. In isolation, you have solutions for this problem. You can stun an aggressive Pokemon with an item to create an opening to throw a ball and capture them, or you can battle them with one of your Pokemon to try and beat them into submission instead. The problem comes from the fact that these incidents are never in isolation.

The world is chock full of Pokemon, and most of the time when you are focusing on capturing a particular one, there’s another one wandering around close by. If that other Pokemon is hostile, that means that in order to capture the one you want – either to add it to your party or for research purposes – you’re going to have to deal with everything surrounding it too. This adds a lot of annoyances to the game. Many Pokemon get researched faster if you catch them they don’t notice you, but it is difficult not to be noticed when you’re sending out your Hippowdon to take out a hostile Toxicroak while trying to catch your real target. With skittish Pokemon, getting attacked by something else while you’re sneaking up behind them can alert them to your presence and cause them to run away. And if your target is aggressive, attacks from other nearby aggressive Pokemon can get them attacking you too. When you initiate battle in this state, your partner Pokemon is fighting multiple opponents at once, trying to hang in while outnumbered while also going easy on the target you’re hoping to be able to catch. I cannot emphasize enough how often this happens. I cannot go thirty seconds trying to capture something without being interrupted by some other Pokemon that’s lurking nearby.

There are certain situations that aggravate these conditions further, layering additional annoyances on top of the already frustrating experience of being constantly bombarded with hostile Pokemon. The worst of these has been trying to capture Pokemon on the water. Your character in Legends Arceus can’t swim, so the water is completely unavailable until you unlock a particular mount, Basculegion. Once Basculegion is unlocked, you can ride it on the water in order to capture Pokemon who are otherwise unreachable on land. But there are issues with capturing in the water. For one, you lose the ability to move stealthily, which means you can’t sneak up on Pokemon to capture them with a back attack or catch them unawares. To make up for this, Basculegion has a jump ability that allows you to throw in slow motion. The intent is to make it easier to aim when riding on the water. However, the slow-mo ends at the moment of your throw, which means that the Pokemon begins moving at full speed again just as the ball leaves your hand. This means that you have to use the slo-mo to predict where the Pokemon is going to be when time starts moving at full speed again, complicating the whole process of aiming and making it a lot less reliable than on land. And to make the whole thing worse, many water Pokemon are essentially camouflaged when swimming, their small, blue bodies difficult to distinguish from the body of water they’re swimming through. Add all of that to the still-present issue of being hounded by hostile Pokemon constantly and capturing on the water is a deeply aggravating experience.

There’s an argument to be made that all of these things are features, not bugs, an intended part of the game’s challenge. A hunter has to be aware of their surroundings so they themselves are not caught unawares while moving in on their prey, etc. Theoretically the way you solve this problem is that before moving in on the Pokemon you want, you either capture or defeat the one that’s going to get in your way. There’s a couple of reasons why those aren’t perfect answers, though. Capturing a Pokemon you’re not actually looking for is costly and risky. If you throw the ball and miss, it makes a noise that alerts the Pokemon you were trying to subdue and the one you actually care about and either makes them aggressive or causes them to run. This also happens if the Pokemon you’re catching just to get rid of it happens to break out; now they know you are present and they get aggressive. Pokeballs cost money or resources to produce and the more expensive ones that I’m using in the part of the game I’ve reached by this point even more so. If I captured everything I don’t want just to get at the stuff I want, I’d be making a lot more trips that are focused on grinding crafting materials or money in order to be able to progress the game. Battling is a bit safer because you run less risk of alerting your real prey, but damage your Pokemon take costs you potions to heal and battles are a lot more time consuming than simply throwing a ball at a Pokemon and capturing them. If you’ve got a Pokemon of interest with two other Pokemon around it that have to be cleared out first, you’ll be spending quite a bit of time battling just to clear the way so you can get one capture on one Pokemon of interest – one of several you’ll have to do in order to fill out their entry.

A visual demonstration of me constantly being chased by hostile Pokemon and trying to deal with the cruddy capture controls in the water.

I think for some players this kind of experience works, but it aligns poorly with my brain and the way it likes things to work. I think I’ve discussed this before on the blog but I loathe interruptions – when I’m doing a task and I hit a rhythm, that task becomes all-encompassing in my brain and getting back into that state after an interruption is really difficult. I categorize the different types of research goals in Legends Arceus as separate tasks – perhaps because they are organized in the Pokedex as a task list, complete with checkboxes. Regardless, when I’m in capturing mode I don’t want to battle – if my task is feeding Budew a certain number of times before I capture it, then that’s what I want to be doing until I am done doing it. So getting attacked by some other Pokemon during that process, interrupting my flow of capturing and forcing me to switch tasks, is something that I find irritating rather than fun. I don’t mind a challenging experience – the other game I’m covering on the blog right now is Elden Ring – but the type of challenge presented by Legends Arceus is a type that simply doesn’t appeal to me. I was excited for Legends Arceus and particularly for overworld capturing because I thought it was going to streamline the capturing experience, but that’s not actually what the game is trying to do. It’s not that the mechanic is bad (although I do truly believe that the water capturing is poorly executed), but there is a misalignment between what I want and what Legends Arceus is delivering.

I’m not planning on stopping the game, as I am already I think over halfway through the main story. But I do think this experience will lead to a change in my approach to the game. I have up to this point been pretty far ahead of the curve in terms of what star rank I am supposed to be on thanks to how much capturing and research I have done. I am going to slow that process down and basically ignore any Pokemon I find on the water. I’ll do less capturing generally unless I need to do it for grinding purposes, instead putting more focus on trying to work my way through the game’s story content until I hit a wall where I need to advance my Pokedex progress. Legends Arceus hasn’t been as good of a fit as I was hoping it would be, but perhaps I can still find some positives that are worth reflecting on and that might make it into future installments in the Pokemon series.

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