Pokemon Legends: Arceus is built around the concept of the Pokemon world’s past. From the way that capturing and resources are handled to the behavior of Pokemon in the wild, every mechanical aspect of Legends Arceus is built up around the core premise. This creates a unique experience distinct from the traditional Pokemon outing. Prior to the release of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet there was speculation about how much of Legends Arceus might have bled into the main series games. Those games are out now and we have a good idea of what similar ideas that the future of Pokemon might be built upon. The possibility still exists though that a title coming down the line – perhaps generation ten – could very well borrow elements more directly from Pokemon Legends: Arceus as a result of not being developed side by side. Should the future take inspiration from the past? Is the system of Legends Arceus a good building block for what Pokemon could be? These are the questions I’ll be pondering in today’s review.
Legends Arceus follows the story of a character from the present who is lost in the past after being flung through a rift in space and time. As that person falls out of the rift, so too do five bolts of mystical lightning which drive the Pokemon nobles protecting Hisui (the ancient version of generation four’s Sinnoh region) into dangerous frenzies. This results in distrust from the local community, and to prove your innocence and your worth you must survey the Hisui region, document the habits of the Pokemon there, and quell the nobles to bring an end to the danger they pose to the people of Jubilife Village. You also strive to solve the mystery of why you were flung through the rift in the first place – but of course that’s post game content that requires you to complete the Pokedex. Fun! (Because tone is hard to convey through text: that was sarcasm.)
Once you’ve chosen your starter and learned about the basic mechanics of the game, Legends Arceus follows a very consistent structure and can effectively be divided into six acts or chapters. During each of the five main chapters, you’ll be asked to survey a particular region of Hisui and to meet with one of the clan wardens there. This will lead to a trial in which you prove yourself to what is essentially the new version of a Ride Pokemon from Sun and Moon. Unlocking the new mount will also unlock a new movement ability that allows you to traverse to the location of a frenzied noble, who you will quell in a battle involving both your trainer and the Pokemon they command. As long as you’re keeping up with your survey ranks, this will then unlock the next region for the cycle to start again. None of these story segments take particularly long nor are they particularly involved. Instead, the meat of your playtime in Legends Arceus will be focused on the time between story beats.
Survey ranks gate progress, determine the levels of Pokemon you can capture, and also influence the amount of money you make in the game. Progressing them is how you spend the majority of your time in Legends Arceus, and the way you make that progress is by filling out research tasks in the Pokedex. In a typical Pokemon game capturing a Pokemon once completely fills out their entry. Legends Arceus instead has research levels from zero (seen but not caught) to ten (fully researched), which you increase by completing a number of tasks related to the Pokemon. Each Pokemon has a different list of tasks, though some tasks remain the same across Pokemon. Catching and defeating the Pokemon pretty much always contributes to the research level, but there’s a good variety of other ways depending on the Pokemon. On the catching side of things, catching Pokemon unawares or catching specific sizes or colors might influence the research. Using items to help you catch by feeding, stunning, or startling a Pokemon can affect your progress too. Some Pokemon need to be battled more, with the usage of certain moves or defeating them with a specific type of move influencing research more than capturing ever will. Pokemon that can evolve usually benefit from being seen to evolve, and many Pokemon have little sidequests attached to them that you can complete to advance their research level if you want.
Personally, I enjoyed the research level system quite a bit and found that it helped add a lot of variety to the gameplay. Depending on what Pokemon I was researching I would put more emphasis on different tactics, sometimes taking extra steps to hide or going out of my way to aggro a Pokemon based on their research needs. I would go out of my way to run certain moves on my Pokemon or to utilize strong style or agile style moves more frequently. When this system was at its best, it voluntarily kept me engaged with researching and capturing as I traveled between two locales. At its most frustrating, it actively pushed me away from research and had me mainlining story beats just to get the game over with.
There were two primary aspects of this system which I found aggravating. One was admittedly specific to a certain region of the game, or rather to a certain type of terrain. While the capturing mechanics function well on land and were enjoyable in that environment, water completely broke them and made researching anything that primarily lived on large bodies of water deeply aggravating. The other issue was more universal, though: the way Pokemon try to kill you in the overworld. To represent the ways in which Hisui is more dangerous, overworld Pokemon can use their moves to try and attack your trainer. This isn’t awful in a vacuum, but the way it often manifests is that while you’re trying to catch one Pokemon, a different one will aggro and start attacking you, creating at best a distraction and at worse alerting and startling away the Pokemon you intend to catch. Being pulled away from your research by regularly occurring Pokemon battles isn’t a big deal when they are battles with a Pokemon you still need to research, but when they happen with something you’ve already maxed out then they become little more than a waste of time.
Part of the reason this is a big deal is because of the changes to battles and stats in Legends Arceus. Pokemon battles are significantly more lethal in Arceus than they are in a typical Pokemon game. Level differences make less of a difference, you can be jumped by multiple Pokemon at once, and Pokemon have access to strong style moves they can use to amplify the hitting power of their attacks or agile moves they can use to hit you multiple times in a row. The ability to manipulate turn order with agile moves is well and truly busted – I had a powerful alpha Pokemon I was able to take out with my Floatzel by just using agile Aqua Jet four times in a row, locking them out from ever having a turn to take action. However it isn’t just busted in the sense of being overpowered – it’s also busted in the sense of not working correctly. The turn order forecast only takes your current move into account and can’t predict what the opposing Pokemon is going to do. So what looks like a safe strong style move for you can actually lead to getting attacked two or three times in a row depending on what the opponent wants to do, even if the forecast showed you still getting a turn after their next attack. The inability to clearly communicate information to the player about what’s actually going on with turn order or how the order could be impacted by these moves dissuaded me from using them in a lot of battles, because when I did use them and the turn order was inaccurate, someone on my team ended up knocked out. Many of my battles ended up being a series of exchanges where half of my party was getting knocked out so they could slowly chip down the opponent (for alphas/nobles) or in a series of trades with the opponent (trainers).
Pokemon Legends: Arceus made a strong first impression on me, but as time went on the flaws and foibles all showed themselves in rather unpleasant ways. I’m pretty confident that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the better examples of what Pokemon should be moving forward. That said, is there anything I would like to carry over into future Pokemon titles from Legends Arceus? There are indeed a couple of things. For one, I really like making money from filling out the Pokedex! Usually you only get money in Pokemon by selling stuff or by beating trainers in battle; having a financial reward tied to capturing makes a lot of sense. Gen nine hit a halfway point with the whole Pokedex reward system (which often gave you a handful of stardust or something at certain milestones) but capturing is so important to the core gameplay, it makes sense for it to be more directly rewarding. I’d also like the ability to capture Pokemon in the overworld to be maintained. Nothing in any Pokemon game prior to Legends Arceus has quite given me the “researcher learning about mysterious wildlife” vibe like sneaking up on Pokemon in a patch of tall grass and tossing them food to eat so I could get a back attack with a Pokeball in order to increase my capture odds. The way you capture in Legends Arceus perfectly captures the vibe that makes sense to me for Pokemon – I really feel like a researcher in the wild in a way that capturing mid-battle has never really managed to accomplish for me. Seeing just these two elements come forward into future Pokemon titles, combined with some of the changes made in Scarlet and Violet like the story structure, would be a satisfactory legacy for Legends Arceus in my eyes.
Overall, Pokemon Legends: Arceus did not resonate with me as much as I hoped it would have. The parts that really worked for me hit well but so much of the game distracted from that or otherwise was outdone by what would come later in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. If you’re reading this article and wondering if you yourself might want to check out this game after having already played generation nine, I think I’d recommend it with the caveat that you shouldn’t expect this game to surpass the next generation except for maybe in the technical department (which isn’t great, but is infinitely more functional than Scarlet/Violet). If the idea of filling in a more complicated Pokedex by using different capturing strategies in a dangerous wilderness appeals to you, there’s something worth experiencing here. Just don’t expect any of the improvements to game’s story structure that were present in generation nine to be present in Arceus, nor the series’ typical level of game balance with regards to the battle mechanics.
I really love the research element of Arceus, I had always wanted a Pokemon game that let you be more of a researcher rather than battle-focused and it ticked those boxes for me. I agree the water Pokemon are so annoying though, I’m glad you found that too! Sometimes I swear the ball hits them but nothing happens!
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Right? It’s the worst! Which is a bummer because I totally agree with you about the research aspect hitting just right. I’d be open to them doing a Legends game focused on a different region (maybe Johto 👀) and refining some things about the experience, because there is certainly something worth preserving there.