The world of Pokémon is one that takes most of us back to our childhood, whether we are familiar with the series or the games. For those of us who have been playing the games since a young age, we may remember it fondly for the teams we built up as a child and look to relive that nostalgia through its newer iterations. Yet the formula has gotten stale over the years, and the newest Pokémon games appear to offer little more than that for those who grew up on it.
Being one of the most well-known and loved franchises in the world, current Pokémon games attempt to strike a balance between serving a welcome experience to young children and providing new experiences for its older fans. The release of Pokemon Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch in 2019 made many fans see a lot of wasted potential in its concept, and even the previous entries have disappointed many who were looking to explore the Pokémon world outside of the linear story the RPG franchise usually employs with each new release. That is where Legends Arceus shines in its concept – a true, open-world Pokémon experience, which came out earlier this year.
The new instalment takes place in Hisui, the past region which would later be known as Sinnoh, the setting for the Diamond and Pearl generation of Pokémon. Setting aside the story aspect, what truly grabbed me was the realization of what Pokémon games could be. Mainline Pokémon games have had a set concept since their inception – a young protagonist who aims to explore the world of Pokémon, catch as many as he can to complete a Pokedex, and battle other trainers to become the Champion while foiling the plans of one antagonistic group of trainers that have ill intentions with Pokémon. Elements and characters have been varied, but it has felt the same at their core over the years. The concepts of battling and the generic narrative have somewhat improved over the years, but one of the key promises of the franchise – to explore the world and know all there is to know about Pokémon – have failed to deliver for longtime fans of the franchise.
Legends Arceus being an open-world game, gave me the wonder and excitement I had been missing from Pokémon for the last decade or so. You are set free to roam areas and truly research the Pokémon, as there is no official Pokedex yet in these times, to create the first. While there is a grinding aspect to it, this is the first Pokémon game where I truly felt the desire to complete the Pokedex by catching every Pokémon – one reason being there was a proper reward for it, the other being that it has never been more challenging and exciting to go about the task of catching Pokémon.
You have to be stealthy, use different items and tactics to avoid being detected, and feed Pokémon to gain their friendliness and get the ability to catch them. Their varying dispositions can lead you to engage in battles to catch them in a more traditional manner but having to actually aim your Pokeballs to catch Pokémon feels like everything I wanted from a Pokémon game as a kid. The act of riding Pokémon through the land, sea, or air adds another layer to this experience as you get to feel the wonders of exploration discovering secrets around Hisui. The game has changed the core concept and improved upon it for a fresh experience that will draw both newcomers and veterans of the franchise.
This changed core gameplay really adds to the element of wanting to complete the Pokedex – you are urged to and rewarded for catching as many Pokémon as possible rather than focusing simply on building up a team to beat the Champion. Your team will change constantly as you simply catch stronger Pokémon, or you have to strategize for a boss or a battle. This process is also made easier as you have workarounds for trade evolutions and trading – where you would need to trade from another game to complete the Pokedex. The trading concept has been a large reason why I never felt inclined to complete the Pokedex in previous games – many of us would prefer a self-contained narrative and experience which gives you all the tools to reach completion. Of course, trading is still an option – but it is fully possible to complete the game without it.
It also offers many more challenges than the recent iterations – one of the largest complaints has been that Pokémon games have become too easy – holding your hand through every single step of the game can be annoying after a certain point. There are bosses where you are simply told to dodge, Alpha Pokémon that are terrifying and can knock you and your team out instantly in the wild – and a variety of side quests that require more than average effort to complete successfully.
Despite the numerous elements that have made this an enjoyable experience for me, there is a lot to be improved upon. The visuals are often stunning, but the graphical hiccups and poor optimization is distracting in a game of this scale. While Pokémon has always been praised for its pixel-art style in its previous games, the move to 3D models and environments had been heavily criticized, and just when they seemed to be on the cusp of perfecting this new style, the graphical aspect of Legends Arceus is holding it back in certain situations. Another would be a lack of voice acting for the dialogue – as there is a LOT of it. Pokémon fans are no stranger to reading lines of dialogue for hours, but it feels exceptionally gruelling to sit through lines of dialogue as though you were playing a visual novel when the rest of the gameplay is so interactive. Implementing voice acting and some visual adjustments would turn a great experience for some into an enjoyable experience for all. Make no mistake, the music in Legends Arceus is breathtaking, albeit heavily inspired by the open-world behemoth that is The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild.
With few hiccups and a lot of promise, Legends Arceus is the realized vision of what Pokémon games have the potential to be. There is enough content to keep you playing for hours upon hours, and while it feels a bit grating at times, for those who truly love Pokémon, it is an experience worth having. The next chapter of Pokémon was announced recently as Scarlet and Violet, reportedly to be open-world games as well, and my fingers are crossed that they improve upon the shortcomings of Legends Arceus. If you have a Nintendo Switch or are planning to buy one soon, this is definitely a game worth having in your library.