Pokémon gets its Breath of the Wild, but not in the ways you’d expect.
While Pokémon has had an outsized focus on evolving over the past two decades, the gameplay and structure has stayed relatively stagnant for a long time. You start as a kid in a small town and travel through a world filled with collectable creatures to become the champion of the local Pokémon League. Some swerves happened here or there, but for the mainline series’s entire life, the structure and process has been mostly the same—until Pokémon Legends Arceus.
While at a glance Legends Arceus might look like a spinoff, it doesn’t feel like it in practice. This is a bold new take on what it means to be a Pokémon game, reinventing and fine-tuning everything from the way you engage with Pokémon in the overworld to the way you complete the Pokédex. It’s not Pokémon’s Breath of the Wild in the sense that it isn’t really an open-world game like Zelda’s acclaimed entry, but it is Pokémon’s Breath of the Wild in the sense that Game Freak has rethought what it means to be a Pokémon game and boldly took huge risks that largely work out.
Rethinking Pokémon starts at the setup. You aren’t a small town child aspiring to take down gym leaders across numerous towns and cities. Instead, you’re a kid who only hangs out in one town: Jubilife Village. The story is set far back in the past in the Hisui region that will one day become Sinnoh, the setting for Diamond and Pearl. In a divergence from series trademarks the pace is most comparable to Monster Hunter, as you embark to different open-world areas with this core town being your base of operations. A main quest line involves trying to figure out what’s going on with the frenzied Noble Pokémon of each area, leading you on a straightforward tour of each region. Those locales conclude with a boss fight against the frenzied Pokémon, with the first one against new Scyther evolution Kleaver being a weirdly traditional action battle. You have to dodge Kleaver’s attacks and line up Pokeball-esque balms to toss at him when he’s stunned. The narrative threads are interesting enough, filled with a handful of memorable characters and enjoyable callbacks to Diamond and Pearl. Most importantly, the pacing of the story isn’t as laborious as Sword and Shield, but don’t worry: it’s still a satisfyingly long experience.
In addition to the main quest, shop owners and other civilians give you a litany of side quests that are instrumental in emphasizing the nuances of the gameplay and the world, whether it’s highlighting differences between forms of Pokémon or showing off the new way moves can be learned or improved. Some of them are as simple as delivering a specific set of items or Pokémon, while others are far more involved and puzzling. The balance between main and side quests works well because the game does a great job of keeping the core plot clearly marked ahead of you while letting you essentially do whatever else you want.
Beyond that quest structure are the reworked fundamentals of catching and battling, moving dramatically forward in the direction of being more of an action RPG. Turn-based battling is still present, but the steps to get to that point are far different. You control your player character in the overworld areas and can see the Pokémon on the map (no random battles here!). With every encounter, you have a number of options on how to approach things. You can sneak around stealthily and try to surprise the Pokémon and catch them with a thrown Poke Ball, or you can toss your own Pokémon at them to start a battle. Sometimes that decision will be taken out of your hands; if a Pokémon is aware of your presence, they get aggressive and cannot be caught, forcing you to run away or do battle.
The first trio of wild Pokémon you encounter sum it up very well. Bidoofs just exist and don’t care, making them easy to catch or fight. Starly run off when you get near them. Shinx will fight you if they see you. It gets more interesting and engaging the deeper you get into the game because you have more tools at your disposal—with certain items stunning, alluring, or dismissing Pokémon—and the variety of Pokémon you can run into increases. I spent a lot of time in the early game exploring the world and having Xenoblade-esque encounters where I came across a level-60 Alakazam that would assuredly destroy my meager assortment of low-level critters. Exploring the regions is at first somewhat limited and it can be clumsy dealing with any kind of inclines early on, but once you have access to rideable Pokémon, such as the first region’s Wyrdeer, you can more freely travel around at faster speeds, oftentimes unlocking new nooks and crannies to explore in the process.
Catching Pokémon can be thrilling, made more tense as you try to sneak up behind them. In addition, the game also changes the way you fill out the Pokédex. No longer can you just catch a Ponyta and call it a day. Instead, you have to study and research that Pokémon to complete its Pokédex entry. Every single creature has their own tasks to cross off. Catching or defeating a certain amount will earn you research points, but so will completing certain side quests, exploiting a weakness in battle, watching the Pokémon use a certain move, or giving it a certain item. On one hand, this changes and complicates the act of catching them all, but on the other, this is the first Pokémon game this century where I’ve been compelled to complete my Pokédex. It makes a clinical exercise vastly more charming.
The major knock I have on the Pokédex is how few brand new Pokémon there are. It features a lot of familiar faces from the Sinnoh Pokédex, which plot-wise makes sense since they are the same region decades apart. But in practice, it feels less joyous to just see a lot of the same Pokémon I spent time with mere weeks ago with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. The new regional variants are awesome and all, highlighted by the aforementioned Kleavor and the cuddly new Growlithe, but I wish there were more novel swerves like how your starter picks of Rowlett, Cyndaquil, and Oshawott all come from different regions. Even still, each area you travel to has its own assortment of Pokémon, which you can helpfully track separately in the Pokédex. At times, I grew tired of seeing the same ones around, but usually whenever I had that thought an uncommon one would spawn and suck me back into the rhythm of catching and battling.
That’s one thing that Legends Arceus does extremely well: it sucks you into the gameplay loop. Journeying out in the wilds to find new Pokémon, polish up Pokédex entries, or complete quests works extremely well. It’s energizing just following a new path and finding an alcove hiding a Chimchar. What isn’t energizing is how visually unappealing the world looks. Some areas fare better than others, but on the whole, the visual fidelity is horrific. Ground looks flat and detailess. Draw distances look foggy and murky. Pokémon descend into choppy framerates when they get too far away. Of special note is the second swampy region that is earnestly repugnant. I’m normally tolerant of games that play well but don’t look that great, but this is especially bad. On a positive note, it mostly runs at a constant 30fps frame rate and manages to include a lot of moving characters on screen at one time, but that becomes less of an accomplishment when you glance at the details of water or lava and it looks generations behind.
The resolution is also reasonably acceptable in most instances, While playing docked in the more confined town environments the resolution can make it all the way up to 1080p in certain situations, but expect it to largely sit closer to 900p. Meanwhile in handheld mode towns generally run at or near a native 720p. The more expansive field areas take a bit of a resolution hit with docked clocking in at a dynamic 900p with dips close to 720p. Handheld then tops out once again at 720p but spends the majority of the time below that somewhere around 600p. These numbers are overall fairly good for a game of this scale, but a lack of any sort of anti-aliasing solution can cause the game to look much more pixelated than it should. On the bright side performance is overall quite good, with the majority of exploration maintaining a solid 30fps that really only takes a slight hit during flashy battle effects.
The character designs and artwork are still strong despite the visual infidelity. The new animation for evolving is awesome and the UI is snappy and pleasing. Sound design is also great, with a benefit to listening closely while exploring because you might hear specific Pokémon cries or even the hint of a Shiny being nearby. The soundtrack is stellar, filled with a lot of memorable tunes that pay homage to Diamond and Pearl.
For as much of a reinvention this game is at times, it takes a few steps back here and there. While I can understand the lack of Box Anywhere—where you can switch out your roster of six at almost any point outside of battle—due to the quest-driven structure, it still feels like a step back. Similarly, inventory management becomes an issue as you start with limited slots that become woefully too small if you spend more than a few minutes exploring. You can buy item slots and can store seemingly limitless amounts of items, but the small amount of items you have at once just means you have to drop a lot of items or make regular trips back to camp to switch your items or Pokémon in and out. Inventory also isn’t split up into different types like in recent games, which makes sorting through it more arduous.
Despite some issues, Legends Arceus changes so much else for the better that I will gladly take some back and forth for items and Pokémon for the tradeoff. Evolution can now just be done with the press of a button whenever you want once conditions are met. You also don’t need to mess with Move Tutors or Deleters since at any point outside of battle, you can change what four moves your Pokémon brings into battle. You can also go to a training area where you can basically pay to teach them TM moves. No more limited-use items or being saddled with unwanted moves. It’s an astoundingly smart improvement.
That’s what Pokémon Legends Arceus is to me in summation: an astoundingly smart improvement on the tried-and-true Pokémon formula. It’s not without its blemishes, largely in the dreadful visuals, but the foundation laid here is what I hope the Pokémon franchise pivots to more in the future. It twists the focus just enough to make the experience of filling out a Pokédex more engaging, all the while filling battling and catching with way more variety. Legends Arceus doesn’t quite catch them all, but it’s satisfying the whole way through and makes me thrilled for the future of Pokémon in a way I haven’t been in years.