Pokémon Legends Arceus is the Pokémon game that I have been waiting for since I was a kid. Researching Pokémon in their natural habitats and filling in the world’s very first Pokédex is everything I wanted from New Pokémon Snap, but was disappointed to find missing. Arceus is a transformational new entry in the series, to the point that even if you’re only half-way invested in Pokémon, you absolutely need to play it; it’s that good.
Pokémon are actually terrifying creatures — a cursory glance at the Pokédex will tell you that, whether it’s Drifloon spiriting children away or Frosslass being born of a dead traveller. Despite this, it’s perfectly common for little kids in the Pokémon universe to run around trying to catch everything from a Bidoof to a Toxicroak — a Pokémon whose “knuckle claws secrete a toxin so vile that even a scratch could prove fatal”.
Presumably the only reason that it’s OK for kids to go out there and try to complete the Pokédex is that it has already been completed countless times in the past. How else would you get a full psychoanalysis of the thing you’ve only just stumbled upon? It’s because someone has already done the legwork; you “research” Pokémon in the main series games the same way your little brother “beat the boss” with their controller unplugged. In Pokémon Legends Arceus, you’re the poor shmuck who has to do all that legwork.
You are a Galaxy Team researcher in Hisui — the Sinnoh region (of Diamond/Pearl fame), before it was renamed, Istanbul-style. Set long ago, when Pokéballs had only just been invented, your job is to roam the harsh wilderness and learn as much as you can about the monsters around you, armed only with what you can find, scavenge and craft. That’s right, Pokémon Legends Arceus is as close to Pokémon survival horror as you’re going to get.
At this point in time, nobody knows much about Pokémon; they haven’t learned to coexist in the way we’re all used to in the main-series games, and they certainly haven’t learned the proper 1v1 battle etiquette. Hisui is filled with battle-worn people who have no qualms about sending out three Pokémon to battle your singular best monster. Likewise, if you stumble into a nest of Electabuzz, you better get pretty good at dodging lightning very quickly…
This all means that when you catch a Pokémon for the first time, you create a page in a paper Pokédex that’s pretty light on the details. Only by spending time with it, catching more of the same species or defeating them battle, will you learn what each Pokémon is about. Arceus is the first Pokémon game where filling your Pokédex is a genuinely interesting challenge, and a game in which you actively have a hand in helping build the future relationship between people and Pokémon.
The locals slowly warm up to the Pokémon around them, learning that they don’t have to live in fear any longer because, when treated as partners, Pokémon help drastically improve life. This is shown countless times throughout the game, be it a Machoke helping the construction team put up houses, an “irrigation sensation” Psyduck helping out at the farm, or a Geodude that is bizarrely useful for making pickles.
The more you learn while losing yourself in the vistas and beautiful soundtrack, the higher you climb through the ranks as the ultimate Pokémon researcher. It’s not always a simple task. In addition to straightforward crafting, you have a wholly new style of gameplay to experience. Imagine if the Wild Areas of Sword/Shield had a baby with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, because that’s what you’re in for. You run around a vast expanse, hunting for the Pokémon you want to research, and then either battle or try to catch it. If you get noticed, you will be attacked directly and lose health, further adding to the challenge.
Arceus also adds a series of boss fights in the game, starting with the already announced Kleavor, that have you playing dodgeball with a rampaging Pokémon Noble. I can’t go into the details of how and why this is happening without veering into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that this is the part of the game where manual dexterity becomes a big part of the proceedings. If you’re not particularly good at that kind of rapid gameplay, you may struggle here. That said, taking down the boss is particularly satisfying and it’s nice to have a break from the tried-and-tested formula of beating the Elite Four.
Sadly, as much as I love this game, Pokémon Legends Arceus has its flaws. Stylistically, it looks fantastic and I love the fact that you can see wild shiny Pokéemon as actually being shiny— a feature not seen since the Let’s Go games. This has made my heart leap into my throat several times over the past few days, adding to the wild rush that is playing Arceus.
However, Arceus is dragged down by the poor graphics quality. Case in point, I spotted what I thought was a shiny Machop (green instead of grey-blue) in the distance, walking on some grass, but the resolution was so low it was basically just a grey mesh and I had to get a lot closer to see if it was genuinely shiny. More notable issues include dropped frames, light shining through cave walls and extremely low-res flickering grass. When Arceus looks older than 2017’s Breath of the Wild, that’s just disheartening.
The disappointment doesn’t end there. Weirdly, for a flagship Nintendo game, the user interface feels like a bad port. Other than throwing a Pokéball, none of the controls feel particularly intuitive. This isn’t game-breakingly bad, but if finding the save screen and map are still taking multiple attempts after a dozen hours, your control scheme is just bad.