After months of doubt, criticism, and cautious optimism, Pokémon Legends: Arceus hit store shelves last Friday. Were the changes super effective or is this where the franchise blacks out? Let’s take an in-depth look to find out. I won’t be discussing the story and late-game mechanics to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.
The Copperajah in the Room
Let’s just get it out of the way. Yes, the game is lacking in the graphics department, for the most part. Level-of-detail drops off a cliff after a medium-range distance, and pop-in associated with that becomes extremely noticeable, especially when moving on a Ride Pokémon. It has moments where it looks good, but the muddy textures at long range don’t mesh well with the overall art direction. That said, it’s never bad enough to harm gameplay. For example, you won’t find yourself getting stuck on things that haven’t loaded in, or run into Pokémon that just popped into existence. Pokémon themselves look pretty decent as well, and battle animations are very good.
So what about the performance? I’m pleasantly surprised to say that Pokémon Legends: Arceus runs flawlessly in handheld mode. I primarily play in handheld and was a little worried it would have problems, but it’s a stable 30 fps throughout. This is very welcome after Shin Megami Tensei 5 hit low-to-mid 20 fps in cutscenes and struggled to maintain 30 in the overworld. Docked is mostly the same story, with some minimal drops. I’m not a huge stickler for the number attached to the framerate, as long as it’s consistent and properly paced. I can play 30 or 60 fps all day but if it’s unlocked and unstable, I have a much harder time. Load times are very quick as well. I’ve been spoiled with my PS5’s SSD, but I was impressed to see the load times are about 6 seconds between areas.
Your Pokémon Journey
Now let’s get into the actual gameplay.
The loop in Pokémon Legends: Arceus is simple but pleasing. You’re given missions to do (bring a certain Pokémon, get the biggest/smallest, catch different genders, etc) and must also fill out Pokédex pages. This is no longer achieved by simply catching them a single time. Now, you’re given a list of things to do to increase your knowledge of them and these tasks vary from the mundane listed above to investigating their actual Pokédex lore or moves. For example, I was given a task to “find out if Drifloon really does play with kids”, a direct nod to the nightmare fuel Pokédex entries about it. It reminds me of trying to get Pokémon to do specific things in the Snap games. You can fill the pages by just catching and battling them, or you can do the unique research tasks.
The most important thing is just how seamless everything is, making the whole thing smooth as butter. There are no text boxes to pick up an item, no long transitions to starting the battle, no menus for overworld actions, and no screen transitions to get back to the world. You have a much more direct connection, and it all flows beautifully together, making the gameplay incredibly satisfying and addictive.
Battles have been given a massive overhaul. The combat is now closer to something like Final Fantasy X (complete with a UI element to show predicted turn order) with a single combatant able to pull off multiple turns in a row depending on their speed and which of the two battle styles they are using; Agile or Strong. Agile focuses on speed at the cost of power, while Strong makes you hit like a Machamp but you have the speed of a Shuckle. Type advantages and proper strategy with these styles are crucial, as choosing the wrong one can get you locked in an unfavorable spot, leading to any easy loss. Enemies can influence the turn order as well, and they do not mess around. It’s no Shin Megami Tensei, but it’s definitely far harder than most recent entries.
Move pools and evolution are also different now. You can now freely swap your four move slots between all learned moves when outside of battle. No more erasing them! The total available in the game has been cut back significantly to account for this, but it feels like there’s a lot less bloat now and what’s here is given a chance to shine with the changes. Evolution is also no longer forced, and you can evolve them at any time from the party menu once the conditions are met. Pokémon has never given the player so much control in the mainline games and this was a much-needed change.
Prepare for (Some) Trouble…
Despite the welcome changes to the gameplay in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, there are still a few growing pains on display here, even past the graphics. There are fewer trainer battles, and those that are here don’t reach the potential they could. The battles against Noble Pokémon are fairly simplistic and repetitive outside of the actual Pokémon combat. There’s a very slow drip-feed of mechanics at the beginning, and the tutorial can feel like it’s moving at a glacial pace because of it.
As far as multiplayer goes, there’s no competitive or cooperative battling of any kind. Trades are available, but that and the Death Stranding style mechanic of other players losing items when they get knocked out in the field, leaving you the option of collecting and returning them, are the only connectivity features here. A bit disappointing, as my wife and I enjoyed many hours of co-op raids in Sword/Shield, but it’s not a dealbreaker. For those who loved breeding for perfect IVs and the best moves, I’m sad to report that not only is breeding out, IVs are too. I’ve never been crazy about doing the massive timesink required for both, but I know a lot of people love doing it. Now, the focus is on EVs. Again, I like the change, but I can respect those who don’t.
…But Don’t Make it Double
Other than those minor complaints, I find the overall gameplay loop extremely satisfying and fun with the exploration and semi-open world being wonderful to get lost in. The game very slowly opens up, but it’s paced well after the tutorial section. If you’re on the fence, look up some gameplay from about the second area or so. Overall, I’m excited to see where this formula goes in the future. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a very satisfying experience.
I want to make a special mention of the Pokémon animations. There’s so much personality packed into these, a particular favorite of mine being Mr. Mime’s idle pose. I also had an instance where I sent a Pokémon out at night while in the village and they came out of the ball asleep. Those little details are so delightful and show that Game Freak being able to get wild with the title reignited a lost love.
What absolutely steals the show though is the music, and some tracks are up there with the best in the franchise. I’m really blown away by how often I find myself just sitting still in an area to hear the music. The sound design is off the charts too. The UI sounds have mostly ditched the digital noises, moving to more traditional Japanese percussive sound. Wandering the wilderness to hear all these different cries and the satisfying new Pokeball noises are a sure dopamine hit when you catch a stubborn Pokémon or nail a critical with your throw. And those jingles… Those jingles and flourishes to end a battle theme are perfect. There’s no voice acting, but this has never really bothered me. In a game like this, I usually find myself reading faster than voices can match me, and end up only hearing part of the line or forcing myself to wait for it to finish.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the evolution the series needed. It’s not a perfect first step, but the foundation it lays will hopefully pave the way to a masterpiece on par with Breath of the Wild in the next game. I can’t recommend it enough. This is a turning point for the series, and I hope Game Freak extends that reach to the stars above. Now, hopefully, we can get another Pokémon movie that’s as good as Detective Pikachu.