Does Pokémon Legends: Arceus hold up a year later?

Rating: 4.5/5

When Pokémon Legends: Arceus first released in January 2022, fans praised the game and its huge departure from the Pokémon formula. Looking back a year later, with a new set of mainline Pokémon games to compare it to, does Legends: Arceus hold up? Simply put: yes.

Legends: Arceus is set in Pokémon’s Hisui region; this region would later become the Sinnoh region where Pokémon Diamond, Pearl and Platinum take place. The player character is sent back in time by Arceus — the creator of the Pokémon world — and helps the people of Hisui to better understand the Pokémon around them. They do this by going out into the wild and completing research tasks, which involves both catching and battling Pokémon.

This new take on a Pokémon story is engaging, and gives many of the series’ mechanics new life. The Pokédex has been a part of the franchise since the very first games, but this is the first game that makes it feel important. Sure, Pokémon has always urged its players to “catch ‘em all,” but this has always been optional; I once beat Pokémon LeafGreen with less than 10 Pokémon registered. Legends: Arceus actually ties your progression to it.

Were this a traditional Pokémon game, this would likely have gone poorly. The series’ typical turn-based battle format makes catching a single Pokémon take at least a minute; catching all 240 species in the game multiple times would be exhausting. However, Legends: Arceus shakes up the Pokémon formula by allowing players to catch Pokémon without ever battling them. The player can throw a ball at an unsuspecting Pokémon and catch it in mere seconds.

This is where the game shines: the player is no longer just a commander for their Pokémon but instead is an active figure in the game. Players can sneak up on groups of Pokémon, catching them one by one. They can run from fights — not just hit a menu option labelled “run” like in previous games but actually physically leave a fight they don’t want to do. They can roll away from attacking Pokémon, and if they don’t, they’re at risk of being knocked out. Not their Pokémon; the trainer can get knocked out.

This is such a huge deviation from the rest of the series, and it makes Legends: Arceus much more tense than the other Pokémon games. Sure, if you get knocked out you just lose some items, but it adds this level of threat that is simply never there in the regular games. This also helps the player relate to the Hisuian people; their fear of Pokémon becomes much more understandable after a Snorlax nearly hospitalizes you.

The story is one of the best in the Pokémon franchise. This is not high praise; the bar is incredibly low. The story focuses on two issues in Hisuian society: the first is the aforementioned fear of Pokémon, which the player combats by filling up their Pokédex and bringing more information to their village. This part of the game is pleasant; it’s not deep, but it feels like a nice reward for all the work you put in.

The other part of the story is the split between two of the factions: the Diamond Clan and the Pearl Clan. They each worship a deity called Sinnoh, but argue about its powers — the Diamond Clan believes it controls time while the Pearl Clan believes it controls space. This part of the story is dull; not only is this dispute completely unrelated to the work the player is doing, the answer to their squabble is obvious to anyone who’s played Pokémon Diamond, Pearl or Platinum. This is a forgettable story beat that becomes actively annoying with how many unskippable cutscenes the game shoves in.

Speaking of unskippable cutscenes, the opening to this game is one of the worst I’ve played. After Arceus sends the player back in time, there is a full hour of tutorial and world-building to get through. The game does give you a little taste of what to expect early on, as you’re tasked with retrieving the three starter Pokémon for the professor, but there is a lot between that and the first time the game truly opens up.

This game really only gets better the more you play it. While the beginning is a slog and the story butts in a little too often, once you’re through them they don’t bother you again. When the game stops force-feeding the player context and story, it is the most free-form Pokémon experience.

Even comparing it to the newest Pokémon releases, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, Legends: Arceus holds up favourably. While Scarlet and Violet offer a true open-world experience — as opposed to Legends: Arceus’ smaller, disconnected game areas — and a more engaging story, Legends: Arceus offers a better flow in its gameplay. 

Scarlet and Violet’s equivalent to Legends: Arceus’ catching, the Let’s Go mechanic, has the first Pokémon in the player’s party quickly battle wild Pokémon. This has its benefits, but places the action on the player’s Pokémon rather than the player themselves. While your Pokémon runs around taking down wild Pokémon, you yourself just stand there waiting for them to stop so you can send them out again. Whereas Legends: Arceus’ catching keeps the player actively involved in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

While the story has its faults, Legends: Arceus still holds up a year after release. It was my most-played game from last year, and I will likely continue playing this year as I look for the rare “shiny” Pokémon. In a series which has not evolved much in the 25 years it’s been around, Legends: Arceus is an uncharacteristically huge leap forward, and I hope to see more Legends titles in Pokémon’s future.

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