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Review: Pokémon Legends: Arceus - It's a whole new world we live in

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When Pokémon Legends: Arceus was first revealed in February 2021, it immediately set the Pokémon fanbase alight. Not only did it appear to take place in a world far more open than that of Sword and Shield, and not only did it appear to be set in a completely different era to the ‘modern’ timeline, but it also seemed to promise a slightly more intense and immersive style of gameplay, with the titular creatures able to - gasp - actually hurt the player. Thus followed just shy of a year of some of the greatest franchise hype we’ve seen since at least the run-up to the Galarian dual-versions.

Much rests upon the shoulders of Legends: Arceus. Though the series has continued to enjoy commercial success on the incredibly popular Nintendo Switch, critical reception in the past three years has, anecdotally, not quite kept pace. Sword and Shield gained some notoriety for cuts to the Pokédex and a Wild Area that was disappointing to some, and reactions to Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, which quickly gained a reputation for being at least a little buggy, were similarly mixed. These titles weren’t loathed - far from it - but they fed into a personally-felt unease that the franchise’s halcyon days might have been on the Nintendo DS, with titles such as the original Diamond and Pearl, Heartgold and Soulsilver, and Black and White, two console eras ago. That’s why it comes as a significant personal relief that Legends: Arceus is good. Really good. Fan reaction seems to have borne this out - even the most cynical corners of social media appear impressed, and it has become the second-fastest selling Switch game of all time.

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The player’s adventures in Hisui (an older version of the Sinnoh region) begin with a swift induction into the Galaxy Expedition Team, a small band of foreigners seeking to make a new life for themselves in an oft-hostile land. From there, the protagonist assists the charmingly eccentric Professor Laventon in creating the first Pokédex of the region, and in doing so help the team better understand the challenges they face. Uniquely for a main series Pokémon game, the overworld that the player traverses is the same one in which they catch and battle their targets - gone is the ‘pocket dimension’ in which battles in previous titles were fought, and wild species can be caught in real time while attempting to flee (or far more often, attack) the protagonist. This results in a seamlessness that creates a sense of flow and especially immersion, two of the major reasons the game is as fun as it is. No longer is there a disconnect between the Trainer’s world and the one in which the Pokemon interact and do battle; they are one and the same, and it’s far from a safe world at that. The creator of the series, Satoshi Tajiri, has previously stated that the famously dark Pokémon Adventures manga is the most faithful rendition of the world he envisioned in his mind, but Legends: Arceus must surely now be a close contender for that title.

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Despite some early impressions to the contrary, Legends: Arceus is not a ‘true’ open world game; instead, the player travels between five large maps with the burgeoning Jubilife Village serving as the hub town. Though no area feels quite on par with titanic landscapes such as those in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, collectively they are varied and plenty large enough to satisfy the adventurous appetite, especially before special rideable Pokémon, such as Wyrdeer and Braviary, serve to shrink the map. For the most part, these environments look... just about fine. Some mountains appear rather polygonal, assets pop-in to a very noticeable degree when seen from the air, and bodies of water look like light-dappled gridlines from a distance, but it’s difficult to take too much notice of these when the player’s attention is focused on delivering a back-strike Poké Ball capture to an unsuspecting Shinx. Hisui also immediately invites comparison with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, which isn’t always in the former’s favour, but if there’s one aspect in which Legends: Arceus pulls ahead it’s in how the player uses that wilderness. For swathes of the game, the grasslands, forests and mountains are where the player actively wants and needs to be in order to catch Pokémon and make headway within the game; it’s not merely a goblin-infested obstacle between the player and the next shrine or quest location. Catching Pokémon builds out the Pokédex and enhances the player's rank, bringing with it cash rewards to buy items used for catching more Pokémon, creating a virtuous cycle of progression.

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To accommodate the game’s fast-paced transition between combat and travel, the traditional battle system has not so much been revamped as dramatically cut down, with hundreds of moves and all abilities excised from the formula (with a new speed system to boot). For the most part, this makes wild battles extremely quick and ensures that the player is never far from the meat of the free-roaming action, but there’s a distinct trade-off when it comes to engagements with other Trainers. When teams of multiple Pokémon face off against each other, it often devolves into a simple slugfest in which victory goes to the one who brought the largest party with them - an extra level of complexity for these few, usually plot-relevant battles would be very welcome.

As per every modern Pokémon game for some time now, Legends: Arceus also has a drastically reduced selection of species, with only around 240 - just a little over 25% - of the full National Pokédex present. However, this is far less limiting than might first seem; though later areas of the game tend to have a small handful of monsters that will be eye-rollingly familiar to the player at that point (offenders include Graveler and Mothim, among others), broadly speaking there’s a good spread to inhabit each landscape without feeling either too thin or too obviously packed. What might catch adventurers more off-guard is the unremitting aggression from even the most innocuous species. Paras, Drifloon, Goomy and more have a well-deserved reputation on social media for harassing players, and without long grass to effectively hide in (especially in some of the more mountainous areas), having to take evasive action in the face of foot-high terrors can verge on oppressive, or at least tedious.

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If there’s one broad bucket under which many of the game’s faults can be found, it’s quality of life and convenience. Yes, friction is a core component of many explorative experiences - supplies may need restocking, the character may need to rest in some form - but Legends: Arceus takes this to the next degree at times. Having to pay a visit to Professor Laventon to update the Pokédex and heading back to the hub town every time the player wishes to visit a different area - instead of simply warping there - becomes very tiring very quickly, especially when the player begins hunting legendary Pokémon or chasing mass outbreaks in the postgame. Similarly obnoxious is the tiny satchel the protagonist is given to cart around an overwhelming variety of plants, foodstuffs and tertiary crafting knicknacks requiring constant inventory management. Again, this activity is an important ingredient of many similarly explorative or survival-focused games, but Legends: Arceus probably has 30% more items than is needed for a fleshed-out crafting system, and this would be a prime target for a tweak in future outings.

Hisui also boasts one of the strongest plotlines of the main Pokémon series. Even a cursory glance at much of the official pre-release media material would have given a strong sense of the game’s main theme: the distrust felt by humans towards the creatures they share their new home with. The inhabitants of Jubilife Village are almost universally terrified of Pokémon, and the village itself boasts strong walls and a dedicated Security Corps for this very reason. This fear is only compounded when a rift in spacetime appears in the skies ahead and begins to drive the noble Pokémon - powerful creatures revered by the native Diamond and Pearl clans - into a dangerous frenzy. Enter the player, literally dropped through space and time by Arceus itself to resolve the situation by quelling this inexplicable rage, and in doing so restore something resembling harmony to the inhabitants of Hisui. Along the way the protagonist learns more about the people who call this land home, their relationship with Pokémon, and especially how they react in times of crisis.

The game’s cast is a little too sprawling to give many of them more than two minutes of screentime and an equivalent number of dimensions (several of the wardens to serve the noble Pokémon in particular can be simply characterised as ‘obnoxious’, ‘old’, or similarly plain adjectives), but the leading lights of the Galaxy Expedition Team are better fleshed-out than most Pokémon personalities so far. Laventon oozes enthusiasm for his research subjects and is your most earnest supporter during your adventure; Commander Kamado entwines a playful roughness with an abiding sense of responsibility; and even the icy Captain Cyllene has a few highly memorable comedic moments of discomposure. The character models are the most expressive they’ve ever been, and it’s clear what’s emotionally at stake for the major players when the going gets tough. This said, one noticeable omission from the collective arc of the human cast is that there’s no singular reconciliation or major point of mutual understanding with the Pokémon that inhabit the world. Though the tertiary characters of Jubilife become a little more relaxed, letting the smaller and less hostile species into their lives, the threat hanging over Hisui is ultimately caused by monstrously powerful, terrifying creatures, and it takes a skilled human (i.e. the protagonist) to defeat them. This, combined with the near-universal hostility experienced in many areas of the map, slightly undermines an otherwise compelling story about learning to trust and respect the natural world.

(It would be remiss not to touch briefly upon the final, true villain of the piece, unveiled only in the postgame. Not only are they very well-hidden up to that point, they’re terrifying, brutally difficult, and may yet have significant impacts on Pokémon’s tales to come. What a twist!)

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Legends: Arceus is far from a perfect game; it comes with a long laundry list of small niggles, frustrations, and missed opportunities. However, it almost never feels as though these irritants are the result of a lack of effort or passion on the part of Game Freak - they are hardware limitations, slight oversights and miscalculations to be tweaked for future instalments. It’s what the game gets so fundamentally right that makes it easier to identify these issues; Game Freak has produced a title that is perhaps the most immersive and faithful rendition of the Pokémon world to date, the most exciting game of the franchise in a decade, and a sterling basis upon which to craft future experiences.

It seems trite to say, after every other game reviewer and their Growlithe has done so, that Legends: Arceus is revolutionary - but that’s precisely what it is for Pokémon. This reviewer highly recommends it for all Switch owners.
 
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WyndonCalling

WyndonCalling

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