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Pokemon Legends: Arceus Review -- In the Beginning...

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Pokémon mythology straddles the line between unrealistically insane to completely bizarre. The games put players in control of children, ranging in age from ten to seventeen, who capture pokémon to battle and climb their way to the ultimate pokémon master of the region. On one extreme are common pokémon, barely different that ordinary animals in our own world, but on the other are creatures that, according to legends, have defied death, created the land and sea, ruled over time and space, and even maintained the balance between life and death. Announced with the Pokémon twenty-fifth anniversary, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the first game that looks to confront some of this mythology.

And by that I mean, it is a game that tasks players with capturing the pokémon that (supposedly) created all of reality.

If you have played a main-entry Pokémon game at any point over the last twenty-five years, you have had roughly the same experience -- players set out from a home town, pick a starter, travel throughout a region, catch a myriad of pokémon, battle countless trainers, overcome eight thematic gyms, undermine the grandiose plans of an evil organization, and defeat an unbeatable champion to take their place as the new champion of a region. While some of these elements are still present, Pokémon Legends: Arceus abandons many of these staples, offering a more novel Pokémon experience. Players still control a teenage child, but instead of starting in a modern and established region, players awake to a gleaming silhouette of Arceus who tasks them with seeking out (read: capturing) all the pokémon before dropping them through a rift in space and time (literally) into the Sinnoh region’s past, at a time when it was known as Hisui.

During this era, people and pokémon did not live together in the same way as the contemporary games. Many of the characters encountered through the game, especially early on, range from wary to downright terrified of pokémon. And they have every right to be. Outside the safety of Jubilife Village, the early precursor to the Sinnoh region's Jubilife City, roam fearsome pokémon that do not behave like any pokémon players have encountered before. One of the biggest breaks from traditional Pokémon games is that wild pokémon do not initiate random battles and will often directly attack players on sight. Players need to dodge and evade aggressive pokémon in the wild to avoid taking damage and getting knocked out, or send out a pokémon to draw the wild pokémon's attention and start a battle. Of course, that is not to say every pokémon is a threat and everyone is perpetually on edge around them. As is the norm, a professor lets players choose a grass, fire (the obvious choice), or water starter pokémon, from a collection of starters from other regions, before tasking them with helping him compile the region’s first Pokédex.

In the same way that Pokémon Sword and Shield were the first games in the franchise to truly capture the spectacle of rising to become, what is essentially, the biggest sports celebrity in the region, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the first game to consider what would go into actually building a Pokédex that is a research encyclopedia. For over twenty years, players have only needed to catch one of each pokémon to fill out the Pokédex and learn everything there is to know about a pokémon (ignoring shinies and other variants). That is not the case here, and building the Pokédex is a significantly more complex and time consuming process. Players need to catch multiple versions of the same pokémon, catch them at different times of day, catch them while sleeping, observe them using different moves multiple times, feed them, and various other tasks. You cannot argue that this is not a more realistic take on the creation of a research log-like Pokédex, but at the same time, the execution makes the game feel incredibly repetitive and unenjoyable. Tasks like using the same move move twenty or more times or catching the same pokémon ten times from behind are not engaging or fun. Honestly, compiling the Pokédex feels like the type of task that would have existed in a game ten or twenty years ago, not in a game produced today.

To make many of these combat-related tasks even less engaging, Pokémon Legends: Arceus largely downplays the combat and battling side of the game. In total, there are probably less than a dozen trainers to battle throughout the course of the game’s story (you do fight many of the same trainers two or three times), and even catching pokémon no longer requires battling them. In other games, catching pokémon required running around in the grass, hoping the pokémon you wanted would appear in a random encounter, weakening it, and then catching it. Pokémon Sword and Shield tweaked the formula slightly by largely moving away from random encounters, but the catching process remained mostly untouched. While you can still go through that process to catch a wild pokémon, Pokémon Legends: Arceus shakes up this aspect of the franchise by, in many cases, eliminating the need to battle. Like Pokémon Sword and Shield, wild pokémon roam the world, and while you can trigger a more traditional battle by throwing out one of your pokémon, you can catch wild pokémon without ever engaging them in battle. There are even pokéballs that are specifically designed for catching unaware pokémon. Given the need to catch multiples of the same pokémon, this is a welcome change, but, and this relates to one of my biggest complaints about this game, are there a lot of people who play Pokémon games to catch tons of the same pokémon and not battle?

I have touched on the fact that I really got into the competitive side of Pokémon during Generation 8 (there is a whole conversation that could be had about the different experiences competitive and non-competitive players have with Pokémon and how many mechanics many players do not even know exist because the single-player campaigns are so easy), and I get that there are a lot of people who have never touched and will never touch competitive Pokémon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But are there really a lot of people out there who are just playing the games to catch hordes of pokémon? Is there really an audience that is served by this shift in the core gameplay experience?

It is more than just the way that Pokémon Legends: Arceus minimizes the battling side, the game also tweaks the battle system in ways that undermine a lot of that depth that I have learned to appreciate and explore. Most people regard Pokémon as a turn-based game, but that is not actually accurate. In a turn-based game, you would go, then your opponent would go, then you would go, and so on until a winner is decided. Chess and tic-tac-toe are turn-based games, but Pokémon is not. Pokémon is a round-based game where players pick moves at the start of a turn and then every pokémon on the field acts out their turn based on the speed order (that is an oversimplification, but it is close enough). Pokémon Legends: Arceus is closer to a turn-based game with some modifications. If you are engaged in a one versus one battle (against a wild pokémon, for instance), you likely will not notice the change, but during the game’s trainer battles, taking out an opponent’s pokémon usually translates to them sending out something that is super effective against your pokémon and knocking it out before you are given another chance to act. The game also features a system similar to the combat system in the Bravely Default franchise which allows players to leverage turns and damage to alter the turn order. Attacks done using the agile style will be weaker, but will allow a pokémon to attack again sooner, sometimes immediately afterwards. Conversely, using the strong style means a pokémon’s attacks will become stronger, but will come at the expense of potentially delaying their next turn. There are also a number of additional changes that feel like major steps backwards and oversimplifications for seemingly no reason, so the trade-offs for this new battle system do not feel worth the sacrifice.

Given the lack of gyms and gym leaders to serve as boss fights, the game instead features battles against enormous versions of specific pokémon that shift the gameplay to more closely resemble an action game than a role-playing game. Players will need to dodge attacks while throwing balms (bags of a pokémon's favorite food) at these frenzied adversaries to whittle down their health. Each boss has a stun condition that will leave them open for players to throw out a pokémon for a traditional battle which will allow players to do a burst of additional damage to the boss. Given the context of the game and the aggression towards humans exhibited by the wild pokémon, yes, this mostly fits. But at the same time, from a gameplay perspective, it feels out of place to only have a handful of encounters employ this different battle experience. Having bosses that largely do not require using your pokémon to battle is just another example of the game's minimization of the core Pokémon battle gameplay.

Instead of the linear routes that constitute the majority of older Pokémon games, Pokémon Legends: Arceus opts for a more open-world design that allows for greater exploration and freedom. It is not a true open-world game, however. Jubilife Village serves as a central hub, and from there, players choose one of the five areas to go explore. Each part is set in a different part of Hisui with different environments and pokémon (although some pokémon appear in multiple areas). While none of the biomes feel small, and there is plenty of room for exploration, they also never felt especially large.

This might be a personal perspective, but part of this feeling comes from the emptiness of the wilderness. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is set in the past, so while the absence of human settlements is completely understandable, it should have come with a trade-off of a world overflowing with wildlife, or in this case, wild pokémon. It also does not help that the pokémon in the world do not interact with each other at all. The game wants to present the world as being so hostile that wild pokémon will attack players on sight, but those same pokémon are seemingly not so aggressive and feral that they care about the presence of other pokémon species in the same area. Exploring a world before the relationships between humans and pokémon were formed is certainly an interesting idea, but it feels like the concept and its consequences were not fully explored.

And then there is the visual elephant in the room. Prior to the release of this game, one of the biggest criticisms of the trailers and pre-release material was that it looked visually disappointing. Unfortunately, those early impressions were, at best, spot on. There is no way to sugar-coat this issue, Pokémon Legends: Arceus looks horrendous. I am not someone who cares a great deal about graphics and usually have no qualms with sacrificing top-of-the-line graphics for a distinct art style or direction. In most cases, a game’s graphics must be truly substandard and especially distracting for me to bring it up as a negative criticism, but that is exactly what is happening here. The game has atrocious draw distances, textures that look terrible both at a distance and up close, water that looks like it is from the GameCube era, at best, and even character models that look like they are alternating between two frames when viewed from a distance. And while the game is going for a specific visual style (I assume, based on the weird shadow effects), nothing about that justifies its graphical shortcomings.

Playing through Pokémon Legends: Arceus has been a strange affair for me. When the game was originally announced, I did not feel excited and was not planning on picking it up. I do not know how much of my evaluation of the game has been shaped by my early trepidation towards this game but I was swayed by the praise and affirmations shared by so many other players and reviewers. So I have doubted and questioned some of my evaluations and experiences with this game, especially as I have been working on this review. It feels like a game that was created by developers who were either out of their element, or looking to beta test ideas for another release. I have touched on some of the visual and gameplay shortcomings, but even narratively, there are far too many loose ends and characters that are not fully explored for this to feel like a fully fleshed out product. In the end, I can only share my thoughts and feelings, and for me, this is not a game I would recommend. Having said that, many others have enjoyed it, so if it looks interesting to you, maybe you will have a more enjoyable experience. For me though, I just hope this is a one-off experiment and am looking forward to the next, more traditional, Pokémon game.

The beginning is the most important part of the work ~ Plato

All images owned by Nintendo.

Updated 2022-03-01 at 11:19 by Serra