Backlog Review: Pokémon Legends: Arceus

One of the best games in the franchise in years.

By Angela Marrujo Fornaca. Posted 04/11/2022 23:59 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Classic Pokémon gameplay with mechanics that make battles more interesting; refreshing viewpoint of Pokémon being dangerous, wild, and a force to be feared; interesting exploration of the politics and clash of cultures stemming from modernization and exploration; solid soundtrack
Poison Mushroom for...
Muddy visuals and strange glitches co-exist with sweeping vistas and pretty environments; some story elements could've been more fleshed out for greater impact; completing the Pokédex feels like more of a chore than previous games; early overworld exploration can be frustrating due to the player's limited mobility

Welcome to another Backlog Review, where we take a look at an older game that fans might have sitting waiting to be played or are still considering giving a purchase. This time we’re looking at Pokémon Legends: Arceus.

Before jumping into this review, I think it’s important to clarify that I’m writing from the perspective of someone who’s been playing Pokémon since the very beginning (here in the US), but who has grown increasingly distant from the games with each generation. Generations 1 and 2 are my favorite (cue the eye rolling from the “Gen 1 gets all the love” crowd), particularly because I love the designs and lore of those Pokémon and the storylines of those games.

As the franchise has evolved, I’ve felt like the Pokémon themselves have felt more uninspired (Trubbish is a bag of garbage — I mean, come on), your enemies have become more comical (what is a Team Yell supposed to be and why am I supposed to take them seriously?), and your rivals seem more like frenemies or just straight up friends these days (Hau seems like he’d rather be cheering me on from the sidelines than battling me).

Feeling increasingly like a cranky old crone whenever I talk about the good ol’ days of Pokémon (and, frankly, being ok with that), I accepted that Pokémon would continue down the path it’s been on and contented myself with the hope that one of the next generations would give me something to be genuinely excited about. And then Pokémon Legends: Arceus came out.

I won’t mince words: Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the best Pokémon game since Red and Blue and Silver and Gold, and made me remember what it felt like to be really in love with a Pokémon game.

A brave new (old) world

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a prequel to the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum games, set in the Sinnoh region when it was known as Hisui. The player finds themselves transported to the past by Arceus, instructed by its disembodied voice to capture all of the Pokémon in the region. The player then awakens on the shore of a beach, discovered by the region’s Professor Laventon and his three starter Pokémon: Cyndaquil, Rowlet, and Oshawatt. The player quickly learns that they’ve been thrown so far into the past that both the indigenous people of the region and the settlers are terrified of Pokémon and, unlike in the future, don’t view them as companions but rather as deadly wild animals. Few people have the courage, knowledge, and training to capture and work with Pokémon, and many who do are part of the Galaxy Expedition Team, a collection of people from different regions who’ve traveled to Hisui to study the Pokémon there.

The Galaxy Expedition Team has established Jubilife Village, a small but lively settlement where members of the team work and live. The player is allowed to live here, too, in exchange for their membership as part of the team’s Survey Corp. The player was dropped into this world from a space-time rift in the sky, causing the locals to be understandably wary of this mysterious stranger. Becoming part of the Survey Corp is as much a way for the Galaxy Expedition Team to keep tabs on you as it is an opportunity for you to teach them extremely valuable information on how to confidently train and raise Pokémon. Your skill is quickly recognized and sets you apart from what seems to be nearly every person in the region, as even the most seasoned Galaxy members still struggle with forming bonds with their Pokémon (and on occasion find themselves seriously hurt by their own Pokémon).

The Diamond Clan and Pearl Clan both reside in Hisui and both worship “almighty Sinnoh,” the deity said to have created the entire region. While the Diamond Clan believes Sinnoh was a god of time, the Pearl Clan believes it was a god of space. Wardens in each clan guard Noble Pokémon, who have received special blessings and are very powerful. Neither clan keeps their Pokémon in Pokéballs. After the player falls out of the sky, the Noble Pokémon in each region are stricken by lightning from the space-time rift and become frenzied; the player is then tasked with aiding each Warden in soothing their frenzied Noble.

There’s a lot going on in this world thrown into chaos, but it’s easy enough to follow. But at its core, this is a Pokémon game — so how does it look and feel?

Mechanics and gameplay elements — the good and the not-so-great

Positioning Pokémon as wild animals to be feared was seriously cool to me and felt like a no-brainer. What was cooler was that this is actually woven into the gameplay. The player can be injured by wild Pokémon to the point of blacking out if they take too much damage. There is no player damage meter per se, but the edges of the screen turn black and then red as the player approaches the end of their rope when being attacked by wild Pokémon. While the player can move around during a battle with a wild Pokémon, they can also accidentally be damaged by their own Pokémon or wild Pokémon if they stand too close to the blast radius of an attack.

Getting spotted by a wild Pokémon can actually be dangerous if the player’s health is low, and even more so if the Pokémon is much higher in level than your own or if they’re the giant, fury-filled Alpha Pokémon lurking around the region. These oversized versions of Pokémon are usually much stronger than your own team when you first encounter them and should be avoided until your team is up for the challenge. Speaking of challenges, if you’re looking for one (along with rare item drops), seek out the space-time distortions around the region. These dome-shaped areas appear randomly and briefly, and very rare, high-level Pokémon will appear within them.

Pokémon battles are made interesting with the ability for your Pokémon to perform agile or strong style versions of their moves. Once they’ve used a move enough times, they master the move and can either do an agile version of it (typically strikes before the opponent but does less damage than the regular version) or a strong version (significantly stronger but enables the opponent to attack twice in a row in response). And yes, opponents can and will use these move types against you, too. I also really loved how as your Pokémon level up and learn new moves, you can switch moves in and out of their move sets whenever you want, as opposed to having to choose which move a Pokémon should permanently forget to make way for a new move once they’ve learned four. It’s also great seeing during battle which of your Pokémon’s moves are either effective, not very effective, or super effective against the opponent.

As mentioned previously, you’ve been tasked by Arceus to capture every single Pokémon in the region. However, filling out the Pokédex isn’t as simple as catching one and then getting an immediate Pokédex entry. Be prepared to catch and battle each Pokémon dozens of times in order to meet research goals like, “seen it use flamethrower X times” or “number you’ve caught without being spotted.” Only after you’ve completed the various research tasks for each Pokémon will you have completed its Pokédex entry.

This proved to be a little frustrating for completing a number of different side quests which involved townspeople asking you to show them the completed Pokédex entry of whatever Pokémon they wanted to see. It also means that Pokédex entries for very rare Pokémon, like the types that only appear in space-time distortions, will take much more work and patience to complete than others. As much as I enjoyed battling in the overworld, especially against Alpha Pokémon, completing Pokédex entries was a bit too much of a slog.

While the gameplay is really solid overall, the game’s visuals are a mixed bag. At some moments, vistas look beautiful and some environments are nice to just pan out and take in. At others, things can look a little muddy. There’s a day/night cycle in the overworld, so you can see the angle of shadows move as the day progresses, but the movement of shadows can be really jerky and stuttering. Flying Pokémon some distance from the player can sometimes look distorted and suffer from the same stuttering, jerky movements, but it’s more exaggerated at times and can be really bad. Certain Pokémon only appear at certain times of day, and more than once I saw a Pokémon’s character model get pulled into the sky like they were on a string and disappear at daybreak — really awkward.

I like that the HUD is very minimal. Some on-screen pop-ups and sound effects seem very inspired by Breath of the Wild, as does some of the soundtrack (which is really interesting and eclectic). The player is encouraged to explore from the onset of your first journey into the overworld, but the player seems unable to traverse much more than flat land at the start of the game. Even mild slopes were difficult to climb or impossible to get over, which was a little annoying; this is remedied as the player gains the trust of Noble Pokémon who you can ride, opening up previously inaccessible paths on land, up cliffs, in water, and in the air.

Despite there being room for improvement graphically and in some gameplay elements like the Pokédex entries, gameplay is really solid overall. But it wouldn’t be worth playing if the story was a bore, and I was pleasantly surprised by some of the themes.

Exploring the complexities of cultural and societal change

As mentioned above, both the Diamond and Pearl Clans of the Hisui region worship almighty Sinnoh, with the former believing it was a god of time and the latter believing it was a god of space. As a result, the clans bicker and dislike one another, and work together tentatively with the Galaxy Team to put an end to the issue of the frenzied Nobles only because it has impacted both clans. I found it really interesting how the player finds themselves stuck in the middle of Diamond and Pearl’s hostilities towards one another, hostilities founded on differences in faith. The game’s finale reveals how and why their feud is senseless, but also echoes the countless examples in real-world history of why feuding over faith is destructive.

Diamond and Pearl’s longstanding problems have precluded interpersonal relationships between their people, as the player learns when introduced to Wardens Palina and Iscan. They’ve developed a secret romance that they would prefer to keep quiet, given the toxicity between their clans. While a small story detail, it was significant in demonstrating how the clans’ problems have impacted the ability of their people to try and find common ground and an understanding among one another — or to even fall in love.

Most members of both clans don’t use Pokéballs, despite Pokéballs being used by the Galaxy Team, and both Pearl Leader Irida and Pearl Warden Calaba harshly deride the player’s use of Pokéballs as inhumane. In a rapidly changing world, culturally and technologically, the clans struggle with seeing their entire way of life changing with it. And while some wardens welcome the player’s help in calming their frenzied Pokémon, others see it as an outside intrusion. Diamond Warden Melli, contrary to the other wardens, believes the Noble Electrode’s frenzy is a blessing to help protect the Diamond clan and that his frenzy shouldn’t be quelled. Pearl Warden Gaeric sees no issue with Noble Avalugg being frenzied, since he hasn’t yet hurt anyone, and only agrees to let the player quell the frenzy by besting him in a Pokémon battle to prove your strength. The resistance of some wardens was a realistic reaction to how it might feel to have a stranger who dropped out of the sky telling you how to handle clan business.

Some wardens aren’t the only ones in this world wary of the player. Commander Kamado, boss of the Galaxy Team, holds the player at arm’s length throughout the game, and takes strong action against the player following a terrible phenomenon he blames you for. The player finds themselves turning to both clans for help — and both refuse, fearing retaliation from the other clan if they do. It’s a fascinating moment in the game where the player is alone and must fend for themselves, an outcast feared for being different and misunderstood. (To be fair, falling from a hole in the sky isn’t doing you any favors, but still.) You come to learn later that Kamado has a very tragic and real reason why he fears and dislikes Pokémon; I thought this was refreshingly different from the world we’re used to, in which humans and Pokémon live and work side by side. (However, I think it would’ve been more compelling to explore this story detail much more, rather than to treat it as a quick footnote.)

While the story is given an interesting perspective due to the player from the present having to adapt to being thrown back into the past, I was a bit disappointed that the game wasn’t just set entirely in the past with no time travel elements. It would’ve been cool experiencing a story from the perspective of early Pokémon trainers, with the player struggling to learn how to tame wild Pokémon and overcoming their fears of interacting with them. However, the story was really engaging overall and I was eager to see how everything would conclude.

I wouldn’t have put 50 hours into this game if I didn’t love it. While not perfect, this is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game in many generations and really reignited my love for the series. I’m hoping Nintendo and Game Freak make another game in this style with another compelling story that embraces the more serious elements of Pokémon. But for now, I’ll just have to make due with the post-game content.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Log In 0 points Log in or register to grow your Ninja Score while interacting with our site.
Nintendojo's RSS Feeds

All Updates Podcast
News Comments
Like and follow usFacebookTwitter Friend Code Exchange + Game with Us Join the Team!