When a big budget triple-A video game doesn’t have so much as a single hands-on preview just days before launch, it usually means one of two things — either the developer is confident, or it’s trying to hide something. With Pokémon Legends: Arceus, it is undoubtedly a case of the former. Legends: Arceus is an ambitious step forward for the Pokémon series, turning it into something that feels modern and much less afraid of deviating from the formula that made it work back in the ‘90s.
For players who are mainly interested in competitive PvP battles, Legends: Arceus might be a disappointment. For the largely solo Pokémon fan who got hooked on the series’ original Gotta Catch ‘em All tagline, however, it marks a milestone moment in its evolution, transplanting the vibrant, living ecology of Pokémon Snap into a mainline Pokémon game.
So, what makes Legends: Arceus different? Firstly, the game has taken a drastic shift toward more open environments, weightier action, deeper exploration, and smarter creature cataloguing in place of the typical story of a child battling eight gym leaders, defeating an evil organisation, and climbing the ranks of the Pokémon League.
Similar to games like Monster Hunter Rise, you prepare for missions in a hub town full of shops and NPCs before setting off on expeditions to one of five large and distinct environments full of Pokémon — each of the creatures fully visible, hopping, flying, burrowing, and running around the overworld. There are story missions to complete, a Pokédex to work on, and sidequests that help build up Jubilife Village and increase the options available between excursions.
These excursion areas are larger in scope than a typical Monster Hunter zone — more detailed and sprawling, reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While it’s not a true open world, every area is large enough to feel like one, and all of them open up to reveal more secrets as you unlock new exploration tools. That’s what Legends: Arceus is all about: tools. Tools and options.
If you sneak up on a Pokémon unseen, either by crouching or hiding in foliage, you can throw a PokéBall and try to capture it without the need for a turn-based battle. You also get better catch odds for a strike that hits a creature from behind, incentivising a kind of stealthiness that is brand-new to the series. If you get spotted or your capture fails, you can instead throw out one of your Pokémon for a traditional battle.
While turn-based battles function mostly the same way as previous Pokémon titles, the pacing here is vastly improved. First off, you can choose which Pokémon to send out at the start of a fight without having to manually change party order in advance — that means less fiddling in menus. Secondly, battles take place exactly where you are standing on the overworld, making everything feel more seamless. On top of those two things, Pokémon who level up in a fight no longer have to evolve or learn a new move right then and there — you’re able to postpone those actions until it’s convenient to address them.
While the pool of moves available to learn is comparatively low (we’re also only dealing with around 250 Pokémon here), this is somewhat compensated by flashy new attack animations that feel more like they are being performed by the Pokémon themselves, rather than some off-screen entity.
Additionally, the inclusion of Agile and Strong style variants for every move — where you can spend double the PP to have a move be weaker but faster, or stronger but slower — adds an interesting new element of strategy to battles. Pokémon are no longer guaranteed to always alternate making moves since the Speed stat of the Pokémon and the use of Agile or Strong variants can shift up the turn order and create openings. A Strong style move may make your Pokémon unable to attack for multiple turns, but you can mitigate that risk by using an Agile move to gain an extra attack and then follow up with a Strong technique to finish the fight in one hit. The game shows you a preview of the change to the move list when used in either style, and rewards effective understanding of the comparative strength of your moves in each form. Since you’re also able to relearn forgotten moves when outside of battle, you’re able to tweak your strategies more on the fly, outside of simply changing team composition. Battles feel much more dynamic and intentional as a result.
Unfortunately, there are no PvP battles in the game, nor are there held items or abilities, so you’re only able to test your mettle against wild Pokémon or NPC trainers, not other players.
Despite all those words about fighting, battling is only a small part of Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Instead of casting you as a trainer who wants to be the very best, much of your time is spent acting as a Pokémon researcher. Legends: Arceus is set in the distant past, you see, and your job is to create the world’s very first Pokédex. Catching a single Pokémon of a species is not enough to register a creature as researched, with each Pokémon having its own unique objectives. These range from capturing a specific number of that Pokémon without being spotted to completing a narrative side-quest, or seeing them use a certain move a set number of times. There’s a lot to do for completionists.
Legends Arceus also ditches the trading requirement to evolve certain creatures, which is a monumental change for the series. Where previous games came with distinct versions and locked certain Pokémon behind each one, there’s no barrier here. There are also in-game items that can be used to evolve Pokémon that usually only evolve when you complete a trade with another player. Trading is still an option, but it’s nice to see an alternative for players who don’t want to engage with the online component. It’s possible to catch every single creature in the game, completely solo. What a concept.
Catching and observing 250 creatures might sound tedious, but the nonlinear nature of the game stops it from feeling like a never-ending checklist. Specific side-quests with rewards point you toward certain gameplay styles, infestations of a specific species open up opportunities to farm a creature in quick succession, certain Pokémon have their own unique discovery gimmicks, and the overall increased speed of gameplay helps Pokédex completion feel rewarding.
Beyond this there is a crafting system for making your own adventuring supplies, Pokémon who can be ridden to traverse new areas, fearsome miniboss Pokémon on the overworld, and Pokémon who attack you directly, causing you to pass out and drop items. Fortunately, benevolent players can make use of the game’s limited online functionality to retrieve said items and return them to you. Legends: Arceus is definitely a lot more intimidating and dangerous to explore than past Pokémon games, but it’s nice to know that other people have your back.
On top of all this, Legends: Arceus features narrative boss fights that blend action sequences where you dodge massive enemy attacks in real-time with bouts of turn-based combat. While these fights pose a decent challenge, they don’t demand the precision of something like Dark Souls – the dodge here features very forgiving invincibility frames. Thankfully, these boss battles also offer the option to continue the fight where you left off after triggering a game over, and you don’t lose all your items if you pass out.
It took me around 40 hours to complete the main story of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, with a decent number of uncompleted sidequests and a team of Pokémon at level 60, but I was surprised to learn just how much postgame content lay beyond the credits. The actual story continues for several more hours, with new side-quests, more story missions, and tougher battles. Beyond the ultimate goal of completing the Pokédex, there’s a lot of challenging postgame content to be seen here — it goes above and beyond past Pokémon games.
One of the things that impressed me most about Legends: Arceus though was the evident care put into making this feel like a truly lived-in world. NPCs acknowledge other areas of the region; new villagers move into your town; sidequests recognise Pokédex lore; catches are contextualised as field research; Pokémon live on a farm until they’re released back to their natural habitat; and much of your adventure involves teaching people who know very little about Pokémon that they’re not so scary once you make an effort to understand them. The game even pays respect to mechanics such as shiny hunting, which is incorporated into at least one quest.
If you’re the kind of person who wants Pokémon to feel grander in scope, faster paced with fewer pauses in action, and more deeply appreciative of the creatures themselves, Legends: Arceus offers a wonderful experience. For anyone begging for the Pokémon formula to do something new: You’re getting what you wanted.
It’s an incredibly exciting video game I can’t praise enough as a longtime fan craving something new. Sure, there’s not much in the way of NPC battles that will challenge you before the postgame — which makes the loss of PvP mechanics even more of a shame — but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make to see The Pokémon Company actually exhibit some much-needed ambition. As a seriously dedicated Pokémon fan, this is the most excited I have ever been for the future of the series.
This review was written using a retail boxed copy of the game, purchased prior to the official release date. The review was published after the game’s embargo had lifted, and makes efforts to remain spoiler free, using mostly official Nintendo produced screenshots.