Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review

Developer : Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: $60

Even though I love Pokemon Sword and Shield, I feel like the series has needed a big shakeup for years now. Even the most traditional of old-school RPG series have left Pokemon in the dust. Pokemon needs its own Dragon Quest XI. Pokemon Legends Arceus is that game, but it's a little rough around the edges.

Pokemon Legends Arceus takes place in the Hisui Region, which is ancient Sinnoh, the region Pokemon Diamond and Pearl take place in. They never say how long before Diamond and Pearl, but I'd guess it's around 200 years prior since the most advanced piece of technology there is a camera. People in Hisui treat Pokemon like dangerous monsters. And they're right, especially about Drifloon and Mr Mime. A lot of wild Pokemon will attack Humans on sight in this region. The only people who will have anything to do with Pokemon in ancient Jubilife City are the Galaxy Expedition Team, who are apparently the first version of Team Galactic, the evil organization in Diamond and Pearl. So of course, you join them to help with any Pokemon related matters and spread the good word about Pokemon in Jubilife Village.
Pokemon Legends Arceus is definitely trying to evoke Zelda BotW with some of its music and presentation, but it's pretty far from being an open world game. You can't just go wherever you want, whenever you want, like in BotW. It's much closer to something like Monster Hunter, and it doesn't even give you as much freedom as MHW. You can't fast travel between zones, for example. You can't walk between zones either because they're not physically connected, like in a Zelda game. You always have to go back to town before you can go somewhere else. There's tons of invisible boundaries around each zone and over high mountains too, so you don't even get as much freedom within a zone as in Monster Hunter Rise.
Pokemon Legends is still a Pokemon RPG at its core, but it's a very different Pokemon RPG. This game isn't about being the very best, like no one ever was. There are no Gyms or Pokemon League, and you're not battling 20 trainers on your way to the next town. There aren't many trainers in the game at all. Every major area in the game is 99% wilderness with wild Pokemon running around. The story and quests in the game will lead you around each area, with plenty of trips back to Jubilife Village to report on what you’ve done, until you get to fight a boss which will open the next area when you beat it. And I do mean fight a boss, not some kind of Gym leader equivalent.
You actually fight Pokemon in this game. Like, Human VS Pokemon. In real-time. These fights aren't turn-based. That would be hilarious. You run around dodging attacks while locking on to the Pokemon, like in Zelda, and throw bags of soothing balm at them to whittle down their HP. Every now and then, the Pokemon become stunned and you can throw your Pokemon at them to do a quick battle and get in some major damage. It's kind of weird and very different for Pokemon. I don't really like it. I'd rather just do a Pokemon battle. Your character isn't as quick and agile as Link, so it feels like the game wasn't built for this. This becomes more of an issue as the bosses get harder because your character never levels up or evolves. You're always stuck with the same HP, running speed, and dodge roll distance. Pokemon potions don't work on Humans either. Thankfully, you can continue a boss battle at the beginning of the phase you died on if you want, so you don't have to redo the whole battle every time. Maybe this kind of battle would be better if you got to control a Pokemon.
There are still regular Pokemon battles in this game, and while they might look the same as they always have at a glance, a lot of changes have been made and they feel very different. The biggest change is the new Agile and Strong style attacks. No, I'm not talking about Japanese Pro Wrestling. After a Pokemon gains some experience with a move equipped, it will "master" that move and be able to use it in Agile or Strong style. Agile style temporarily boosts your speed stat, but decreases the move's attack power, and Strong style boosts the move's attack power, but temporarily decreases your speed. The speed stat in this game works more like in other RPGs, so using Agile style might let you attack twice in a row if your Pokemon out-speeds its opponent. Using Strong style; however, might slow your Pokemon down enough to let its opponent attack twice in a row. These speed boosts and penalties affect your whole party and also apply to switching Pokemon and using items, so you can't do something like use strong style to 1 hit KO a Pokemon and switch it out to avoid the speed penalty.
This Agile and Strong style system sounds really interesting in theory, but it just feels like the NPC trainers abuse it. The game can see all your Pokemon's stats. It doesn't have to guess whether or not using agile style will let it attack twice in a row. And since you don't get to switch Pokemon when your opponent is throwing out a new one without using your turn anymore, what ends up happening is that trainers will use Agile and then Strong style to KO your Pokemon in 1 turn over and over again. Almost every trainer battle goes pretty much the same way; you get your 1st Pokemon KOed right away, you send in another to try and KO a Pokemon, and your Pokemon gets KOed in the next turn. Rinse and repeat.

It doesn't help that trainers regularly throw out 2 or 3 Pokemon at once. No, there are no double battles in this game. You never get to throw out more than 1 Pokemon. Enemy trainers are just cheating. That's how this game handles difficulty, it just makes everything unfair.
A lot of other stuff regarding stats and moves has also changed. There's no breeding, IVs, TMs or HMs, held items, or abilities, like Pikachu's Static. EVs are still in, but they're very different. You don't get EVs from battling, and you're not going to run out of EV points to put into a stat because you maxed out another stat anymore. Every stat can be boosted up to 10 with the vitamin equivalent in this game, grit stones, and it doesn't affect the others at all. A lot of moves, like Earthquake and Surf, are gone, other moves, like stealth rock, do different things, and the moves each Pokemon can learn have changed as well. You also equip moves now, so all that forgetting and remembering moves stuff is gone. You can just go into a menu and equip whatever 4 moves you want. Obviously, some of this stuff is not going to carry over into the main games, but I like the move equipping system a lot and I hope they keep it.
Where Pokemon Legends truly shines is when you're out in the wild questing and catching Pokemon, especially in the postgame. This game isn't about being the very best, but it's definitely about catching 'em all. Most quests in the game either have you researching a Pokemon or catching a Pokemon for someone. You actually give Pokemon to the people in Jubilife Village and you'll see them hanging out with their new owners. Catching, raising, battling, and using Pokemon raises their research level in your Pokedex, and this raises your rank within the Galaxy Expedition Team. This is equivalent to getting a badge in other Pokemon games. It lets you use better items, catch higher level Pokemon, and it gives you more reward money every time you report your research. Completing the Pokedex entry of a Pokemon also gives you a higher chance to encounter a shiny of that Pokemon, so you really want to catch 'em all!
Catching Pokemon has changed a lot as well, and I think for the better. You can still catch Pokemon by battling them and throwing a Pokeball at them, but you can also just throw a Pokeball at them outside of battles. There’s strategy to it too. You have to be stealthy. You can't catch a Pokemon if they aggro on you, and you have a better chance to catch them if you hit them with a Pokeball from behind. You can hide in tall grass, like in Monster Hunter World, you can use berries as bait to distract them, and there’s even items you can use to aid you, like smoke bombs that create cover for you. It’s a lot of fun just sneaking around catching a ton of Pokemon, especially during outbreaks or the dimensional distortions, which spawn a bunch of rare Pokemon. Catching Pokemon also gives you about twice as much XP as knocking it out, so catching ‘em all is also the faster way to level Pokemon.
The thing that bugs me the most about this game is the UI. There’s 3 different buttons for 3 different menus and none of them are on the + button. The + button is used to summon whatever mount Pokemon you have selected. Your Map and quest list are on -, the Pokedex is on down on the d-pad, and your Pokemon, items, options, and save screen are on up on the d-pad. Left and right on the d-pad are used to scroll through your 4 mount Pokemon. I thought the UI in SwSh worked just fine, so I don’t get why they had to change it so radically. I like having a dedicated map button, but I don’t understand why we need to put the Pokedex on its own menu, and I really don’t get why the main menu screen is not on +. I think it would be better if the Pokedex and inventory were on + and you could use the 4 directions on the d-pad to summon each mount instead of having to scroll through them and then pressing + to summon them. Of course, there's no button remapping, so you’re stuck with this layout.
Pokemon Legends Arceus certainly looks much better than SwSh, and it still has that cute Pokemon art style, but it's not a great looking game. I don’t even think it looks like a last gen game. Last gen for Nintendo was the Wii U. BotW was on Wii U and it looks a lot better than this. There’s tons of model and texture pop-in, low res and low detail textures, and it runs at 720p and 30FPS with frequent dips. The Switch can do much better than this. I guess this is just what we’re going to get when Game Freak is putting maybe 2 years of development time into these games.
Pokemon games usually have pretty awesome soundtracks and Pokemon Legends is no exception. I thought it might have a lot of traditional Japanese instruments since the game looks like ancient Japan, but there’s only a little bit of that. This soundtrack wouldn’t sound out of place in a regular Pokemon game. The game does that thing BotW does where there’s a lot of moments with no music, but it doesn’t overdo it, like BotW. I am a little disappointed that there’s no voice acting at all, though. Not even Pikachu and Eevee get voice acting in this game. There’s a lot of talking, so even a little bit during special moments would have been nice.

Not everything about this game is great, but it is a lot of fun and I like this direction for the Pokemon series. A 3rd person Pokemon game like this is something I’ve been dreaming about since the GBC days. I hope a lot of this makes it into the mainline games, but I’d like to see a more interconnected, Zelda-like world in a Pokemon RPG. I don’t think the Monster Hunter style world layout really fits with what Pokemon RPGs are. It doesn’t have to be “Open World”, but I think it should be more like Zelda and DQXI than MH. The real-time Pokemon catching style is also something I’d like them to keep. It’s just so much more fun than the usual battle and apply status effect method. I can do without human VS Pokemon battles and the Agile and Strong styles. Regular Pokemon battles should remain the focus, and the battle system doesn't need any more gimmicks.