By: Daniel Kendle
As the good old-fashioned saying goes, “he who puts bad graphics over great gameplay is like putting the cart before the horse.”
Hello, and welcome back to JOYSTiCK, the HPSH serial that enjoys reviewing and exploring video games. Today’s subject is the game ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus,’ which, while flawed, shows that innovation is the way to go for decades-old franchises.
I’ll say that I’ve had a… mixed relationship with the Pokémon franchise over the years. On one hand, Gamefreak (the company behind the video games) have made games that have been held as classics by millions, practically defining their generations of consoles respectively. The franchise has also been dear to my heart for a long time, and even now in high school, I still get the games when they come out.
On the other hand, modern Pokémon games have become so formulaic and stupid that it’s almost a little insulting to buyers. No more are these games adventures with a party of your 6 favorite monsters, we here you can explore a world and become the best trainer you can. Nowadays, with games like ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’ as well as ‘Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl,’ they’re become bogged-down, soulless entities. Yeah, the objective is to become the strongest Pokémon trainer there is, by going through all the gyms and eventually beating the Champion, but the ‘adventure’ aspect feels largely gone. Each game as of recent memory has an EXTREMELY linear, tight path forward, with only the slightest deviation every once in a blue moon.
‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ was the Gamefreak redemption arc. It was the first mainline game to differ heavily from the original games, instead being more akin to ‘Monster Hunter.’ Instead of having button prompts to throw things like Pokeballs and berries to catch and lure Pokémon, you instead have free-aim control on, like some kind of 3rd-person FPS shooter. There’s also many other changes, both big and small.
So, is this game good? Is the Pokémon formula screwed, with this being just a trash-flavored cherry on top of this pile of maggot-ridden compost? (My allegories could use some work, honestly) Maybe this is a breath of fresh air for the franchise, and possibly even RPG’s as a whole. Let’s take a look!
….. PART ONE: GAMEPLAY
Ooh, this game’s mechanics are so GOOD!
Like, seriously, this game is great to play. I’ve never inherently disliked the core Pokémon formula, though what I will say is that it is repetitive. Walk into some tall grass, encounter a randomized Pokémon, weaken it until you catch it, repeat. It never progresses in difficulty outside of a Pokémon’s levels growing in number, becoming tougher and stronger. But the problem with THAT is that your Pokémon gain levels as well, and normally stay in the same range as wild Pokémon. Or in other words, your Pokémon and other trainer’s and wild ones are basically all the same level for normal gameplay, making the core gameplay loop stay practically the same from beginning to end. It’s really, really degrading.
But ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ does something different, though it still keeps familiar aspects of the old games. You still have levels around the same as other NPC’s, but the game has become more strategy-based and focused on combat that rewards clever thinking and planning out attacks rather than brute-forcing battles.
In truth, I won’t be able to get to every gameplay aspect in ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’; there’s just TOO many. Stuff like Research Tasks, Pokémon Battles and Catching Mechanics and Requests will be talked about, but things like Farming and Rideable Pokémon are either not essential to gameplay or I don’t have a concrete opinion on.
Starting with the new Catching Mechanics, they are super smooth. Catching Pokémon has always been locked into a button prompt in previous titles. “Press the A button to catch the yellow mouse! Press the A button to catch the deformed caterpillar!” It’s never been a bad system, though very tedious. It takes multiple screens to show you through the menus and stuff, so the time taken for something really small like catching your 1,718th Bidoof in a row or catching the god of all Pokémon is the same, and by the same I mean monotonous.
But in ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus,’ the player has “free-aiming,” allowing them to throw Pokeballs freely, outside of battle and actually aiming and throwing them like you’re in an FPS-Shooter. And honestly, it’s great!
It feels SO smooth to control, whether using the Gyro-Aiming functionality or simply using the Joystick to control. It’s also very quick. One moment you could throw a ball at a Pokémon before going and finding some resource deposits to loot.
Speaking of resource deposits, the throwing mechanic also extends to other parts of the game. For instance, throwing one of your party Pokémon at a gemstone or fruit tree lets the Pokémon collect the resources from the deposit, which is pretty cool. I like how instead of collecting crafting materials yourself, (which you can still do for some smaller materials) some require you to rely on your Pokémon, which is cool! You also throw your Pokémon out at wild Pokémon to initiate a battle, throw berries to lure Pokémon to the fallen fruit’s location, and in the game’s boss fights (technically a first for the series) you throw balms at the raging Pokémon to soothe them. You get so much functionality out of this throwing function; it’s awesome!
The second piece of gameplay I’ll talk about are Battles, and the numerous new parts to that leg of gameplay. Past games have a solid gameplay loop but again, it’s been over 25 since the first game came out, and it’s safe to say that the ball isn’t really rolling on this anymore.
Here’s how they function:
- Walk up to a Pokémon trainer or walk around in some tall grass for a random encounter.
- Wait for the battle scene to finish playing.
- Open up the menu and click, “attack.”
- Click the move that either a.) does the most damage, or b.) has the type advantage. (‘Types’ are basically categorized elements that each Pokémon has that gives it strengths and weaknesses against other types, like Grass, Fire, Water, etc.)
- Wait for battle animation to finish, then the opposing Pokémon attacks.
- Rinse and repeat until boring oneself into a coma.
Even writing that was tiring. And that’s the rub with this system: it’s tiring. Every battle after, like, the first hour of the game is monotonous, tedious. Once you’ve got all 6 of your Pokémon for your team down, what’s the point? You don’t need to further progress if you’ve gotten your final squad, and then exploration is boring, which gut-punches the entire game.
Now, I’m not going to say that ’Pokémon Legends Arceus’ fixes everything about past battles. There are still times when you have to slog through a mandatory trainer fight or gain XP from fighting other Pokémon in order to level up more. But while it doesn’t redo the entire system, the game refines it.
Recent Pokémon games have had these sorts of “gimmicks” in order to spice things up, ranging from pretty solid to breaking the online meta entirely. ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ does have these gimmicks as well, but there’s more of them and they’re actually really good!
The first is the introduction of Strong Style and Agile Style moves into the game. When picking what move to use, you can now also choose if you want the move to be in 1 of the 2 styles. Strong Style makes the move deal more damage but loses you a turn, and Agile Style makes your move deal less damage, but gives you another turn. I’ve got to say, these are really fun mechanics that can actually provide some strategy into battles. NPC characters and wild Pokémon also use these to their advantage, making battles more challenging in the long run.
Also, Pokémon can move more than once at a time! Finally, no more even fighting, with you and your opponent going one at a time and waiting for the other to go. Now, it’s not uncommon for your enemy to move once, twice, even thrice in a row. Heck, when you’ve got more than one Pokémon join the battle, that number can jump up to 4 or something. The only bad thing about this is that this change, along with Strong and Agile Styles, makes it so the game doesn’t have either online nor local battles with other friends, a staple of other mainline titles. This is honestly pretty disappointing, and drags down the game’s replayability after you finish the main story.
To finish off this section, let’s talk about Requests. Requests are little side missions that have you talking to NPCs with a little icon above their head. Upon entering a conversation with them, you can get a little mission added to a list. These missions have you go out into the world and either catch some Pokémon, get some resources, or sometimes walk into a small “mini-narrative,” like fighting some bandits or something. These are cool, though very basic outside of you doing something for some more materials from them. I feel like they’re basically fodder for drawing out the game.
PART TWO: GRAPHICS AND ANIMATION
Alright, let’s get this out of the way: ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ looks AWFUL.
Looking at other Nintendo games, the company has basically perfected the idea of polish for their games, with cool art styles and beautiful scenes in most of their in-house games. Pokémon is technically a 2nd-party production; Gamefreak is its own thing, kinda like how the ‘Xenoblade’ and ‘Fire Emblem’ games are technically by other studios. So I guess the Pokémon franchise can get off not having the same graphical fidelity as Nintendo’s works, but still…this game looks gross.
Let’s start with the animations, and while I have much worse to say about textures and geometrical layout of the game later, the animations are much nicer in this title. Pokémon will actually run up to an opposing monster to attack it, whilst previous games had you “shooting bites,” or whatever. Pokémon outside of battles now sleep, eat, turn around without just lazily flipping their model 180 degrees. It’s nice, though these new animations are compensated by the fact that there are only around 200 Pokémon in this game, a far cry from prior titles. Humans, environmental things, stuff like banners and lanterns, all move like how they would in real life. At least this, the animation in and out of fighting, is good.
But the graphics themselves are a whole different story. Even for a game on the Nintendo Switch, which is beaten out by the Xbox and PlayStation for best hardware power and capability, this is mind-bendingly bad to look at. I’ve heard people say that this looks like a Wii game, which is honestly true (It’s also a bad thing, seeing as the Wii was released in 2006, 16 years ago).
The textures have this weird, muddy look to them. You look around the ground and rocks, and while some things look fine, like the trees, others look like garbage. Things with lots of details like specialized images on shirts or logos on banners or clothing look horrendous, being able to COUNT the pixels.
Another thing is the lighting, and it’s… strange. I’m not someone who’s an expert on lighting in games, but what I will say is that the lighting in this is pretty decent, but the insanely terrible-looking textures and geometry of landscapes mixed with somewhat-solid lighting makes ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ really weird to look at.
The geometry of the landscapes of the game is surprisingly bad. Polygons are practically embedded into every surface, with round-looking objects a rarity at best. I will say that over time I did get used to the wonky world around me, every time you enter a new area you get that feeling of depression once again, looking out onto a biome that, in all honesty, looks more like a tech-test than a final product.
And aside from that, I don’t really know what else to say. Like, 3D Pokémon games have never exactly been “lookers,” but this game feels like it went out of its way to look like this Frankenstein-amalgamation of decent lighting and animations, but atrocious polygons and textures. While not the worst looking Nintendo game out there – far from it, actually – it definitely feels like it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to Nintendo’s other 2022 products. ‘Kirby and the Forgotten Land,’ ‘Splatoon 3,’ even Gamefreak’s next game ‘Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’ look WAY better from the trailers and gameplay we’ve seen. So, why does this game look like sewage in comparison?
PART THREE: STORY
I actually quite enjoyed the story this time around. In ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ you begin as a 15-year old kid who’s sent back in time to a place known as the Hisui region, which is revealed later on to be the past incarnation of the Sinnoh region, a modern day land.
It’s revealed that Arceus, basically this God-like Pokémon, has sent you back in time in order to do… something. It’s a little vague, but it’s implied that the reason is to catch all the Pokémon in Hisui. You also get to customize your name and look during this segment.
Eventually, your phone is turned into this sort of device that lets you communicate with Arceus, and you’re dropped into the past. You awaken on a beach, where you’re led into having to catch some unruly Pokémon with the region’s professor, who’s lost them. After doing so you’re brought back to the professor’s village, where you’re like an outcast with your strange finesse with catching Pokémon, something that was very difficult back then. You enter a trial to become part of the Galaxy Expedition Team, an organization that has you catch Pokémon to expand something known as the Pokédex, which is something that all games have had to record your progress catching monsters, but is revealed to be the first ever in this game.
After picking out a Starter Pokémon you start off into the wilds before meeting a traveling trader known as Volo, who battles you. This is a tutorial for battling other trainers. He gives you some helpful information, and you’re finally able to go explore the Obsidian Fieldlands, ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ first large, open area to explore.
You quickly learn of rampaging Alpha Pokémon that have been out of control ever since you were dropped into Hisui. You head back to the village to speak with the professor, and he figures out that throwing “soothing balms” at the berserk monsters will calm them down. You make a basket of the little baggies, head to the arena where the rampaging Pokémon is at, and face it down.
And actually, the story goes on like that for most of the game! Reach a new area on the map, explore for a while, learn about the people and lore of the place, fight the rampaging Pokemon’s designated warden, and eventually calm down the creature. This continues until the end, which is honestly kind of touching, or at least as touching as a game where you throw balls at innocent animals and have them brutally battle each other. There are times where it’s stupid, yes, but while ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ may seem like an ugly game… its beauty is on the inside. The inside of the packaging, at least.
PART FOUR: CONCLUSION
Wait, so I actually LIKE this game?
Yeah, actually! ‘Pokémon Legends Arceus’ is a flawed package, but within those flaws is a tightly-wound gameplay loop and fun story that shows that innovation from old formulas does pay off. While it kinda looks like the equivalent to a dead rat in a sock, other aspects look very promising towards this franchise’s future.
In the end, I think ’Pokémon Legends Arceus’ is a 7.5 out of 10 for me. While its story and gameplay are both good and awesome respectively, the overall look of the game brings down the score considerably, along with the removal of battling friends and Requests being somewhat shallow. Still, this is a great game that just needed a few tweaks, in my opinion.
Once again, that’s all for this episode of JOYSTiCK! I hope you enjoyed this review, and others as well. See you next time!