Sword & Shield are probably the most panned mainline Pokémon titles to date, and while I enjoyed them for the tried-and-true experience of stepping out of a countryside hamlet and establishing yourself as the region’s most powerful trainer, as games marked finished and released to the public, they had a lot of shortcomings and jagged edges. Just one example is the Wild Area. Series fans have been begging for an open-world Pokémon game for ages now, to truly experience the franchise’s draw of exploring a world inhabited by its strange and wonderful Pokémon, but the Wild Area, with its constrained size, didn’t live up to that expectation. Now, Game Freak gives us Pokémon Legends: Arceus, an actual open-world title, in what seems like an apology for their screw-up with Sword & Shield. It’s a kind gesture, but the question, naturally, is if it’s an acceptable recompense.
The story goes that you’re a boy/girl lost in the currents of space-time, which ferry you onto the shores of a colonial Sinnoh region, back then known as Hisui. You’re taken in by the residents of a nearby village and made member of the Survey Corps, an expedition team which explores Hisui’s frontiers to study the mysterious and frightful creatures known as Pokémon. But shortly after your arrival, lightning flickers down from the space-time rift hovering above Mt. Coronet, the mountain which stands centerpiece in the region, striking and engaging the various guardian Pokémon. To keep them from hurting innocents, you set out to quell their rages and maybe figure out why it was you were brought here from another era.
That paragraph is not only the plot synopsis, it covers about 90% of the story. Pokémon games aren’t renowned for being chock-full of story, but I haven’t played a mainline title this light on narrative since the Johto games. You can slice up the story into chapters, most of which narrate your efforts to pacify the guardians, but translate those to actual words and the trees cry hip hip hooray because they fill up precisely two pages. There’s only one chapter with any real substance, and that’s when you journey to a coastline and meet a caretaker whose guardian was once a Fire-type but is now a Ghost-type and spends her days caring for their son, who’s expected to inherit guardianship but isn’t hot for it. The time you spend with her isn’t a nail-biting drama, but she at least has a minor character arc, whereas the other caretakers are just kinda there and show up to flip you to the next page. One caretaker is in the same shoes as you, being from a different era but having no memory of their previous life, and with the slightest bit of research, you can find out that they’re a boss from the fifth generation titles, and he has a twin brother, but rather than fleshing out his subplot, the story just gives you the low-down on his situation before snapping your neck toward the next gameplay checkpoint.
For a game where not much happens, its characters do talk an awful lot. After each boss, you and a couple of characters gather round for supper and discuss the weather. Normally, my toes curl in excitement when a cutscene starts because it means I get to enjoy storytime, but there’s no story the game’s telling. There’s a giant tear in the fabric of space hovering over the highest point in the region, but nobody’s putting forth any theories or discoveries regarding its existence or how that might be your character’s ticket home, which could be its own great plotline—how your character isekai’d into the past, and opinions are torn between whether you should stay because you’re such a dandy asset and bud or if you should return to your own time because, y’know, your mother’s crying herself purple over your disappearance.
Legends: Arceus has the misguided notion that characters talking = plot moving. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a ton of dialogue, but its dumb comedy skits aside, every word has meaning and offers something new. And at the opposite end of the spectrum are titles like Today I Die, which barely has enough words to form a complete sentence yet has much more story than the hundreds of textboxes in Legends: Arceus. If it had turned the focus of dialogue on the speakers themselves and their grievances, which the protagonist alleviates through their actions, I wouldn’t have sped-read all the text. Ailing characters are in no short supply, but they air their complaints to pad out conversations or direct the player to another point on the map to pad out the gameplay.
This game is called Legends: Arceus, but it should probably be called Legends: Shedinja, because the story is a hollow, soulless husk.
What’s an RPG without side quests? The previous Pokémon games, that’s what. Legends: Shedinja plays catch-up with every other RPG by making you a part-time helper to the citizens of your base of operations. The core theme with side quests is that Pokémon are mysterious, so citizens want you to satiate their curiosity or sooth their fears. The games have only ever emphasized Pokémon as monsters for cockfights, with a sprinkle of flavor text coated on for lore, so this is the first real attempt to regard them as animals in their natural habitats. The whole helping people angle is reminiscent of Torna – The Golden Country, and since I preferred that game’s side quests to its main story, Legends: Shedinja is set up to meet that standard.
However, the side quests in are only good in theory. They suffer from the same fault the main story does, that they say nothing and lead to nothing. One bloke has you investigate a Drifloon, and those in the know know that these things are horrifying. Their favorite hobby is snatching up tykes and dragging them to the afterlife. I wouldn’t expect this game to broach the topic of children dying, but that has the potential to be its own thriller, wherein you track down some missing children. But Legends: Flareon gives up before it can ever get to the excitement, and the client rewards you for basically going on an extended jaunt.
What the game does right regarding side quests is convenience. At the start of each chapter, it dumps a stockpile on you, and most you can knock out in normal play while exploring a new area, since many ask you to catch a flesh-eating caterpillar or forage some herbs and show them to the client, and if you happen to already have what they’re asking for, you can knock that side quest out right then and there. It’s easy, it’s efficient, and it’s that same mindlessness as Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s side quests, which don’t have you questing but running somebody’s errands. These games can boast that they have hundreds of side quests to complete, which, yeah, is objectively true, but that’s like bragging about a sandwich loaded up with potato chips. That’s admirable, stacking them like that, but I’d prefer my sandwiches with just ham, egg, and cheese, thanks. Likewise, I’d rather play a game with only ten side quests, but those ten side quests are fully fledged stories. They could have exclusive Pokémon or open up the best shop in town or take you to a corner of the region you overlooked. Hell, I’d kill just for a griping character drama. Just give me something with substance. I don’t even like potato chips that much.
Pokémon & People
Here’s a humdinger of a statement for ya: the Pokémon have more personality than the people. I might’ve regarded Pokémon as wild animals a few paragraphs back, which is largely all they’ve been across eight generations of games, but Pokémon don’t just ambush you in tall grass like they did in the past. Some still will attack after spotting you, but others will flee, and others more are chill. Stalking the brush for a rare but easy-to-frighten Pokémon while a Roselia circled me demanding yum-yums gave me my first taste of what being a parent is like.
Some Pokémon have unique flourishes, like Sudowoodo, whose daytime hobbies include and are limited to pretending to be a tree, and if you come across any, they’ll stand there pretending to be a tree. You can run up and give them a smooch on the cheek and they won’t react. Then there’s another whose Pokédex entries inform you that its schnozzle always points north, and they stay true to that in the field. Touches like these are small and the exception, not the rule, but they breathed a unique life into certain Pokémon, and even if something only had one of the three default programming sets, I still had to account for how the Pokémon I encountered would react and adjust my behavior accordingly, as one would with real people.
While I wouldn’t say wild Pokémon are bursting with personality, and the game misses out on a chance to exhibit unique behaviors based on an individual Pokémon’s Nature—e.g. Pokémon with a Careful Nature might stay in the grass, while one with a Relaxed Nature will spend most of their downtime sleeping—I can at least say they have character, unlike the actual characters. Most of the people are either one-trait Ponytas or have no personality aside from being nice to you. One guy’s entire shtick is that he’s anxious, which is better than nothing, I suppose, but the game works too hard to hammer this in as what he is, with constant stuttering and an over-the-top joke about the least scary way to count down. What’s more, he’s stiff as a board, mimicking none of the mannerisms a naturally anxious person might have, such as avoiding eye contact and maintaining a small form. And what’s worst, he’s arguably the most expressive character. For the thousands of speech bubbles and the possibility for emotive animations, the characters had as much personality as a protagonist from a fledgling author’s first novel.
Lana from Sun & Moon expresses more personality in her trial, with her dry sense of humor and thirst for strapping young swimmers, than any of the characters throughout Legends: Stunfisk. Going back and replaying the 3DS games, it was almost astonishing just how much more expressive its low-polygon models are compared to the Switch title. They’re not masterful personalities by any stretch of the term competently written, but I played through that adventure feeling like I was talking to people who were excitable, who were abrasive, who could be shocked, who had goals. It even had a girl with her own character arc, which, for a franchise bursting to the seams with characters, is a rarity. When I spoke with someone, I felt like I was getting a taste for who they are. Lana could’ve been straightforward, instructing you to investigate the apparent trouble in the area rather than playing coy, but that would’ve made for a boring trial. Rather than receiving the next edition in her quest for a hot bod to bed, you would be following objective markers to the boss battle. From a gameplay perspective, her coyness is unnecessary, but it’s that coyness that helps make her trial fun. Nobody from Legends: Stunfisk ever expresses themselves in any meaningful capacity, which would’ve kept the story engaging, if not by bolstering the narrative’s strength, then by showcasing how others react to the world going wrong. But with how flat-as-a-Stunfisk the characters are, cutscenes are as enthralling as a board of directors discussing the fractional increases to their stock portfolios.
Your Pitching Arm
Here’s where I start having nice things to say, and good thing, too, since this is how you spend 90% of your time. One of the best features in any Pokémon game is the Safari Zone, a park chock-full of wild Pokémon for the taking, and writing this review, I realize that what makes the Safari Zone so great is that it kicks aside your usual irritations when catching Pokémon.
If I’m to be frank, catching Pokémon isn’t the most fun experience. You have to whittle down their health to just the right range or else they’ll bust out of Poké Balls like they’re in The Great Escape, and even then, you have to keep lobbing Balls until the RNG decides to bless you. A catch is satisfying, and arriving at a route with a Pokémon you’re adding to your party is exciting, but sometimes, battling a Pokémon to catch is a battle of attrition. And if a Pokémon is rare or legendary, forget it. That’s your evening gone.
Legends: Poliwrath says, “Forget it! We’re trimmin’ the fat and goin’ swole!” Battling Pokémon is now completely unnecessary. You can just walk up to one, toss a Poké Ball, and catch them. No fuss, no muss. It takes no time, and you can go down a conga line of Pokémon and catch them all at once. The traditional catching method hasn’t gone away, as you’ll still need to go through those motions for legendaries and Pokémon that aggro on you, but it’s only there as an emergency back-up, not the time-consuming, patience-draining default. If I enter a battle, it’s either because I screwed up and got busted or I’m having too much trouble and need to soften my mark up before cramming it into its new spherical abode.
Earlier, I mentioned the different personalities of wild Pokémon, and that applies to how you go about catching them. The chill ones, you can strut up to them and whack their forehead with a Poké Ball, but catching every other Pokémon, read: almost all of them, is a stealth game of skulking through the grass, throwing out a snack to distract them, then literally catching them unawares. It’s a much more involved process, of reviewing your position and where your mark is looking, that gives you way more control than the traditional menu system of picking an attack and crossing your fingers that it doesn’t OHKO your target.
My only real gripe with this catch ’em on the run system is that there’s no aim assist, which most of the time isn’t an issue, but striking something that’s swimming or flying is like trying to hit a jet fighter by tossing apples. You can piggyback on a giant fish that slows time down, allowing you to line up your shots, but as soon as you let your Poké Ball loose, time returns to normal and your mark’s sped off at mach 7. You also have to contend with your character’s gimp-ass arm, but there’d be no challenge if they could lob a Poké Ball the length of an American football field. You get a number of tools to circumvent your noodly biceps, so your weakness encourages more strategic, engaging hunts, though it would be remiss of me to not confess the annoyance when I thought I was within striking range only for the Poké Ball to thwack uselessly at my prey’s toenails, alerting them to my presence.
This is the first game in the entire series whose logo of catching ’em all I took seriously, because it’s no longer a weekend job. You see a Pokémon you want in the overworld, you throw a berry to distract it, a Ball to catch it, it’s yours. You can fill out your Pokédex without needing to go that far out of your way from your usual exploration, though catching the last few Pokémon is a slog, because they’re rare species that only spawn in certain areas, in certain zones, after you’ve faffed about for several in-game hours. I gave up completing my Pokédex because I had such a blast the rest of the time and didn’t want to mar that experience with being an unnecessary completionist.
Catching ’em on the run is hands-down the best addition to the franchise since TMs became reusable. Hell, it’s leagues better because that was an improvement in item convenience—this fundamentally alters how you approach a longstanding and oft tiresome game mechanic. You can not only catch Pokémon in an instant, you can catch two Pokémon in an instant, throw out one of your party members to gather minerals, another to collect berries, and a third to make adorable cooing sounds, all while going for a jaunt on the beach. Everything is so quick and efficient that it makes me wonder if games won’t reach the point where anything slower than lightning speed is considered a graft to play.
Gone are the constricted routes of Pokémon past, and introduced are grand swaths of untouched frontier packed with Pokémon to discover. Hisui’s frontiers are much like the Wild Area of Sword & Shield, except larger and without the patchwork landscapes and weather, and barring some strips that require taming a Pokémon that can swim or climb, you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. It’s the freest any Pokémon game has ever allowed you to be.
And yet, for all I could do, there wasn’t a whole lot to see. The setup is that you’re a member of a scouting regiment who surveys the land and studies its wild inhabitants, but despite the hundreds of Pokémon, there’s nothing to discover in the land itself. It’s been years since I played Diamond & Pearl, so since Sinnoh wasn’t fresh in my memory, most references almost certainly went over my head. But even so, I never felt like I was doing anything to progress human habitation, or ever came across any intriguing landmarks or bluffs overlooking breathtaking vistas because objects and high-res textures didn’t load in.
There were a few side quests that established base camps, but if those locations signaled the coordinates of future settlements, the fogginess of Sinnoh again shrouded those references. Despite the hoards of Pokémon spread across the region, the countryside felt empty and void of character, and the few times I would chance upon something like ruins, I couldn’t take them in for all the Pokémon hovering around spoiling for a fight. It suffers from the same problem as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, wherein you’re not exploring a world, but a map jam-packed with monsters to distract you from its spiritless terrain. The one difference is that Xenoblade has the common courtesy to doll its maps up.
Battles – The Good
In the typical RPG, when you level up, your stats increase a smidgen, and this is all fine and dandy for those who just want to get to the credits, but Pokémon likes making the more competitive-minded fans obsess over these increments via hidden values. It’s nothing I’ve ever done, but based on what I know, it’s a playstyle that’s extremely grindy and tedious, on a path soaked with bloody tears. Legends: Blissey cuts out the misery by supplying rocks that influence the growth of stats. As someone who’s serious about their Pokémon but not neurotic, I welcomed the extra control I had over their stats, and the satisfaction of seeing the big digits that allowed them to shoulder-check bears to the moon because of some pebbles I put in their food bowls when they were still babies.
New to battles are Style moves, which either allow you to attack twice at the cost of power or let your opponent attack twice in favor of power. I would say it adds an extra dimension of strategy to battles, but the only strategy is to give yourself a second attack that you then soup up to punch your opponent into the troposphere. However, weakening an attack is a godsend when trying to catch a Pokémon. Normally, you’d have to cross your fingers and pray to Arceus that an attack doesn’t KO the Pokémon you’re trying to catch, but now, just weaken an attack and whittle down their health without much worry. It’s great. It’s wonderful. I wish this much would stick around for the future.
What always struck me as off from a narrative standpoint is how Pokémon only have the mental capacity to know four moves at a time. It’d be like if I forgot how to ride a bike because I took up the piano. Legends: Metagross says, “No more of that Trubbish! You can teach Pokémon moves and swap them out wherever, whenever,” and it’s the best inclusion to the series since catching ’em on the run. No more hemming and hawing over if a certain move should be forgotten over another or regretting any choices. Just exchange your four battle moves with the contents of the movepool to suit your needs or try a new strategy, and if something doesn’t work or bores you, switch back. It’s such a simple addition yet one that’s woefully overdue for the series.
Battles – The Bad
Unfortunately, that movepool is extremely shallow. Breeding’s forbidden, and TMs haven’t been invented yet, so aside from level-up, the only source for new movies is a tutor, and she’s not exactly Serebii’s Attackdex. Some Pokémon still have a decent number of good moves, but others don’t. Even Pokémon with great stats are hampered because they have precisely two decent moves to their name, which lessens their appeal.
What also lessens appeal is the lack of Abilities. The additional effects any one Pokémon brings to the table alters how you set them up and use them, but without those, battles are straightforward whack-’em-till-they’re-dead affairs, and at worst, it weakens some Pokémon bolstered by their ability. Why would I bother making a Hail team if there’s no evasion buff to get from Snow Cloak? The one benefit to missing Abilities is that it’s one less headache when you’re trying to add a specific Pokémon with a specific Nature to your team, but catching Pokémon is so fast and efficient that it’s hardly a chore to get back in the field and toss some Balls at the local wildlife.
Not quite absent, though not in abundance, are hold items. These, too, shape your battle strategy and can be the deciding factor in if you earn that W or that L. But what you find in Legends: Celebii are items that give minor stat boosts, and that’s it. It gets you through the main game, but it doesn’t open up many avenues for strategy, so whatever I handed off to my team members was because it was the least crappy option, not the optimal object to turn them into a force of nature.
Each of the above paragraphs can be concluded with the same phrase: they’re accommodations to a formula rife with wild encounters but detrimental to the more prolonged and intensive trainer battles. Individually, these changes are minor, but as a whole, they modify the battle experience the rare instances you would battle against more than one Pokémon, as well as reveals that despite past titles cheering you on to catch everything hiding in grass and caves, the battling framework isn’t designed for fighting and catching wild Pokémon, but for contesting trainers. That alone is fine, and it’s a formula that’s kept the blood flowing in the franchise’s veins for two-and-a-half decades, but it’s a formula that doesn’t migrate smoothly to Legends: Muk, which has to water down series traditions to account for its system, and what we get is an awkward compromise between two completely different games.
The change that isn’t to the benefit of wild battles is freely altering a Pokémon’s stats and Nature. These are procedures that, while dandy for the single-player campaign, get the most mileage in competitive play, which is nonexistent in Legends: Zarude. And because there’re no online battles, no Battle Tower, no Battle Frontier, heck, hardly even any trainer battles, it’s all a moot gesture. Zelda fans often complain that the Spinner in Twilight Princess doesn’t see enough use. Imagine if you needed it only to get a few out-of-reach Rupees. That’s how integrated Legends: Zarude‘s stat modifications are.
Battles – The Ugly
Since the series’s incarnation, Pokémon would take turns slapping one another, but in Legends: Dracovish, turn order is more dynamic. Part of that is due to Style moves. Part of that is because the game hates you. As soon as your opponent sends out a Pokémon, they get a free hit. I can’t tell you how many times my Pokémon fainted because of free hits or my opponent somehow getting to attack up to four times in a row. In what timeline does any of that make for a fun battle? I could never attack more than twice in a row, so it was beyond me what cheats the AI was employing to sweep my team. I had to favor the bulky members of my party because my own sweepers would get one-shotted by the opponent’s free shot, every time, without fail. It was some of the most ridiculous, infuriating Bouffalant excrement I’ve ever seen.
And then because the game wasn’t done pissing me off, it gives some Pokémon moves that make them punchable as air for several turns. In the past, they needed to build up evasiveness, but now certain Pokémon get a free evasion boost with every hit or heal. Such moves are isolated incidents, hence the adjective certain, but the battles that are going to stand out are the ones that riled my emotions the most, and in a game severely lacking in even decent battles, that leaves the incensing ones as the representatives for the broad experience.
Battles – The Few
Of the game’s scarce battles, I only need six fingers to count the decent ones, and five of them are against berserking guardians, though whether you’d add them to that tally is up to you, since they’re strangely more akin to a Dark Souls battle: dodge their attacks by abusing invincibility frames and lob their favorite scented candles when they’re vulnerable. They’re not as nail-biting as a Dark Souls boss, which can flatten you in two to three hits, but they do get pretty intense. The fourth battle has you constantly on the move because there’s so much bullocks chasing you around. You can still throw in a Pokémon to smack them around the traditional way, but for the most part, it’s just you, a raging monster, and your massive balls.
The one trainer battle I found satisfying came in the post-game. I seized victory without breaking much sweat, so that alone didn’t sear it into my memory any more than the trainer battles before. No, what made that battle an electrocauter is that immediately after you have to fight a space-traveling dragon that then pulls the classic JRPG villain trick and reveals its god mode. It was probably my fiercest battle since Emerald‘s Frontier Brains, with victory coming down to the wire. Though the trainer wasn’t that hard to beat, he did knock out half my team and didn’t have the common courtesy of healing it up after the fact, so I had to fetch a mop to soak up all my sweat when the big bad dragon activated its final form. But then again, what made that final battle so heated was that it kept turning its body to vapor, so I dunno. My ultimate victory felt earned, but I almost lost because of the boss spamming its instant invincibility spell.
As with recent generations, you can customize your avatar’s appearance and wardrobe to your heart’s content, but just like with moves, the selection isn’t that great. When you go shopping for a new outfit, the shopkeeper asks you, “Would you like a solid-colored kimono or a kimono with a pattern that hurts your eyes? Or would you prefer this out-of-place three-piece suit?” I get Legends: Mr. Rime takes place in feudal Japan, long before department stores were a thing, but I wish the game had a little more imagination with articles of clothing. My mindset when cloths-shopping wasn’t, “What looks best on me?” but, “Does this combination not make me look like an imbecile with no fashion sense?” At least there’s just the one shop so that you don’t have to fly around the country looking for a pair of shoes to match your socks.
A first for the series is player death. An aspect about Pokémon none of the games did more than briskly acknowledge is that Pokémon are dangerous. They’re wild animals, some of which will attack on sight, and if you let them, they’ll enact your demise. Jumping from too high of a cliff, I discovered, bore the same outcome.
The narrative goes that when you black out, some NPCs find you and whisk you back to civilization but can’t be arsed to bring your satchel, so you lose what you were carrying a la Dark Souls. Unlike Dark Souls, however, if you return to where you konked out, you’ll find jack diddly squat, because your bag teleports to a parallel universe, where another player has to recover it. I’m not that fond of needing to rely on others, though I do like feeling like a local hero when I return some unlucky explorer’s missing satchel. Only problem is that to get yours or other players’ satchels, you all need to have Nintendo Online subscriptions.
Right dick move there, isn’t it? I bought the game, and I pay for internet, but neither’s good enough, so I have to pay to access an entire mechanic? Imagine if Dark Souls pulled that. Wouldn’t be the beloved hit, would it?
Everything I’ve described is all there is to satchel retrieval, and everything I’ve described is all there is to what Nintendo Online opens up. Can’t really say it was worth using up my trial. Maybe if there was more to the whole mechanic, like the capability to send and receive notes. It would’ve been fun writing a teaseful “You owe me” to the players whose satchels I found or tell the one person whose name was Lunaia that they had a wicked cool name. You’ve been able to buy envelopes and write messages on them for people you trade with, so why can’t I become digital pen pals with fellow Pokémon players?
Music (Or the Lack Thereof)
Aside from the lackluster environments, the one thing I couldn’t help but notice about exploration is the lack of music. It’s near silence wherever you go. Every now and then, a song will play for about thirty seconds, but then it’s back to the droning of your footsteps, headbutting of trees, and three notes of a flute to summon steeds. Skyrim has no overworld music, either, but when you’re in the gut of a valley or wide-open spread of a snowfield, ambiance will kick in, flooding you with the sensation that you really are exploring a fantastical land. Sword & Shield has a badass Wild Area song featuring bagpipes. Why can’t Legends: Tynamo have something with the koto?
The lack of music is a major self-whipping, too, because of that flute I just mentioned. It holds narrative prominence, is a key item for traversal, and several characters play it throughout the story for funsies, but it’s nothing like The Wind Waker‘s Wind Waker. There are no notes you have to match and no lists of songs to collect during your adventure. Having to play a three-note song every time I hopped on the back of an albino caribou would rapidly get annoying, since I rotated steeds approximately every nine seconds, but maybe the songs themselves could’ve been what saved the day for the boss battles. Rather than scented candles, you played a song of healing or some such. The flute’s said to be important. Might as well go the extra three kilometers and make it important.
Your mileage may vary, but I had two crashes while playing, and neither time was I doing anything that demanding. During one loading screen, the game just game up on life. The game comes with Autosave, so I doubt you’d lose a lot, but if you’re like me, who turned it off because I didn’t want the game saving over moments I might want to reload, e.g. getting a certain Nature on my starter, you’ll worry about when your last save was. Save frequently, as I always do.
Not the best sign when this makes the player anxious.
Legends: Toxapex is good fun, but it feels like it was drafted up as a playground for a new catching system, and everything else was forgotten on the backburner. My overall experience was good fun, but that’s only because I devoted so much of my time to the fun stuff. The game’s built with cheap wood covered up with pretty wallpaper, and though that’ll hold back the winds, you’ve also got a million roommates in the form of termites. This game’s good for exactly one thing, and an apology isn’t it.