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With 'Legends: Arceus,' Pokémon becomes a more immersive game

There are plenty of Pokemon to ride on through the land, water, and air in Hisui.
There are plenty of Pokemon to ride on through the land, water, and air in Hisui.

The same old Pokémon formula — battling eight gyms, four elite trainers, and one champion at the very end — has been getting a bit tiring in recent years. That's why Pokémon Legends: Arceus on Nintendo Switch looked exciting. An open-world-styled Pokémon game? Sign me up! On paper, the trailers looked like everything a fan of that style ever wanted. There were fully 3D Pokémon roaming around and battles were more dynamic. Your player character could actually move around during battles.

The new gameplay loop of catching Pokémon multiple times to progress, along with some tweaked battle mechanics from the classic formula, is still fun. But after playing the game, I realized my expectations were too high. Instead of gorgeous landscapes and towering landmarks, there is a relatively empty world with not much to explore. Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn't all that some imagined it to be, but it's a step in the right direction of making Pokémon a more immersive gaming experience.

The start of this adventure is different from previous games. Instead of becoming the best Pokémon master, you end up in an entirely different place called the Hisui region, which is the past version of the Sinnoh region featured in the Pokémon Diamond and Pearl games. In Hisui, there are Pokémon that the inhabitants worship, called Noble Pokémon. They've been acting strange since your arrival into the area, becoming frenzied and attacking the people of Hisui.

As you work your way through the game's story, the goal is to quell all five of the frenzied Noble Pokémon and uncover the mystery behind the ripped space-time hole in the sky that you fell out of. It's an enticing introduction, and while stories aren't particularly the selling point of Pokémon games, there's enough mystery to keep players wanting to guess what comes next.

Earning points to rank up

The gameplay of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is where the game diverges the greatest from the main installments. In order to progress throughout the main story, you have to earn enough points to rank up — and you can earn them in a variety of ways. You go around catching different Pokémon, and it's not enough to catch them only once. You can earn points by catching the same species multiple times, as well as catching them without being spotted by them.

There are so many ways to approach Pokémon in this game that it keeps the core gameplay loop fresh and exciting. You can also check the different requirements that each species have to make sure that you're earning enough points to then turn in and rank up.

The three Hisui starter Pokemon: Cyndaquil, Rowlet, and Oshawott.
/ Nintendo
The three Hisui starter Pokemon: Cyndaquil, Rowlet, and Oshawott.

Also out in the wild are Alpha Pokémon, which are bigger and more powerful, red-eyed versions of the different species you come across. They tend to act like mini-boss battles and it's up to you whether or not to challenge them. Successfully catching them adds a powerful ally to your team, and beating them provides great experience points. This is a really cool concept that helps keep players on their toes when venturing across Hisui.

The biggest issue with Pokémon Legends: Arceus is Hisui itself. Other than finding new Pokémon, there's not much else to do and explore there. There aren't any interesting landmarks or something else to discover, so it feels like the entire Hisui region is empty, despite the Pokémon inhabiting it. The game also feels janky as well, especially when climbing a mountain with one of a rider Pokémon only to suddenly just clip through the environment when moving up.

Quite frankly, the game isn't very good-looking either. Players don't necessarily play these games for the graphics, but when Pokémon is literally the world's most valuable media franchise, it's unreasonable to ask for more graphical fidelity. It's not like the Nintendo Switch is a slouch when it comes to presentation. 2017's Xenoblade Chronicles 2 had some of the most incredible environments filled with interesting ruins, blossoming forests, and gorgeous sky drops for a Nintendo Switch game.

Strong Style versus Agile Style

The battles themselves still use the classic turn-based template, but there are several changes. To start a battle, simply just fling your own Pokémon at the wild one you want to catch, and then the fight initiates. An interesting addition to the battle system is Strong Style versus Agile Style moves. While you can attack normally, using a Strong Style move makes your attack inflict more damage, but then you might have to wait a bit longer before attacking again. The trade-off here is that your opponent could attack twice in a row!

An Agile Style move is weaker, but it gives you the opportunity to potentially act twice before your opponent does. This mechanic is wonderful as it offers a twist to the traditional battle formula, and strategically using either style can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Some aspects from the mainline series are strangely missing. The biggest examples here are abilities and held items. There's really no reason they should be missing. Abilities have been such integral parts of Pokémon battling since they were introduced in the third generation, as were held items in the second, so having them go missing now doesn't make much sense.

No explanation for the absence of abilities

One Pokémon, Staraptor, usually has the Intimidate ability, which lowers the opposing Pokémon's damage output capability upon entering battle. It's baffling to send it out and see nothing happen. There's no explanation or story reason for the absence of abilities — they're just gone. Held items such as berries are now used to do other things like lure Pokémon, but it definitely would have been nice to have the option for Pokémon to hold them.

Choosing Strong Style attacks can inflict extra damage to the opponent.
/ Nintendo
Choosing Strong Style attacks can inflict extra damage to the opponent.

There are some other additions to the game that makes Pokémon Legends: Arceus feel like a proper RPG game. There are side quests that contribute to worldbuilding, whether that involves catching certain Pokémon or gathering resources. It does help Hisui feel like a place that's lived in, despite its emptiness otherwise. There's also a crafting system where you can take materials that you've gathered in the fields to create Pokéballs, healing potions, and other items as well.

I really hope Nintendo's subsidiary The Pokémon Company will take their time in development with future titles. The annualization of the franchise worries me in that the games coming out could sacrifice quality for quantity. Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn't everything that I had wished for, but it does enough to offer a fresh experience to the franchise.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

George Yang