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Pokémon Legends: Arceus breathes new life into Pokémon

By going back in time, the game moves the series forward

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For years there has been a paradox at the heart of the Pokémon series. Each game is a story about discovery, where players venture into a strange new world in search of monsters to uncover and collect. At the same time, the franchise has evolved slower than a low-level Magikarp, introducing features so gradually that long-time players generally already know what to expect when the next release comes out. There will be a fresh location, a few new features, and a bigger pokédex, but the structure has remained largely identical from the original Game Boy games all the way up to Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch.

Which is what makes Pokémon Legends: Arceus so refreshing: it’s genuinely surprising. It does this by shifting the timeline back to long before the modern games in the series, during a period when pokémon were still barely understood. Instead of a world where humans and pokémon live in harmony, and anyone can buy an electronic device full of information on hundreds of species, players are thrust into a wild, untamed region where people are just doing their best to survive while surrounded by largely unknown and seemingly dangerous creatures.

This shift in perspective — coupled with a more holistic design approach and a much larger, more open world to explore — makes for the biggest overhaul to the Pokémon formula since the series debuted.

Long-time fans of the series will notice the changes immediately. Instead of being a young would-be pokémon trainer out to become a champion, you’re instead a teenager in the Hisui region, an older version of the location from Pokémon Diamond and Pearl — which, not coincidentally, were just re-made for the Switch — where pokéballs have just been invented, and humans mostly live in a small town surrounded by wilderness. Right away, you’re recruited into a survey team with the goal of documenting the various monsters around you.

The premise is ideal for a Pokémon adventure. Just like in past games, you’ll get a pokédex to fill out, though here it’s an actual paper book instead of a retrofuturistic gadget. The goal, as always, is to capture and learn about all of the region’s various pokémon. But the way you go about it is much more involved. Keep in mind this is a time when not only do most people not understand pokémon well, but many are also afraid of them. You have to investigate a little bit more than usual. Filling out your pokédex means capturing monsters, defeating them in battle, witnessing their attacks, and other interactions and observations. Each creature has a checklist, and in order to fully flesh out their pokédex entry, you’ll need to tick off most of the boxes.

Along with this quest to research the world around you, the main storyline involves a handful of super-powerful pokémon who are rampaging around the region and need to be calmed down, along with a pesky rift in space and time that’s looming in the sky. The result is a structure that feels very different, and importantly much more flexible than most Pokémon games. There’s no predetermined list of gyms you need to battle through or paths that take you from town to town in order. There’s one small village and a vast wilderness all around it.

The world itself is a bit like a cross between the wild areas from Sword and Shield (particularly the much-improved version featured in the Isle of Armor expansion) and the vast hunting grounds from the Monster Hunter series. This means that Arceus isn’t a traditional open world. Instead, the land of Hisui is a series of large, standalone areas, each with different creatures and landscapes. So don’t go in expecting Breath of the Wild with some Zubats flying around. That said, each biome is large; eventually, you’ll get mounts to help you scale mountains and ride across the sea, and there’s a fast travel option that lets you zip from one basecamp to another.

When you’re actually out in the field, the experience is a mixture of familiar Pokémon tropes and much-welcome twists on the formula. The classic turn-based battles return, but with some added strategy; pokémon can now master moves, which allows them to utilize new “agile” or “strong” versions of attacks, so you can decide whether to focus on speed or power. There are the standard rock-paper-scissor-style type match-ups — water is strong against fire but weak against electricity — and if you weaken a pokémon enough, you can capture it. Your character can move around in battles, which doesn’t really change anything but makes them feel a little more dynamic.

You can also capture pokémon without fighting them at all. You do this by sneaking around areas, waiting to catch a monster unaware, and then aiming and tossing a ball. This turns Pokémon into something of a stealth game; I spent much of my time lurking around in tall grass or hiding behind trees, waiting for my target to turn around so I could pounce from behind. The other big new addition is crafting. There is a general store where you can buy pokéballs and potions, but you can also gather up the necessary ingredients in the wild to make your own gear, and you’ll get new recipes as you proceed through the game. I rarely purchased anything during my time with the game (aside from new clothes, of course), focusing on a more self-sufficient route where I gathered and crafted almost everything I needed.

This creates an interesting rhythm that’s not unlike playing a Monster Hunter game. Most of the time, I’d gear up in town and then proceed to one of the areas with a specific goal in mind. That could be completing some sidequests from the villagers, taking on the next big story mission, collecting specific pokémon, or sometimes just going on an excursion for the express purpose of gathering crafting materials. I’d complete whatever goal I set out for myself (and usually get distracted doing a few other things) and then return to town to refresh my gear, talk to some people, and plan my next excursion. Rinse and repeat. All of these activities add some very welcome variety to the experience, as battles play a much smaller role; I could spend an entire play session just sneaking and catching. There are also a handful of boss fights that are unlike anything else in Pokémon, with an almost action game-like feel.

There are two notable things about this structure. One, it’s very cohesive. The premise of Arceus and the things you’re doing in the game are all in tune with each other. In order to get new medicine at the general store or clothing at the fashion shop, for instance, you’ll need to take on missions that involve going out and finding the necessary items or pokémon in the wild. Similarly, you gain experience by both catching and defeating pokémon, which is also exactly what you need to do to fill out the pokédex. There’s always a narrative reason for what you’re doing, whether it’s helping out a villager scared of Drifloons or trying to learn everything you can about water-faring pokémon. It’s not just a series of annoying fetch quests with no explanation.

The structure also lets you adjust the experience and the difficulty to your liking. I played very cautiously, using lots of stealth to avoid battles until I was ready. (Arceus introduces new “alpha” monsters that can be quite a challenge to take down.) But I could’ve also welcomed the challenge if I wanted; you can even get knocked out by wild pokémon if they spot you and attack. It’s an open-enough experience that you can adjust things based on how you like to play since you’re not forced down a specific path. And while the main storyline is about as long as a traditional Pokémon game, there is a huge range of sidequests and optional excursions to make this a really large, robust experience. I’ve seen the credits roll, but I still keep going back in an attempt to fill out that pokédex and see everything the world has to offer.

The most important thing I can say about Arceus is that it’s a place I want to be in. As much as I loved previous Pokémon games, the worlds were very static and linear. I never really felt like I was exploring a vibrant world while walking back and forth in tall grass, trying to level up my squad. Here, though — while it’s not exactly a realistic simulation of nature — it at least gives off the feeling of a real place full of danger and secrets and all of the joy and excitement those things can bring. And it does all of that while retaining most of the best qualities of its predecessors.

It’s still a Pokémon game. But with a changed perspective, it’s also something new.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus launches on the Nintendo Switch on January 28th.