It’s different, isn’t it? The last few main Pokémon games have all claimed to be “new” in terms of how they play, with Let’s Go! doing away with proper battles with wild Pokémon, Sun and Moon being properly in 3D and Sword and Shield having the Wild Areas. Arceus is like an extrapolation of those Wild Areas, with several large regions you can freely travel around, seeing Pokémon in the wild doing what they do, and catching them by sneaking up and chucking balls at them.
This mechanic flips the original Pokémon premise on its head. Back then, you’d venture into the long grass and be pounced on by hidden ‘mons, but here it’s you furtively stalking them from the grassy hiding places ready to attack (or catch) when they’re close or distracted. It’s this feature which is the bulk of the gameplay, with different species reacting differently to you. Some, like Starly, will run as soon as you’re spotted. Some, like Aipom, will run up to you and jump around your legs harmlessly. Others will attack on sight, and I mean attack you, not your Pokémon: Another difference to the established norm. You can run away, or chuck out one of your party to fight back, but initially it’s you who can take damage and if you’re hurt too much it’s you that faints, losing some of your gathered items in the process.
Yes, gathered items. Not just potions and balls you have, like in previous games, but crafting materials because all games are crafting games these days. Stuff you pick up, smash open, or get from caught or defeated creatures can be used to make Pokéballs, buffs, food, and so on and although you can buy some of these things, you really don’t have the money to spend on that – at least early on, anyway.
So you wander these large open areas, trapping Pokémon and cock fighting whilst collecting Everything You Can and filling your satchel (which happens a lot, so it’s good you can pay a guy to give you more storage space) with junk and crafting balls and lures and progressing the story. But what is the story?
Well, it’s different to the previous games too. Sure, the details varied from game to game but ultimately every Pokémon title has two main stories. The personal one, where you’ve got to Be the Very Best and beat all the gym leaders and then the Elite Four and become King of All The Pokémon Trainers, and the other one where you have Team Rocket or Team Galactic or Team Skull or whoever doing Evil Deeds and you have to stop them, usually by tracking down some uber-powerful ‘mon and defeating the Team Leader. Then there’s usually some post game content, which basically just gives you the chance to complete your Pokédex. But not here! Well, not quite.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is set in the past. A few hundred years in the past, in fact, in what would eventually be called the Sinnoh Region (the setting for Pokémon Diamond and Pearl) for reasons that become clear in the game, but is here still referred to as the Hisui Region. You appear in this world, plucked from parts (and times) unknown by Arceus at the start of the game and dropped out of the sky onto a beach just outside Jubilife Village – the seed of Jubilife City from Diamond/Pearl of course. The village is where a group of explorers, scientists and surveyors calling themselves Galaxy Team (waitaminite…) have set themselves up as an outpost in the region, wedging in between the previously-warring-but-now-more-tolerant two factions of Diamond Clan and Pearl Clan. See, it’s clever, yes?
Both clans worship the great Creator, whom they call Sinnoh, but one clan thinks it’s basically the God of Time and the other thinks it’s the God of Space. Without spoilering, they’re both right and wrong. You make friends with both Galaxy Team members and these clans throughout your adventure, which is part you trying to figure out where you came from, and trying to stop the seemingly impending doom caused by the lightning in the sky over Mount Sinnoh which you may actually be the cause of. Mostly, this involves Pokémon battles, catching Pokémon, and boss fights against massive raging Pokémon where you chuck parcels of food at their face until they calm down because of course you do. Oh, and Arceus, aside from sometimes making your “phone” device bleep occasionally, is never to be seen again. Well, not until after the main story is complete perhaps – that’s how far I’ve got.
There’s no gyms. There aren’t really even many trainers. Most people are still scared of Pokémon (and, given they’re all shown as Actual Size, who wouldn’t be) and Pokéballs are still a new invention so the many varieties like Master Balls and Net Balls and so on don’t exist yet. You can ride a handful of beasts that you obtain through the story which allow you to swim, run, jump and fly and so reach new areas. It all feels very fresh and new and yet – and yet – it’s still somehow Pokémon and feels like a Pokémon game even though it’s very different. It’s polished, although some areas are a little lacking graphically, and a bit repetitive with the Pokédex research tasks that require multiple battles or captures with each type of Pokémon and resource gathering, but then if you’re concerned about repetition you wouldn’t be playing Pokémon.
As I said, I’ve completed the story insofar as I’ve done all the missions up to the credits, but now there’s the small task of catching them all. And a million side quests and some additional story. And maybe, actually, Arceus itself.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a fantastic new entry in the series, albeit a spinoff. It’s new and old at the same time, and if the recently announced main series games Scarlet and Violet can use some of the same features then I’d love to see that too. If not, a sequel to this set in another region’s past would absolutely do me.