Pokémon has been a mainstay in gaming for over 20 years. While the role-playing game series has added plenty of quality-of-life changes and hundreds of strange forms of pocket monsters, the formula for the main, GameFreak-developed entries has largely stayed the same, much to the dismay of some who grew up on the older entries. Sure, there have been spin-offs, such as Pokémon Ranger on the DS, that have provided unique twists on the universe, but those aren’t the major installments that are the main attraction. However, Pokémon Legends: Arceus has completely turned the series on its head in many ways and this evolution is something the franchise has needed for some time.
The back of the game’s physical box sums up the new gameplay quite well: “action meets RPG in a new kind of Pokémon adventure!” This is true and it’s easy to compare a lot of its features to other action RPGs, even if the actual Pokémon battles are ultimately turn-based. Each area to explore is a vast vista of land with spread-out camping grounds that serve as a temporary reprieve from the action not unlike the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. While these locations aren’t always the most captivating backgrounds (although the later areas are more lively than the initial plain starting area), they do present an intriguing challenge in how the player interacts with the world.
Unlike recent Pokémon games where the thought of a pocket monster hurting a human is largely absurd, many Pokémon offer a real threat to the player in Legends: Arceus. Simply being in the line of sight will put many Pokémon on the offensive as they try to protect their territory, so players will have to run and dodge out of the way of attacks or send out their own monsters to provide a distraction and proper battle. This makes actually going about the world wildly interesting as hiding in the tall grass becomes a key tool for catching Pokémon off-guard as well as a means for survival.
There is also a real significance to defeat in Legends: Arceus, which has been a rarity in the series as it typically only means you get rushed back to a Pokémon Center to try again. Even though death isn’t permanent, players will drop many of their items while adventuring if they fall off a cliff or get demolished by a creature while adventuring. Items are also given an extra significance in the game due to a crafting mechanic that is new to the series as players can create Poké Balls and healing items from what they collect. It all adds to a gameplay loop that puts exhilarating exploration at the forefront with an ever-present layer of tension.
A lot of these overworld changes are grown from the wild areas of Sword and Shield, which were 3D explorable areas that allowed players to roam around, and thus seem like a natural progression for the series. This isn’t a total pivot and means Arceus is still recognizably a Pokémon game. There are still plenty of battles and you’re tossing Poké Balls to catch the creatures, so there are enough familiar trappings that will please those that are more averse to change. By placing those fundamental trappings into a new environment, GameFreak has found a brilliant middle ground of old and new that will help move the franchise forward.
Combat has also gotten an upgrade as the ability to modify attacks during battle is another brilliant addition to the core gameplay. It adds even more strategy to the turn-based gameplay as players can go for agile moves that are weaker but likely to hit first or strong attacks that pack an extra punch. Using these abilities efficiently can turn the tide of battles and refreshes a turn-based system that hasn’t evolved a ton since the Game Boy era. There’s plenty of minutia for players to figure out as agile attacks require less of a cooldown and allow you to use an item and potentially attack again, while strong moves lower your action speed while taking up more ability points
While the latest Pokémon game is smaller in scope than recent offerings with only 242 species of Pokémon to catch and a story that can be completed in about 20 hours, the ambitious gameplay more than makes up for the relative “lack” of content. The many side quests and research tasks will give devoted players the 70 or so hours they desire, and it winds up laying an incredibly interesting framework for the future of the series with its more open exploration and slightly different take on combat. No matter if you’re a lapsed fan whose enjoyment of the series has faded or a current fan looking for a fresh experience, Pokémon Legends: Arceus has a lot to offer.