Returning to Pokémon after literal decades with Legends Arceus.

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MooseyMcMan

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Edited By MooseyMcMan

It's been so long now that I'm not even sure what got me into Pokémon in the first place, the game, or the anime. If I had to guess, I'd say I probably watched the anime first, which then led to me playing Pokémon Blue. Either way, there was a brief time in my life where I was obsessed with Pokémon. I played a ton of the game (I think it was also my first ever RPG), I watched the anime every chance I got, I bought plushie Pokémon, I even bought into the trading card game! I don't think I ever actually tried to learn the rules, let alone play it, I just wanted anything Pokémon related that I could get my hands on. At one point it went so far that I wanted Pokémon wallpaper for my bedroom, but my parents (in retrospect, wisely) decided not to go along with that.

For better or worse, I was destined to fall off Pokémon, and when I did, I fell off pretty hard. I think partly due to my gullibility as a child, but really more to Nintendo's money grubbing ways, it came at the hands of Pokémon Yellow. Again, as a child, I don't think I realized that Yellow was literally the same game again, just with Pikachu as the starter. So, at some point into Yellow, I suddenly got fed up with it being the same game again, and stopped playing the mainline games. When Gold and Silver came out, I grumbled, “oh it's just the same game again, but with new Pokémon,” of course without actually trying to play it. It may not have been literally true, but it was enough to keep me from coming back for a very long time.

At least from the main series, again I don't remember the exact timeline here, because for all I know these may have actually been before I played Yellow. Anyway I, like many people, rented Pokémon Snap, and I remember playing minigames in Pokémon Stadium at a friend's house. After that, I just...fell out of touch with Pokémon. I even stopped watching the show, and aside from playing as Pokémon characters in Smash, I had basically no interaction with the Pocket Monsters for a very, very long time.

I did very briefly try Pokémon Go, but even when I was regularly leaving the house, it didn't really work for me, for various reasons (chief among them being that I seemed to need to have my phone out constantly, when I had to focus on other things). I actually spent way more time with Magikarp Jump, a mobile “game” focused on training everyone's favorite fish Pokémon to jump as high as they can.

Then, in 2019 I went and saw Detective Pikachu in the theater, partly because of the absurd premise, but also because I think a part of me hoped it might relight that Pokémon spark deep inside me. It was a good movie, but not anything that had any sort of profound impact on me like that.

That, instead would be in 2021, upon learning that it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Pokémon games. Now, to be clear, I realized that didn't mean it was twenty-five years since I played them, as that anniversary was for their release in Japan. Even so, the realization that it'd been that long made me feel...old. And like, I'm not really old old, but it still made me want to go back and re-experience Pokémon...somehow. But rather than dig out my old cartridge (which I'm afraid to and then see that my old save was lost to time from cartridge battery death or something (I assume it can happen to GameBoy games?)), I went for the other source of my Pokémon nostalgia.

Rewatching the anime. From the beginning. And you know what? I think it held up really well! I mean, it's still a kids show, and one focused on a lot of goofy slapstick humor, but it was nice to watch something silly like that again. Plus the emotional moments like when Ash says goodbye to Butterfree probably hit me harder now than when I was a dumb kid, haha. (Speaking of, I saw apparently the Butterfree has finally returned in the latest season of the anime, after all these years??) I enjoyed it so much that I ended up getting into the habit of posting screencaps of funny or cute things I saw in the show, to the point where I almost did it more for that, than actually watching the show.

Anyway, eventually I ran out of episodes of the original run to watch on the official Pokémon site (because despite the fact that I'm pretty sure they have the rights to at least all the old episodes, what seasons they have up seem completely arbitrary), so I moved on to the part of the series widely regarded as the best since the original: Sun & Moon. And that was also very good! Plus, unlike the original, the fact that I was still enjoying it meant it wasn't just old nostalgia being dug up, that there was still room in my heart for new Pokémon too.

At some point over 2021, another thing happened, which was the announcement of the next main entry in the Pokémon game series, to put it in Nintendo's words, “the Pokémon Legends Arceus game.” I'm sorry, I just can't get over how Nintendo always needs to specifically refer to their games with “the” at the start, then the full title, and “game” at the end. With the promise of a big open world to explore, a cool setting inspired by old timey Japan, and a grand, new style of Pokémon adventure, well I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted from that first announcement.

So, after all this, after decades of waiting, after spending so much time looking at Pokémon from afar, thinking they were cute but not wanting to jump back in, after deliberating if this would actually be different enough to capture my imagination again, after spending a year indulging on nostalgia with the anime, and after a thousand words of preamble:

Yes, I played Pokémon Legends Arceus. And, after seeing credits, with only the endgame “true” final boss/“catching 'em all” left to do, and playing for just over sixty hours, I can safely say...

I loved it.

Jumping for joy with Pokémon.
Jumping for joy with Pokémon.

A lot of that is that while the anime reignited my love of Pokémon, Legends stoked the fire to burn brighter than it has since I was young. In so many ways, Legends feels like the game I always imagined the original was. For as simple as it could seem now, Blue was impressive back in its day, especially as a GameBoy game, and especially to me, a kid who'd never played anything like that before. At the time it felt like a grand adventure where anything could be waiting around the next corner, like just about anything was possible, even if it was almost always either random Pokémon encounters, or scripted trainer battles.

By giving Legends huge open areas to explore, it's managed to capture that feeling again. Truly anything could be around the next corner, atop the next hill, down in the next valley. Across the river, up high on the mountain, etc. I love games that are built around exploration of big spaces, it's a key reason why Breath of the Wild is my favorite game. Even if for as much as it wants to be like BotW (down to one particular piece of light piano music that felt very BotW-y), it doesn't meet that game's ambitions (certainly not visually), Legends still accomplishes what it's trying to do. It might not be one literal open world, but each of the areas it's segmented into feels huge. And each holds so many Pokémon that I spent hours and hours wandering each of them, just overcome with the drive to explore.

I can't overstate how excited I was, particularly in the early hours, so often when I discovered Pokémon. If it was one I wasn't familiar with (true for most Pokémon after the original 151), it felt like I had stumbled upon a wholly new creature. A new discovery I had to know more about. And if it was one I recognized, then the old nostalgia center in my brain burned bright. Seriously, every time I recognized an old Pokémon, I might as well have pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “it's that Pokémon!” For some, like Togepi, that makes sense. After rewatching so many old episodes of the anime and remembering how big a role Misty's Togepi played, of course I'd be hit with enough nostalgia to get excited. Even if that led to me flubbing up catching a Togepi the first several times I saw one. And of course getting excited when my favorite Pokémon, Snorlax, appears, makes sense. I mean, Snorlax does own, after all.

Conversely, things like getting excited at seeing a Zubat are...silly. But it happened! Listen, Zubat are cute! So many of the Pokémon are cute, or cool, or both! Not all of them, but I do think that by cherry picking for better ones, Legends does have a generally great lineup. That, and I think the new versions of older Pokémon for Legends are pretty cool. The new Arcanine in particular stood out as one that I thought was super cool when I first saw it.

This dog...has a beard.
This dog...has a beard.

And the new final evolutions for Legends' three starters are cool too. Even if I stubbornly never evolved my starter Rowlet, and didn't realize that I like the new Decidueye until getting a second Rowlet, and fully evolving it to fill out the PokéDex. Listen, I love Rowlet (it's a round owlet), and I wanted a cute little round bird friend. Ash's never evolved in the anime! Anyway, it's funny that I have a level seventy something Rowlet, and at least Legends makes you manually decide when a Pokémon evolves, so it's not like I have to actively prevent the evolution every time it levels up, like in the old games.

So I guess as a note for anyone who hasn't played yet, or only just started: Don't worry about the PokéDex and the other starters, there is an easy way to get them that doesn't require trading or anything. Which helps because trading online is locked behind a Switch Online subscription. I'm not sure when exactly it unlocked, but it's in there.

Because the premise of the game, while similar in some respects to the classic training to be a Pokémon master of the older games, is different in one key way that really clicked with me. Rather than “gotta catch 'em all,” Legends is more, “gotta research 'em all.” The goal isn't simply catching one of every Pokémon, it's to create the first fully featured PokéDex, and that requires completing a series of tasks for each species of Pokémon. Yes, of course that also implies catching 'em all, so I could see the argument that this is just something added as filler to extend the game.

I'm not saying that isn't true, but I am saying that having a checklist of things to investigate for all the Pokémon is a lot more interesting to me than just catching 'em. That said, there's also more ways than ever to catch 'em in the first place! The tried and true method of wearing them down in battle (but not fully defeating them), then throwing the ball still works, of course. But there's something just satisfying about hiding in some grass, throwing out food as bait, then nailing the Pokémon in the back (for a backstab bonus to catching) with the ball, and catching 'em without any fight at all. I'm not kidding about hitting them in the back, the game outright says that catching them by surprise both with a ball, or starting a fight gives you an advantage, and the game plays a good sound effect to let you know you got 'em.

Exploring on fish-back.
Exploring on fish-back.

All that said, I do think there's room for improvement with the tasks, should there be a Legends 2. Unless one of the tasks requires completing a side quest, they're all just generic things like number caught, number defeated, feeding them food, etc. Some are more specific, like defeating them with a certain type of move (one the Pokémon is weak to), and often seeing them do specific moves. But also it's the sort of thing where the idea of the game is about documenting previously unknown species of Pokémon, yet the checklists already know some of the moves the Pokémon can do, so if you think about it a bit too much, it doesn't make complete sense. Even if it's very helpful for getting hints at what types of moves are effective against them.

And very little of it actually involves observing the Pokémon in their natural habitat. I knew there was no way this game, on such a large scale could even attempt the level of bespoke animations and interactions from something like the Pokémon Snap games, but I still wish it was a little closer to that. Like, for example, often feeding Pokémon will count toward researching them. But there's nothing about observing the Pokémon to see what they eat in the wild. Nor, as far as I can tell, do you ever actually see the wild Pokémon doing anything like that.

Before I say this, I do want to reiterate that on the whole I love the game, and it captured my imagination. That said, if you really pay attention, it's pretty obvious that the Pokémon just kinda wander around areas without doing anything. Like, each has its set zone, and in that zone they move around, and they all make sense for the sorts of Pokémon they are. Fish swim around in rivers and lakes, woodland critters jaunt about the forests, some hide in trees or rocks, etc. But they never eat, they never interact with other Pokémon. There's never any point where predatory Pokémon hunt after prey Pokémon, something that certainly happened in the anime, even if they obviously never showed one Pokémon eating another.

Granted, when they see the player, they all react in ways that feel true to their nature. Some, like Bidoof are so friendly they just waddle right up to the player and do a goofy little pose. Some are so skittish they flee at the sight of a human, and a lot will go out of their way to attack. A fair number are docile at a distance, but get too close, and they definitely go hostile, thus leading to a lot of panicked fight or flight situations. Fight as in throwing out a Pokémon pal to start a turn based battle (thus keeping my human character safe), or flight as in running away very fast, but often having to dodge and weave around Pokémon moves.

A close up of my character. I think the fashion and hairstyles are cute, but too much of the good stuff isn't unlocked until a long way into the game.
A close up of my character. I think the fashion and hairstyles are cute, but too much of the good stuff isn't unlocked until a long way into the game.

It's very weird to have a Pokémon game that explicitly has the concept of invincibility frames, even if it doesn't use the phrase. Weird, but great, as this helps give an added layer to the game, and goes a good way to help make it feel more like the anime. Pokémon were not only ever threats to other Pokémon in the anime, and as far as I know this is the first game where that's true too. Plus, it's fun! I could see how it might get annoying to some people, but it scratches the same itch in my brain as Breath of the Wild. A lot of people didn't like the weapon degradation there, but I loved having to scramble in the midst of combat and try to figure out what to do when something broke. This isn't quite the same, but it's similar. Sneaking up on one Pokémon, lining up my shot, only to have another one sneak up on ME, and start attacking, thus sending me scrambling to escape.

Because if you don't, you lose items, that can then get Strand Gamed over to someone else's game to recover...at least if you have a Switch Online subscription. Which I don't. So instead the game just drops in fake ones from the same handful of generic names for me to grab instead, to get currency for a specific vendor. It's a neat idea, I just wish I didn't need to buy into the subscription to do it. Of course, for all I know Death Stranding probably required PS+ for those features, but I've been subscribed there since 2013. (I really don't know and DS was built around that, as opposed to this being a side feature, so they're not really comparable).

One thing I haven't gotten into yet, is the battle system itself. On the one hand, it is very similar to what I remember from the original, but in some ways it's very different. Which makes sense, I'd like to think that twenty-five years of iteration would be meaningful, but I don't know how much changed over the years, and how much is new to Legends. (I've been told since writing my first draft that apparently some stuff has actually been removed in the last couple games, but I can't speak to that.) It's still turn based, but now there's a list of the turn order, which can be affected by each Pokémon's speed stat, and the new Agile/Strong style moves. Agile moves are faster, but less powerful, and Strong do more damage, but are slower. The temptation to go Strong all the time is...strong, but having powerful Pokémon get multiple turns in a row can be rough.

Also space time rifts will occasionally open, and rare Pokémon/items can be found within. Yes, I named my Rowlet Homer.
Also space time rifts will occasionally open, and rare Pokémon/items can be found within. Yes, I named my Rowlet Homer.

Or brutal, honestly. While the player can only control one Pokémon at a time, I'm not sure what the limit on enemies is. I've had as many as four wild Pokémon battling against me at once, and I've fought against other “trainers” who had three battling my one. Which I understand getting ganged up on by wild Pokémon, but if other humans can command three at once, they gotta at least let me have two out there! I know double battles were a thing in some of the games after the original!

Like, I'm still kind of shocked at how hard Legends can get. I even had one battle against another human where by the end I was down to literally one Pokémon left. Out of six, five had been knocked out, and my sixth (a valiant little Sylveon I named “Sylvie”) was almost down. Then there was one endgame boss that I swear took me five or six tries to beat, and that included several after reevaluating my team, and using a bunch of rare candies to level some up!

While it's thrilling to win by the skin of my teeth, it's also frustrating that Pokémon don't get experience if they're knocked out at the end of a fight. There's other ways to get XP, like buying items that exist for just that, so it's not like I have zero options for keeping my A team leveled and ready to go, but it just feels unfair to have Pokémon who did a lot of hard work in fights get nothing from them. Especially when the post credits endgame content operates under the assumption that the player is rolling with a team of high level Pokémon. I was going up against level seventy Pokémon that are not easy to deal with without really knowing the type strengths/weaknesses.

That does bring me to one issue I have with the game, which is that it doesn't do a good job of explaining all the different types, and what is and isn't effective against each. There is a chart, but after the initial tutorial it's buried deep in a menu that's annoying to try to get to. The worst part though, is that it's not a very high res chart, and I don't think there's any way to full screen it, so it's hard to even tell what all the symbols on it even mean. I don't remember this being an issue when I was a kid because back then most of the Pokémon types made a logical sense. Fire was weak to water, water was weak to electricity, etc. These days though, I don't know how I'm supposed to intuit what fairy would be weak or strong to, for example. And please forgive me if fairy was a thing back in the original game, and I just forgot.

Me and the alpha Snorlax I had just caught at the time. He went on to be my main tank.
Me and the alpha Snorlax I had just caught at the time. He went on to be my main tank.

I know I could just look this up outside the game since I assume these have been the same since whenever the last time a new type was added to the franchise, but I still think a game should do what it can to convey something like this without needing outside resources. To the game's credit though, it does say how effective or ineffective moves will be in the battle menu, so at least the right Pokémon can be chosen, at least amongst the ones in the active party.

Speaking of moves, while the Pokémon can still only have four equipped at a time, any move a Pokémon has learned previously can be re-equipped at any time between fights, which is fantastic. This is especially useful for researching, as it can be handy to use one that I normally wouldn't just for the research points, then go back to what I prefer for the actual fights.

I know I haven't played any Pokémon games since the original, but I have at least watched some footage of the recent ones (mostly because of Jan's videos), and compared to even Sword and Shield, I think Legends does a much better job aesthetically during the fights. By which I mean the fight animations are generally pretty good in Legends! It's obviously not unique, bespoke animations for each of the hundreds of Pokémon, but they actually animate, and move around when attacking. Which sounds like a comically low bar, but I think the fights look good in Legends. Some of the attack effects are super cool too. Like the Hyper Beam looks like it came straight out of DragonBall Z, it's just enormous, and devastating.

My only complaint is that when an attack misses, it just shows text saying the attack missed, neither Pokémon actually animates. It's the only time in the fights that something like this happens, and if the attack animations are already in the game, I'd rather they show the animation, then just have the other Pokémon side step it or something. Maybe they tried that, and it caused issues what with the fights still taking place in the world, and it broke something, or looked too messy, I dunno.

Conversely the cut-ins when an Agile or Strong style move is used, with the music cues are really cool, so I forgive the game for this one misstep.

Me with my A team.
Me with my A team.

One other issue with the menus that I need to bring up is that the PokéDex can be annoying to navigate. It can be separated by each region, and Pokémon ordered either by number or alphabetically, but when I'm trying to research specific Pokémon that are in my party, I wish I could jump directly from the pause menu with my Pokémon to their specific pages in the PokéDex. For example, if I want to remind myself what moves I'm trying to see, and how many I've seen it'd be nice to be able to hit a button and go directly to the corresponding page. I can do that for wild Pokémon out in the world!

Granted the PokéDex does open on the last page I viewed, so it's not an issue if I'm focused on a single Pokémon. But that's not efficient, I want to be researching multiple at once! Even if I could just bookmark specific Pokémon, and be able to jump to a smaller list I'm currently working on, that could save me a lot of time and effort. Especially when it feels like I always end up researching ones that aren't near each other alphabetically (and I don't know how this game organizes them by number, so that isn't useful).

The other Phanpy in the room (Phanpy is an elephant Pokémon, though one I don't think is in Legends) that I haven't really mentioned is...the graphics. Which are...well, mixed I'll say. I think the Pokémon themselves generally look pretty good, I like a lot of the character designs, and especially the cute fashion the player character can wear. Up close I think the game usually looks fine. It's more looking at the distance, and seeing all the pop-in, or the giant flat textures that it feels very lacking. Particularly when using Ride Pokémon to traverse the world faster, then the game's visual seams really become unavoidable.

Thing is though, I tend to not want to move through games at a fast pace, so even after getting Wyrdeer (a very fast, majestic bearded deer), I still mostly walked around the world. How else was I going to get the drop on Pokémon, and keep myself stocked on materials for crafting? Plus, I like to stop and smell the figurative roses, even if they're kinda low res roses.

At the beach at sunset.
At the beach at sunset.

Speaking of, actually my least favorite part of the game's visuals is the lack of anti-aliasing. It's so bad in spots that I thought this game was running at a really low resolution until I watched the Digital Foundry video on the game. Apparently it goes between 900P and 1080P, which is about as good as a Switch can do these days. The game just looks chunky and pixelated at times, and it's kind of distracting. Not always though, but when I notice it, it is a bummer.

Now that I'm actually running out of things to say (at least without going into details on the story, but this blog is already a lot longer than I expected), I don't want to leave on a down note. So, another thing I love in the game, is the photography room. It's a room that exists just to take pictures of the main character posing with Pokémon. And it is, naturally, adorable. Of course I do wish there was more to it, like being able to hold the small Pokémon in my arms, or have the bigh Pokémon hold me in theirs, but I'll take what I can get. Just add it to the list of things I want in Legends 2.

Like being able to pet the Pokémon. I don't even expect different animations, just one generic animation that doesn't even look good on a lot of them will do. Let me pet them! It's great that I can toss them out and watch them do fun little animations, but let me pet them! And let them run around with me in the open areas. I want friends to adventure with! (Speaking of, I know this is an unrealistic hope for the next one, but co-op would get me to actually subscribe to Switch Online).

Oh, and the music! I think it's really good! I've read that a fair amount of the tracks are based on/inspired by old music from Diamond and Pearl, and that's neat too. But even without that specific nostalgia, I think it's generally pretty great. Only issue being that some fun song will be playing as I explore, but then it fades out and gets replaced with the “a Pokémon set its sights on you” music. Which is useful from a game play perspective, but can ruin the vibe.

Investigating mysteries, like why these Clefairy are reenacting Bloodborne.
Investigating mysteries, like why these Clefairy are reenacting Bloodborne.

That, and this is another complaint, but I do wish the game had voice acting. I don't expect it from Nintendo at this point, because they're the only AAA publisher that still makes games with this much dialog and then puts in zero effort to voice them. That, and while there is a charm to the noises the Pokémon make, it'd be nice if they sounded...better. Again, I get there's literally hundreds of them and doing unique noises for them all is a tall order, but still... It's not like Pokémon is the highest earning media franchise in the history of the Earth or anything...

I've managed to write a lot more about the game than I really intended to, and there's honestly more I could expand on too. Like I think the main character falling through a space time rift from the future is a funny premise for a Pokémon game. Never mind all the questions this game raises about the nature of Pokémon themselves, or the potential for time paradoxes. If Porygon were created by humans in the future, but they appear in space time rifts in this game, and get documented in the PokéDex, does that mean that scientists based Porygon on these old findings that wouldn't exist if Porygon hadn't already been created, and gone through the space time rifts...??

But the most mind bending thing is this game's explanation for the olde timey Poké Balls. Apparently the Pokémon themselves all innately have the ability to shrink and that's how the Poké Balls work????? That's definitely not the case in the anime, I can tell you that much. Plus all the stuff with the Pokémon space time god(s?), there's that too.

Just to reiterate myself one last time, for all the game's faults, and for all the areas that I hope they improve upon in the sequel, I did have a great time returning to the world of Pokémon after all these years, to use a phrase a friend “borrowed” from me. Don't ask, Tom knows what he did. It's a grand adventure that I loved, and I'm sad to see it go, even if there are still some troublesome Pokémon left to research... Maybe I'll return after a break. Definitely if there's substantial DLC, like Sword/Shield got. Here's to hoping.

Thank you for reading, especially this particularly long one.

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theunseenshadow

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This was a good take. I was in a similar boat having tried some of the newer games and quickly fallen off and I loved it as well, beat it in the first week in fact!

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ALLTheDinos

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Good review! I played Ruby and Shield before this one within the last couple years, and I ended up bouncing off both before I got halfway through. Even Shield felt extremely similar to the original formula, in a way that makes this game even more startling. The best thing I can say about this game is I’m having more fun than I can remember having with a Pokémon game in a long, long time.

I do agree on its shortcomings, and I have to imagine it’s because the Switch is old. I’m playing on a Switch Lite, so grain of salt and all that, but I can’t help thinking every hour or so how I would really love for this game to be on something more modern.

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MrGreenMan

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As someone who hasn't played a pokemon game since the original. This has gotten me very interested in picking this up. Thank you!