I can’t believe this game exists.
Even a few days later and over 20 hours in, I’m still shocked that this game came out within 3 months of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl. In case you haven’t read my review, it was disappointing in many ways. To quote the Nintendo youtuber Arlo: “I would be embarrassed to release [that] game”. It was still fun in many ways thanks to the fact that it was, well, another Pokémon title, but did little else. Fans had been begging for Sinnoh remakes for years, and The Pokémon company did not do them justice. Due to a plethora of bugs, lack of Pokémon Platinum content, downright poor graphics, among other issues, I don’t recommend anyone aside from big Pokémon fans to pick up those remakes. This game, however, is different. Not a little different – I mean VERY different.
Let’s talk about Game Freak’s Pokémon Legends Arceus, a game that blew my expectations out of the water and easily dethrones Pokémon Sword & Shield as the best Pokémon entry on the Switch (although it was never a very high bar in the first place).
Before we dive too deep, I would like to clarify something. Many people, to the point where it has become a meme, refer to Pokémon Legends Arceus as the “Breath of the Wild” (The Zelda title that launched with the Switch) of Pokémon games, due to similarity in design and especially in the trailers. This is an OK comparison to make, but I would like to clarify that it doesn’t quite match Zelda in level of quality, and I still consider Breath of the Wild to be the superior game. However, it comes pretty darn close.
You see, ever since the original Pokémon Red & Blue came out in 1995 and took the world by storm, Game Freak has been quite weary of changing the beloved formula too much. Even the latest Generation 8 titles still play a lot like the oldies. This is not necessarily a huge problem on its own but after literally over a dozen different entries… it all starts to kind of blend together, you know? What made it even worse is the games even kept a lot of things that were simply unnecessary in the modern day, such as constant text boxes slowing battles down to a crawl by telling us every little thing our Pokémon was doing, even when we could see it clearly on screen. None of this is to mention the lack of nice animations, story and cutscenes that made many wonder if any of the last 3 games even belonged on the Switch.
Pokémon Legends Arceus however definitely deserves it’s spot on the Switch. I am happy to report that Game Freak finally bit the bullet and started to rethink what needed to be in a Pokémon game. Instead of the game starting off with a dumb little “Welcome to the world of Pokémon! Here we live beside these creatures and blah blah blah…”, you are literally plopped into a dark void speaking to Arceus, who I can only assume is the most powerful Pokémon in the series, seeing as he is said to be the creator of the world (yea, I’ll talk about that). After choosing your appearance and name, a cutscene starts where you, the player, are floating around in the void and… reaching for their phone? It’s all so strange yet insanely cool and very representative of Gen Z. Next thing you know, a light consumes you (and the beloved phone) and you wake up on a beach in some old-timey region known as Hisui, which is really the Sinnoh region a century before the original Diamond & Pearl games take place.
It’s nothing like we’ve seen before and is clearly taking inspiration from Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by dropping you right in the action. We know what Pokémon are, don’t give us the rundown for the umpteenth time. I will admit that it starts off with way too much “talk to us here, now I’ll run over here, come run to me and we’ll talk again” kind of nonsense, but it does begin to taper off as the game goes on compared to Sword and Shield’s relentless hand-holding through the very end. To save you some time, I’ll give a quick summary of what is going on: You’re some kid who came falling out of this space-time rift in the sky above Hisui, and was quickly discovered by the Pokémon professor of the Galaxy Expedition Team. He soon realizes your skill in catching Pokémon, and invites you to join the Galaxy Survey Corps in the nearby Jubilife village. …Galaxy Survey Corps? Seems awfully similar to Team Galactic from Diamond and Pearl. Perhaps this is set in a universe where Cyrus (Galatic’s leader) got his wish of resetting the world… but that’s just a theory, as far as I know.
All in all, this situation all works pretty well as a story, but I do have one issue. While all the characters recognize and continually repeat that you came falling out of a rift with weird, modern clothes (which is actually the same outfit you begin with in Pokémon X&Y, which suggests that the player is from the Kalos region) they never really ask you about it. They go on and on about what it must be like beyond the rift, and while you could certainly argue that it’s because the player lost their memory, this is never mentioned or even pondered. It’s all made weirder when considering that there is another character who also came from a foreign land and lost his memory, and this character speculates about where he came from and other NPCs talk about him. While this doesn’t destroy the experience or anything, it clashes hard with the immersion the game is attempting to create throughout the rest of the adventure.
There is something about the story that is particularly important to Catholics aside from sub-par writing, however (yes that’s a joke). A recurring theme throughout the entire game is religion. It’s not mentioned just once or a couple times like many past entries, but rather is, well, kind of the whole focus of the story. The land of Hisui is home to two different religious sects, known as the Diamond and Pearl clans. They both claim to worship the almighty Sinnoh, but the Diamond clan places an importance on time while the Pearl clan… does… not? The Pearl clan doesn’t really mention a philosophy aside from not worrying so much about time, at least from what I could gather. Regardless, because of this difference, the clans are constantly fighting each other over the belief that their enemies are worshiping a false deity. They are obviously thinking of the Pokémon Dialga and Palkia, who were also deities in the original Pokémon Diamond and Pearl along with its remakes, of course. Going further than this, there are several “Noble Pokémon” throughout the game who are seen as blessed by Sinnoh according to the two clans and are given offerings from their respective wardens. (They make for some pretty awesome boss battles too, but that’s for the gameplay section). Finally, the Pokémon Arceus is said to be the creator of everything a few times in the game, and while I suspect there is something in the endgame that focuses on it more heavily, I’m not going to look it up and spoil it for myself as I usually do since I am doubtful it would have a significant impact on the parental/morality warnings anyways.
Point is, religion plays a bigger role in this game than any past Pokémon titles, so it’s something Catholics and especially parents should be aware of. As an adult, I’m obviously not internalizing imaginary Pokémon religious teachings or worshiping the cool blue and pink guys, but for younger impressionable children things could play out differently and I think Game Freak kind of understood this. Open-world games like these tend to have a bit of a higher barrier to entry anyway, so I think they saw this as their opportunity to dabble in more mature themes. The player character is even said to be about 15 or so (rather than the usual 11-year old kid who somehow becomes the most skilled trainer in the world), so I suspect they may have been thinking this would be the most common age among the players.
Enough about the story, though – let’s get to the most important bit for the scoring: the gameplay. The world is open and mostly beautiful, giving the player full control over the camera to see everything they want, even during battles. Once again following the path of Mario Odyssey/Breath of the Wild, you spend most of your time running around doing what interests you, occasionally tackling main quests while slowly filling out a seemingly endless list of optional, smaller quests on the side. This formula works surprisingly well for Pokémon, probably thanks to the whole monster-catching thing. I had never thought about it before, but being able to hop into the grass and catch some team members was always a freeing aspect to the otherwise extremely linear experience the previous games offered, so it feels very much at home in a game like this.
Additionally, this game doesn’t have ANY patches of grass – well, for Pokémon at least. In Legends Arceus, grass is for the player. There are two different ways to catch ‘mons: engage in usual battles by simply throwing one of your team members at a wild Pokémon, or sneak up on it by crouching, throwing berries, and hiding in grass or using a smoke bomb. If you do engage in battle, it’ll be the usual turn-based combat, although now with the addition of strong and agile style moves, which allow you to attack slower but with more power & effects (like paralysis, poison etc.), or faster but with less power & effects, respectively. This means that battles aren’t always carried out one turn after the other – if you engage a strong Pokémon in the wild that’s several levels higher than your team, be prepared to get wiped out before you even have a chance to make a move.
Of course, even though you aren’t forced to battle, this doesn’t entirely mitigate the risk of the wild. If you aren’t willing to send one of your members out to take some hits, the enemy will focus on YOU instead. That’s right, wild Pokémon ATTACK you in this game. If you aren’t stealthy enough and wild Pokémon spot you, they will either run away or attack, and the vast majority choose the latter. It is genuinely terrifying to be chased by some of these guys and expect to get knocked out a couple times, which will lose you some items. The place you’re gonna get knocked out the most though is in boss battles. Those Noble Pokémon I mentioned earlier, you fight ‘em head on. This occurs in real time, and has the player throwing balms, which are meant to calm the Pokémon down and deplete its frenzy meter. It’s accompanied by occasional moments of turn-based battle and these were definitely my favorite bits of the entire game.
My only gripe with any of these new mechanics is that I feel like there can actually be a few too many Pokémon around at times, and it can be a bit annoying to always have attacks flying out from different angles when you’re just trying to harvest some apricorns from a tree.
Wait… harvest? Apricorns? That’s right, the land of Hisui is not just filled to the brim with Pokémon but also materials. Anything from apricorns and berries to actual wood and ore can be found throughout the region, in varying quantities. I’m not sure if this was actually in any of the trailers for the game, but there’s a full out crafting system going on here. While you can still technically buy most items from NPCs, prices are so high and cash is so limited that you are forced to make most of your own luggage. I think this mechanic works pretty well for the most part, my only complaints is that the inventory limit seems a tiny bit too restrictive before you get all the upgrades – but that really could just be my desire to gather everything I see in sight – and that medicinal herbs are a bit too scarce considering how often they are needed in crafting (for potions, which you will be using a LOT of).
Alright, I’ve got no good segway for this but it’s time to talk about the graphics, perhaps the most controversial aspect of modern Pokémon titles. Honestly, it’s probably the part of this game that brings it down the most, but I wouldn’t say they are anywhere near as troubling as it was in previous titles. It is an open-world game on the Switch after all, and for the most part it looks decent. Again, still lacking when compared to Zelda in some areas – antialiasing is not great, and shading can sometimes bring about a weird glow. Sometimes when Pokémon are far enough away from you, they will use less frames of animation (like, WAY less frames) and this does just look bad. Most of the time though this was a rarity or I didn’t notice, so it’s not a huge complaint but definitely something that doesn’t feel at home in a AAA title.
On a lighter note however, battle animations in this game are very much improved over past ones. Remember how I complained in my last review about the exact same animations being used over and over for nearly a decade? This time they actually made new ones, and for every move along with a few more for each Pokémon as far as I can tell. While it’s still not as good as I think it could be, battles look much more acceptable and feel WAY more epic. Pokémon actually get up close and hit each other when fighting (still in a cartoony sort of manner) instead of the infamous “throwing bites” that have plagued games of old. I particularly like how they will let out a roar after defeating an opponent and get knocked back when hit by a strong move.
There’s a handful of real, animated cutscenes as well and they all look amazing. Unfortunately, being an RPG and all of that, there are plenty of interactions that are kind of like sudo-cutscenes that don’t really use many unique animations and these tend to look.. eh, not great. I feel like they could have made at least a few more generic animations for these. For example, a certain one for when your character gets handed an item would be much appreciated since that happens quite often throughout the game. Instead, we get a cut to black (which happens most of the time) and when it fades our character is just there holding and staring at the item. Yuck.
Alright, I’ve talked about a lot in this review so far and even though I technically could have covered even more, I’m gonna keep this review from becoming our longest ever and allow myself to touch on one final area before looking at this from a faith perspective. This final bit that I feel is most important to talk about is the music. Among all the controversies Pokémon has faced over the years, one thing fans have never stopped loving is that music. Even throughout Sword & Shield, the soundtrack in Pokémon games has remained impressive and this game is no different. Legends Arceus contains a mix of both old and new tunes, and man do they hit hard. A piano accompanies some of your trips in the wilderness, and will kick in at just the right time when you get a change of scenery. The older themes such as Jubilife City (which is played in Jubilife village, of course) and the wild encounter theme make grand returns with heavy revamps to accommodate the open-world and old-timey feel of the game while keeping enough the same to remind you that this is undoubtedly the Sinnoh region. 5/5 right there.
And while I love the music in this game, it does not have a place at Mass so I will unfortunately have to try and clear it out of my mind when Christ literally becomes present before my very eyes this Sunday. Something from this game that does have a place at Mass, though… is this lesson that I’m about to discuss!
…Was that an OK segway? I guess if it wasn’t, you guys wouldn’t be reading this right now, so… onwards we go.
As Catholics, there is in fact a lesson this game has to teach us besides the benefits of being kind to animals, and that is the ramifications of schism. As I mentioned before, Pokémon Legends Arceus contains two religious sects that are quite uneasy with each other, even with the implication that they may have warred in the past. In the end of the game we learn that in reality, neither of them was wrong about “almighty Sinnoh” since both of their gods exist. Of course, among different sects of Christianity, most disagreements aren’t about two different gods but rather the nature of the one true God, but that doesn’t matter for the comparison I have to make.
It is very much clear that the Diamond and Pearl clan’s bickering (which they do a lot of) is holding them back. Unlike the Galaxy Team, who are united and living together in one peaceful village, the Diamond & Pearl clans live far apart from each other in tents out in the wilderness. Stopping conversation after failing to change the hearts of the other side, in their hardness of heart they were unable to learn from each other and as a result held an incomplete worldview for who knows how long. This is a mistake I see many groups make in the modern day, even when they claim to be open to foreign influence. Just because someone’s general school of thought is different from yours doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten some things right and have things to share with you.
There was a reason several Protestants were invited to participate in Vatican II – not as part of a sinister plan to try and destroy the Catholic Church but rather to offer invaluable insight to the state of the Christian world that most Catholics simply wouldn’t be able to supply. More often than you might think, great truths and lessons can even be found from people who we might see as misled in many different ways. Just think of C.S. Lewis, who is continually praised amongst Catholics for his many great works of Christian literature – and yet he remained Anglican throughout his life. Now, is there something to be said for sticking solely to Catholic teachers in an effort to avoid ingesting error along with truth? Absolutely, but to those who are well-versed in the faith and able to separate the good from the bad, they have the ability, nay, perhaps even the responsibility in some cases to dialogue with others and make great discoveries that otherwise would have remained hidden from the whole faithful or perhaps just to that single person. As you make your way through Pokémon Legends Arceus, take the opportunity to remind yourself of the ramifications of building nothing but walls around one’s community. It didn’t get the Diamond & Pearl clans very far, and it won’t do much good for you either.
In short, Pokémon Legends Arceus is a genuine instance of the series actually maturing for once, both in terms of gameplay and the topics that are explored. The Hisuian people’s religion plays a central role in the main story and while it isn’t necessarily discussed that deeply, it is talked about frequently and therefore raises the barrier to entry. I am cautiously optimistic for the future of the series, and sincerely hope we see this new formula and scope stick around.
Priestly comment by Fr. Stephen (trekkie4christ):
This is the first Pokémon game I’ve owned since the original Red/Blue/Yellow, but it’s not because I don’t like the series. Rather it’s because this is the first entry that has felt more immersive than the originals. I love the shift to a 3D environment, and most of all I’ve enjoyed the ability to catch Pokémon without fighting them first, just by throwing the Pokéball at them. It’s a much more peaceful way of catching ’em all, a way that seems much more Franciscan.
Magic/Occult: The legendary Pokémon in the game are deities and are worshiped by many of the people & referenced often, while the noble Pokémon you fight are given offerings by the wardens. The player character is essentially serving Arceus, the Pokemon said to be the creator of all things, as they seek out all Pokémon. As usual, some Pokémon are ghosts/spirits and can possess psychic powers. Probably the most extreme version of this is Spiritomb, who is made of 108 spirits trapped to a rock for their misdeeds, and are actually collected by the player throughout this game (I didn’t mention it in the review but it’s a good bit of fun!) Finally, you can buy charms from a lady in the village which, presumably by the power of Arceus, protect you from certain kinds of harm.
Sex/nudity: A few Characters, or at least Irida of the Pearl clan, are dressed in somewhat revealing clothing.
Violence: As always things are very cartoony, but now animation looks more realistic and the player (along with the Pokémon of course) also get hurt and black out/faint. When you are about to black out, the effect around the screen turns red and actually somewhat looks like blood. Also, you can throw things at Pokémon & stun them, although a very comedic bonk sound effect usually plays.