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Promotional art for Pokémon Legends: Arceus with all three starters and Legendary Pokémon Image: Nintendo

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Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a messy, worthwhile experiment

Legends: Arceus finally gives Pokémon fans something new

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a bit of a mess — but all first drafts are.

It stumbles often on its way to innovation (it’s trying to evolve a nearly 24-year-old series, after all) and brings equal parts brilliance and frustration in its updated systems. But the good bits in Pokémon Legends: Arceus outweigh the bad, rounding out a successful first attempt at an action-centric Pokémon game.

Legends: Arceus takes place in the Hisui region — an ancient version of the Sinnoh continent first introduced in Pokémon Generation 4, Diamond and Pearl — and I play as a young trainer with skills far beyond my age. My goal is to complete the first ever Pokédex and “catch them all.” It’s a familiar concept for a Pokémon game, albeit in a feudal Japan-inspired setting, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus does away with some of the series’ staples. There are no trainers waiting to lock eyes with me on the road, and random Pokémon don’t challenge me to battle if I step in tall grass.

I do, however, still spend my time hunting around various biomes, looking to catch and battle a wide variety of wild Pokémon. And that’s where Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ biggest strength lies: It seems to know just how tedious the Pokémon series can be, so it offers a transformative take on battling and capturing Pokémon, the historically slowest, yet most important features in the series.

Hisui functions as a semi-open world, divided up into five major biomes, each filled to the brim with unique Pokémon to survey and capture. While on my adventure, I have two modes that I can swap between by tapping the X button: items and Pokémon. In item mode I can throw various Poké Balls to instantly catch wild Pokémon without needing to battle them. If I swap to Pokémon mode, I can tab through my party and instantly start a more traditional turn-based battle by throwing my Pokémon at a wandering monster. They’re useful for calming a Pokémon that’s spotted me, or weakening them if they keep escaping my capture attempts.

A trainer hanging out with his Pokémon in Pokémon Legends: Arceus Image: Nintendo via Polygon

Each of Legends: Arceus’ wild Pokémon behave a bit differently when I approach. Bidoof scurry through the grass together, and aren’t too observant; three quick Poké Ball throws (aimed like a traditional third-person shooter) and I’ve added a family of the beaver-like Pokémon to my collection. Gyarados, on the other hand, are harder to hit with a Poké Ball, and also more dangerous. If I alert one to my presence, it could knock me out with only a few attacks — if I don’t throw one of my party out to defend me, rampaging Pokémon will attack me directly in Legends: Arceus — causing me to drop some of my items and send me back to camp.

As someone who hates the interruption of random battles, I never catch more than one or two Pokémon of a single breed in a typical Pokémon game. But I was drowning in Wurmples mere minutes into my first adventure in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. It’s so easy and fluid to just grab a Pokémon and add them to my party while I’m exploring the game’s verdant fields or snowy tundra. There’s always a new type of Pokémon around every corner, and it makes the world feel alive. But like many things in Legends: Arceus, that speed and accessibility is both a blessing and a curse.

To fill out a Pokémon's entry in the Pokédex, I need to complete a variety of survey tasks such as: capturing several of the same breed, defeating them in combat numerous times, or watching them use specific moves. There are no traditional gyms or gym badges in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, so progress and more powerful items are gated by my Pokédex rank — which I can only increase by completing these survey tasks. Hunting and capturing new Pokémon is what keeps the game engaging. But the grind to capture another version of the same monster can get tedious when I’m just a few hundred points away from unlocking access to Great Balls.

Sometimes I’ll need to throw out a party member for a battle with a powerful Pokémon or an enemy trainer. While it’s not required for catching most Pokémon, battling is necessary to complete some survey tasks, defeat story-relevant encounters, and level up my party quickly. Thankfully, the battle systems upgrades make it a more strategic activity — and one that takes far less time to actually execute — but it also caused some of the biggest headaches in my playthrough.

A trainer riding a Pokémon in Pokémon Legends: Arceus Image: Nintendo via Polygon

Instead of a back-and-forth battle, Legends: Arceus is focused entirely on speed. If one Pokémon is faster than the other, it can potentially attack multiple times in a row. This couples with the new mastery system, wherein Pokémon can increase an attack’s power at the cost of delaying their next move, or act twice in a row by speeding up an attack, causing it to deal less damage. It’s a mechanic we’ve seen in several other recent turn-based RPGs like Octopath Traveler, Bravely Default 2, and Ruined King: A League of Legends Story.

These seemingly small changes add a new layer of strategy to the Pokémon series, and for the first time in years, I had to make meaningful decisions during non-Elite Four battles. But there were also battles that left me wanting to chuck my pro controller at one of my TVs. In a story-crucial battle toward the end of the game, an enemy trainer’s Pokémon attacked me three times before my fully evolved, over-leveled starter could move once. It knocked my Pokémon out before it even had a chance, and made me feel like I’d wasted all the time I’d spent leveling up before the battle.

Still, Pokémon Legends: Arceus made me care about battling, and I actually wish there were more trainer battles scattered throughout the world. But I missed some of the predictability found in the mainline series. Whenever I’d go to swap out one Pokémon for another mid-battle, I held my breath, never knowing if I’d have to take a hit from the enemy before I could attack. Hours in, I felt like the game didn’t give me enough information to make some of the strategic decisions I wanted to. I love the direction in which the battles are going with Legends: Arceus, but a handful of “what the hell” moments killed some of my enthusiasm.

That’s just the Pokémon Legends: Arceus experience. It’s filled with excellent ideas aimed at changing a series that has largely grown stale. But some of the execution breeds frustration. Exploring the open world is freeing, but also awkward, until I unlock more travel options later in the game. Legends: Arceus is graphically dreadful, with flat textures and pop-in rampant in every area, but the Pokémon animate wonderfully. Still, I’ll gladly take an imperfect Pokémon game that takes a chance on something different, even if it’s not always successful.

I could go on with Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ list of pros and cons for another 1,000 words only to further reinforce that the game is inconsistent. But Legends: Arceus is confident enough in its new direction that its missteps feel more like small annoyances than major issues – like a pebble in my shoe on an otherwise lovely walk.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus will be released on Jan. 28 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Switch using a code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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