Anyone who’s ever played a typical main series Pokémon game kinda knows the routine. You control a little guy or gal who catches small monsters called Pokémon; you customize and bond with a specific team of powerful ones; you travel the world and take your team to battle elite trainers; and then you work to build your squad up to the point of besting a gaggle of baddies who want to take over the world.
However, the gamemakers at Game Freak—designers of the new Pokémon Legends: Arceus—have done their best to shake things up this go-round. They’ve created a game that’s much more of an action-adventure title, where running and battling with new game mechanics is the focus.
Legends: Arceus drops your girl or boy character out of the sky through a mysterious space/time rift, leaving you in an ancient era when people and Poké weren’t the best of buddies. Mankind is just beginning to try and learn what these little beasties are. In fact, the new Pokémon-capturing device called a Poké Ball is just in its experimental stage.
You meet a geeky professor named Laventon and various clans of people who’re all trying to piece together how to work with or defend against these strange creatures. In fact, most people are rather frightened to be anywhere near Pokémon, so your lack of fear and the ability to catch and train the monsters is impressive.
Oh, and monsters they are. In this world the Pokémon don’t hide in the tall grasses: You do!
This game completely reimagines how you go about capturing and battling Pokémon. Some Poké can be approached and caught with a quick ball toss, but most are much more aggressive than you’re used to. Sometimes it will take tossing out berries to distract your Poké-goal or stunning them with a mud ball. And most times it requires a good fight to weaken them enough to give in.
And not only will these aggressive wild Poké attack the Pokémon you control, but they’ll attack you as well. So, running, hiding, sneaking, leaping and dodging is a common part of play.
Gathering recipes and ingredients and crafting the things you need—such as Poké Balls, potions and reviving crystals—is also an ongoing necessity. You can purchase items after earning money through your Pokémon cataloging duties, but most of the time it will be gathering and crafting that see you through. And you won’t find lots of cities or Pokémon centers to visit, either. This is a rugged pocket-monster trail filled with open plains and mountainsides.
Battling mechanics have gotten an overhaul as well. Things are much more strategic and purposeful when it comes to the Pokémon attacks and abilities. If some attacks are used enough to become “mastered,” for instance, they then can be used as either a “strong” or “agile” attack. An agile attack is faster and generally strikes first or even multiple times, but it’s less powerful. A strong attack packs a bigger punch, but it takes longer to wind up, leaving you open to additional damage from an opponent.
If you have the impression that this Pokémon world is a more aggressive one than in past games, that’s true. That said, it’s still an E-rated land that’s kept accessible to players of all ages. And it comes with a few lessons, too. When your character first shows up at the nearest human village, he or she is faced with five posted principles that they must uphold:
Those are all good rules for gameplay and … life in general. And in that light, we see in-game characters uphold them rigorously. We meet stern military-like characters here, but all are fair and earnest.
Also, while battles with the above-mentioned aggressive Pokémon can feel more perilous at times, they are never bloody. In fact, the battles with larger, more powerful “Noble” Pokémon are generally undertaken in an effort to calm the beasts, not injure or kill them. (They’ve been thrown into a fevered frenzy by the same kind of space/time disturbances that sent us to this ancient land.)
Conflicts between human clans must be resolved, as well. So, the game asks young players to think about the cooperation and communication that’s necessary between diverse communities of people. And overall, Legends: Arceus, like all Pokémon titles,encourages kids to think about their interactions and choices made with animals—both the ones they might encounter in the wild and pets they must care for.
On the battling front, the aggressive Pokémon in the game do give chase. And since they roam the lands in large herds, you can encounter some creatures that are not just huge and overpowering: You might find yourself facing more than one of them.
The attacks can focus on specific elements such as blasts of fire or water, or psychic rays that leave you temporarily stunned. Claws can rake and sharp teeth bite. But other than bright onscreen flashes and a loss of HP, there is no bloody or noticeable physical damage to characters. If at any time you’re overpowered by an attacking Pokémon, your HP is lowered and the edges of the screen get darker and then turn red before your character blacks out. But then you’re revived to try again.
One element that parents might be a bit wary of is the spiritual side of Pokémon. As with past games, there is a far-Eastern spiritual element here, involving god-like powers and Poké-evolution in the gaming mix. It’s not heavy handed, but the idea of Sinnoh, a spiritual entity that’s said to have created the world humans know, is accepted as fact. And there are some mysterious powers woven through the Poké ranks that impact the space-time disturbances at the heart of the gameplay.
It should also be noted that there is no “easy” mode in this game. And with the added strategic battle layers, that might make some elements a little more difficult than other Pokémon offerings for younger players.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a very interesting genre-shifting approach to a Pokémon game. Its revamped systems and battle mechanics will be refreshing for many. That said, any battling or spiritual elements that may have concerned parents with past games are still poké-ing along in this one, too.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.