Life, the Universe, and Battling – Pokémon Legends: Arceus

For better or worse, the Pokémon games have stuck to a tried-and-true formula that has brought it great success for nearly 30 years. While there have been some oddballs, the clear emphasis on the series has been on a fairly gentle-yet-complex turn-based experience that allows it to remain popular and accessible. For those wanting more—like a real-time battle experience—it can feel like a futile wish.

The pseudo-open-world of Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn’t exactly the game to answer these prayers, but it is the most daring title to date. It’s sort of a middle ground between various poles—not a full-fledged main title entry, but one that still maintains most of the core concepts of Pokémon. The open field at the center of the Sword and Shield games is greatly expanded upon here, and is in fact pretty much the feel of Legends: Arceus. The game also incorporates some real-time gameplay elements that put your trainer in peril instead of just your Pokémon, but battles inevitably come down to a turn-based experience, albeit one where the mechanics have a few added twists. All this makes for a fairly refreshing game that’s like a foot pressing halfway on the gas pedal. Some things feel familiar and other things are real surprises.

The premise of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is that you have been transported back in time to an era before the Sinnoh region was even called by that name. You arrive right on the cusp of the invention of the Poké Ball, which means that the so-called Hisui region is a place with a fundamentally different relationship with Pokémon consisting of fear and reverence. I was genuinely surprised to have the player character experience a time slip, and I have to wonder why the developers went with this angle instead of just having it be a child of the past. The story is decent enough, but I think the gameplay itself is what’s most interesting.

Because this is supposed to be a historical period that’s also more dangerous for regular folks, the new mechanics (or sometimes lack thereof) feel like both a throwback and a new frontier. There are no features like traits or even held items, let alone something as modern as Dynamaxing, giving me a real Generation-1 vibe at times. I experienced a number of moments where I was worried about a Pokémon having something like Levitate, only to quickly realize that such things don’t exist in Hisui. 

The really major change comes from the way attacks can have different “speeds” to them, such that while battles are still fundamentally turn-based, sometimes you or your opponent can go two or more turns in a row. Combined with the fact that things like status effects and stat buffs/debuffs work quite differently all around, and the result is something familiar, yet strangely new. Also, sometimes, you’ll have to fight 1v2 or more, whether because you caught the attention of multiple wild Pokémon, or you’re fighting someone whose village culture is one where having multiple Pokémon out to do battle is perfectly normal. It’s not like any standard rules have been codified yet—which adds to the feel that this game takes place in a bygone era.

As for the real-time elements, the main ones are special boss fights against guardians known as “Noble Pokémon,” where you have to pelt extremely powerful Pokémon with bags of soothing balm and create opportunities to engage them in a proper Pokémon battle. The added factor of having to learn boss patterns and how to best dodge their attacks brings a dexterity element mostly absent from older games, but the awkward transition into battle mode feels like it could use some work—like a bizarre cousin of chess boxing. Maybe if you still had to dodge collateral damage while your Pokémon is engaging them, it could integrate the two pieces better.

There are hints that the upcoming Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are going to utilize at least some elements of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though to what extent is still not entirely clear. While I do enjoy that real-time aspect, I’m not sure if I necessarily want it for the main series. I personally would be served with a solid hybrid between real-time and turn-based, but when I think about the fantastic accessibility of Pokémon that has allowed players young and old to approach it regardless of dexterity, and of the stories where kids have learned to read because they played these games, I don’t want that taken away. Maybe we could live in a world where Pokémon can somehow be both, and everyone can be happy.