Though Pokemon Legends: Arceus had me at the outset, I knew it had lodged its hooks into me when I walked around the vast Obsidian Fieldlands, battling wild Pokemon with my Pichu. As his trainer, I was able to run around during fights rather than be stuck behind the camera — as was so often the case during the turn-based battles of previous games. When Pichu finished off a wild Bidoof, I walked up beside him. He turned to me, giving me a knowing look and a little cheer before I returned him into his pokeball.
It was a small moment, but it encapsulated the many little ways in which Pokemon Legends: Arceus breaks down the barriers between me and the world of Pokemon like nothing before. Sometimes, it’s through small tweaks, such as letting me release all six of my Pokemon from their pokeballs and talk with them as we explore the world together. At other times, it’s due to pivotal story moments that use the series’ mythology to create one of the more gripping stories the series has put out in over two decades. More than ever, it feels like my presence in the Pokemon world isn’t something I have to fill in with my imagination.
Set in the Hisui region, a historical version of Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl’s Sinnoh, Pokemon Legends: Arceus takes you to a point in time before the modern culture of interacting with Pokemon, which largely centers around the competitive sport of Pokemon battling. Instead, you are transported back to an untamed era where no one knows much of anything about the world. Pokemon and humanity don’t yet have the partnership central to the franchise, and your job is to catch, study, and integrate these creatures into a society that has largely been afraid of them up to this point.
This is the advent of a world I’ve known for over 25 years. Free from the shouts of crowds cheering as the player battles to become a Pokemon champion, the mythology and culture of Pokemon Legends: Arceus stand out in ways they never have in other mainline Pokemon games. One of my biggest takeaways from Pokemon Shining Pearl was the realization that much of my vision of this universe had been me extrapolating from the stories it told and imagining how vast and unknowable it could be. But Pokemon Legends: Arceus is one of the few franchise installments where the lore doesn’t feel like collateral damage in service of the collectathon and competitive play.
That commitment to dealing with the world rather than pushing it away with all its might creates some of my favorite story moments and characters in Pokemon’s lifetime. Pokemon Legends: Arceus begins when the title character, the god of the Pokemon universe, pulls the player back in time to when Sinnoh was known as Hisui. They appear through a rift in the sky that has the local Diamond and Pearl clans terrified of what it could mean for Hisui and its people. But the game isn’t as centered on those clans as it is the Galaxy Expedition Team, a group that has traveled to Hisui from other regions to study Pokemon and establish a new home for themselves in Jubilife Village.
The colonialism of it all is something the game attempts to interrogate. Diamond and Pearl clan members express distrust and active dislike for the group and their practices. They don’t agree with using pokeballs to capture Pokemon. Framing a cherished piece of franchise iconography as a product and perpetrator of colonialism is bold. It’s also in line with the series’ recent introspection around the core conceit of Pokemon in things like the Detective Pikachu movie, which is set in a city where Pokemon battling is outlawed. Ultimately, Arceus is set in a time that will eventually catch up to the Pokemon world we know, so the concept is eventually accepted as Diamond and Pearl clan members coming to see pokeballs as tools that help humanity and Pokemon form connections and friendships. But an acknowledgment of that friction, and watching people collectively come to terms with it, was the kind of worldbuilding I wanted out of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, to begin with.
While the Hisui region is dealing with the beginnings of Pokemon culture as we know it, it’s also sitting under a rift in the sky releasing energy that causes the Lords of the region — powerful Pokemon that act as protectors of the clans and the Pokemon in the wild — to go into a frenzy and attack their allies. This acts as a bridge between all three groups to collaborate and look for a solution, and as a gateway into watching the early relationships between humankind and Pokemon unfold. Members of all three groups make up one of the most memorable Pokemon casts in recent memory, paving the way for some subversive twists and turns.
All of this is held up by a story that truly gets its hands dirty digging into Hisui’s place as the origin point for the Pokemon universe. Arceus brings the player to this time period for a reason, and just what the creator of this world wants from a 15-year-old kid is the core mystery hanging over every Pokemon I caught and every new area of Hisui I explored. The answers it gives are some of the most effective uses of the key players of the Sinnoh region, far and away surpassing the story of Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl, where legendary entities like Dialga and Palkia existed more as corporeal forms for ideas than individuals with purposes and motivations. Pokemon Legends: Arceus’ payoff in its final acts delighted me as a long-time fan, for it helped illustrate Hisui as a place of legend and provided a conclusion that is satisfying even without broader context.
It’s worth noting that much of that satisfaction comes from the story’s conclusions to threads following the Diamond and Pearl clans, prominent characters like Commander Kamado of the Galaxy Team, and the ultimate explanations for why the main character has been plopped from one time period into the past. However, the ultimate conclusion found by capturing every Pokemon in the Hisui region is underwhelming in the face of a story that, up until that point, gives a lot of care to everyone involved. It feels like it actively avoids resolving a major plotline to let me keep running around the world as a 2022 video game must. I’m interested to see if Arceus gets expansions along the lines of Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield where Game Freak can properly finish the story. Right now, it feels like a stellar Pokemon story is hanging in limbo, devoid of proper closure in the name of allowing the video game to continue.
But while the trappings of an open-world-adjacent game interfere with the story at the eleventh hour, the freedom of walking through a Pokemon game without the battle screens, menus, and HMs that have kept the series stiff for decades makes the world feel more alive than ever. Unfortunately, it also highlights the ways in which Pokemon Legends: Arceus falls short on that same issue.
At times, the Hisui region feels lively and offers some of the most memorable wild Pokemon encounters I’ve experienced. Within the first hour, I was traveling through the Obsidian Fieldlands, a grassy, mountainous area just outside Jubilife Village. In my search for new Pokemon, I stumbled upon a group of Beautifly who were much stronger than anyone I had on my team at the time. I ran away from them without heeding my surroundings. In my hurry to escape, I didn’t realize I had run straight into the den of an Alpha Luxio, a larger and more powerful version of a typically inoffensive monster. The same freedom that made flights over the seas of the Cobalt Coastlands feel serene created moments where I walked straight into danger if I wasn’t paying attention.
Pokemon existing in the overworld as wildlife, rather than just as a designated icon on the field to start a random battle, had me constantly sidetracked. I thoroughly explored each map just to see who or what I could find. I’ve often been a person who prefers linearity and structure in RPGs, so I was surprised when seeing a Pokemon I hadn’t caught out of the corner of my eye would lead to an hour-long detour traversing another area. Eventually, I’d shake that wanderlust off and head back to where I was supposed to meet someone from Pearl Clan or the Galaxy Team. By the time I finally returned to the main path, my party of friends would likely be a bit different.
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That focus on collecting Pokemon is what makes me — a person who prefers structure over busy, open-world environments — more at peace with the lack of things to do in Pokemon Legends: Arceus than many others. Because beyond the Pokemon themselves, the world can often feel completely barren of life. There are side quests — often tied to capturing and studying specific Pokemon — to be done, but I put them off until the endgame. Being in this world, finding and seamlessly capturing Pokemon without having to be transferred to a battle screen, was far more enticing than any of the quests more populated versions of these maps would have had.
The wild, untamed lands of Hisui aren’t yet what they will become by Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl. But just as with finding new Pokemon, I found tranquility in honing in on one goal and achieving it with Pokemon I cared about by my side. If you’re looking for a great “open-world Pokemon game,” Pokemon Legends: Arceus is not that. At least, as far as we have come to expect the genre title to imply. But as a Pokemon game that happens to take place in larger environments, it breaks down roadblocks that have kept past entries from soaring.
As I finished completing the first Pokedex, I stood at what would one day be known as Spear Pillar. Alongside me was my Raichu, who was once the Pichu who gave me that knowing look and cheer as we were training against Bidoofs in the Obsidian Fieldlands. We’d been through so much since I fell from the sky and into the Hisui region. Now, I had this moment with him and the rest of my team to just stand together and take it all in. I walked around, interacting with each of them as they interacted with each other, and it was the closest I’d felt to my team since finishing the original Pokemon Pearl, where my “canon” party of six came together. But even then, that was something I’d projected into the world, not something the game could truly reflect.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus feels like the product of a realization that the series outgrew the shackles of its structure long ago. In most games, Pokemon’s mythology felt hamfisted into stories that were more interested in what it meant to be a Pokemon League champion than anything else. By severing its ties to competitive sport, Pokemon can delve deeper into a world that hasn’t felt quite as large as its ideas. As I keep trucking through the side quests with my Raichu by my side, I have to wonder if going back to earning eight badges and beating the Pokemon League will ever scratch this itch again. Because all I can think about now is learning more about a universe that, despite spending 25 years in, I’ve never known quite as well as I do now that I’ve finished Pokemon Legends: Arceus.