Pokémon Arceus Review: Is it Worth Playing Now?
Pokémon Arceus looked to take the beloved series in a long-overdue new direction, promising an open-world with emergent gameplay where the lovable monsters would be seamlessly present in the wild. The classic Pokémon formula had long grown stale for me, so I was excited to see what Arceus had to offer.
So is Pokémon Arceus worth playing now? Let’s find out…
Very Zelda: Right off the bat it’s clear that Arceus’ main inspiration is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After a tutorial segment, the first large area opens up to you for exploration, and the wide open terrain could be directly copied from one of BotW’s green open fields. You’re actively encouraged to shoot off in any direction; gone are the gated pathways of previous Pokémon games. It’s exactly the sort of open design that fans of the series have been crying out for.
But open exploration isn’t where the similarities to Nintendo’s legendary series end. The side-quest design is pulled straight form Link’s open world adventure, with NPCs scattered throughout the world serving as optional quest givers, which – for the most part – provide a nice layer of depth to the game, as the majority of the quests I found to be engaging and fun, and offered more than simple A-to-B fetching.
Challenges: Another fairly substantial change Arceus makes to the usual formula relates to the catching of Pokemon. Instead of just catching a critter to fill its entry in the Pokedex, each Pokémon comes with specific challenges that incentivise you to catch them multiple times. You might have to catch one after battling and defeating it, but also one by sneaking up on it. Other challenges encourage you to learn about the mechanics of the game, for example, the challenge ‘defeat a Squirtle using electicity moves’ incentivises you to do so via these Pokedex points, and in doing so teaches the player about weakenesses and strengths of Pokémon types. You can ‘stack’ each challenge too, i.e. doing the same challenge multiple times will give you even more experience points to upgrade your Trainer Rank, which in turn unlocks new areas and allows stronger Pokémon to obey you.
Snappy hook: One of the main reasons I loved New Pokemon Snap was the addictive hook of taking a bunch of photos, then having the professor analyse them and award me points for verious criteria based on their quality. Arceus brings this hook back, with every ‘run’ being each time you venture out from your camp and return to the professor after cathcing and battling a bunch of Pokémon. He then gives you points that upgrade your overall rank, based on how many you’ve caught, whether they’re new to your Pokedex or not, etc. This adds another layer of gamification the monster catching that the other games didn’t have, and makes completing the Pokedex a compelling and rewarding endeavour.
Battling and catching: The core mechanics of battling and catching Pokemon have been revolutionised, for the better. No longer are you forced to run around bushes hoping to trigger a random turn-based battle against an unknown Pokémon, thank goodness. Instead, every wild Pokémon is visible and present in the world, and has to be approached in real-time.
How you catch them has also changed drastically for the better. You can choose whether to sneak up on them and chuck a ball at them if they havent spotted you, or you can dive into battle with them by hurling one of your Pokémon at them. In triggering a battle, things semalessly transition into battle mode, where you character can still walk around freely, and the battle is in the exact spot live in the world, rather than its own battle arena like the older games. It’s all so well done, and represents the biggest improvement Arceus has over the original formula.
Streamline: Building on the previous point, things are just so breezy and streamlined in Arceus. When you go to battle it’s just so seamless; no wading through menus, no break between battling and exploring, no pausing to be told what you’ve just picked up/found – it all just flows together. It makes going back to the older games feel unbearbly laborious in comparison.
Plonk your Pokémon down: A nice feature, and one that further cements the sense of seamlessness between the Pokémon and the world they’re in, is the ability to release your team of six Pokémon from ther Pokeballs to sit a relax with you. They’ll then do a variety of poses like sleep or shout, and you can arrange them for nice group photos. Hanging out and relaxing with my Haunter and Kadabra, taking some selfies, is just a nice feature and one you’d imagine trainers would spend their time doing in the world of Pokémon.
Prettymon: Graphically there’s no doubt Arceus is a mixed bag at best, but where it shines is in the Pokémon themselves. They look almost as good as they do in New Pokemon Snap (the gold standard for Pokemon rendering) and considering there are so many more of them, with more animations, in Arceus that’s a really impressive feat.
Metroidvania: Another element borrowed from other adventurous Nintendo franchises is the light metroidvania-esque feature of having to go back to previously explored places to use newly acquired abilities, in order to access new parts of that area. See something on top of a hill? Come back later when you can climb it. See an island in the middle of a lake? Come back when you can swim. Speaking of which…
Climbing and swimming: Perhaps a spoiler, but after the first few hours the game really comes alive with the abilities you acquire. When I started playing, not being able to traverse the mountainous terrain a la Zelda felt like a real hamstrung design flaw, especially considering all the other siilarities with BotW. Thankfully, later on you acquire the ability to climb, along with swimming and a couple of others that really serve to enhance the freedom of movement. The game really begins for me when you have these core abilities purchased, and again going back to the earlier areas with your new abilities helps to make them feel fresh and new, as more zones within them can now be accessed via your new moves.
Character models: As mentioned, the Pokemon themselves look fantastic. However, the human models can leave a lot to be desired. Facially we’re fine, with some nice expressions and variety amongst the faces in the game, but some of the outfits are dreadully low-poly and look ripped straight out of a DS game.
Big but sparse: The size of the world is commendable, however where BotW had a way of making its spareser areas feel tranquil, and every inch of the world possessed a hand-crafted quality that made it seem they were sparse by design, whereas in Arceus these moments are fewer and far between. Now and then you’ll come across a nice pool of water hidden away in a crevace, but a lot of the terrain feels either ill-thought out or at worst completely copy-pasted.
Traversal: Arceus controls are fine, particularly on foot and in the water. However some of the other Pokemon you use for different types of traversal, like the climbing Sneasley or the Usaring for sniffing out treasure, feel like they could’ve used a bit more polish in the moment-to-moment movement.
Collectables: There’s a lot to collect and gather across Arceus’ world. These range form compelling to tediuous. The Pokémon themselves of course are brilliant, and as mentioned, filling out the Pokedex is a joy. There’s some that are fairly neat – there’s a Dark Souls-esque mechanic that lets you collect the dropped backpakcs of players that have fainted in their own games, adding a nice feeling of conneciton with the Arcues playing community. Then there are the wisps – floating orbs that scatter the world that you collect for an NPC. There are rewards for these wisps, but they do feel maguffinny, and frustratingly trigger a long animation whenever you find one, which seems completely against the streamlining philosophy of the rest of the game. Just let me walk over it and pick it up!
Wild Pokémon context: For the most part, the Pokémon in the wild don’t really get up to much other than wander around. It’s great seeing them in the wild of course, and the thrill of spotting a new one in the distance never gets old. However, it would be nice if they did a bit more – interact with the environment, or even better – each other. Coming across wild sparring Pokemon would have been a great touch. Now and again there will be some context to their placement – a mother with her surrounding children, or water-types near the ocean, etc, but it’s pretty surface-level stuff.
Pokémon uses: At any time, you can release any of your Pokemon into the environment around you, and if you’re near something interactive, it’ll perform that action on it – just like a HM move from the old games. Sadly this feels a little undercooked, as any Pokemon can smash through a rock or attack a tree to knock berries from it. It would have been better if this was more developed, with environmental obstacles and puzzles requiring specific Pokémon or moves, that would challenge the player’s logic to solve.
Empty buildings: You can go into most of the buildings in Arceus, but sadly there’s a lot of cookie-cutter copy and pasting going on in terms of the interior design, and there’s often not a lot going on in any of them – most of the time it’s just a couple of NPCs with some generic dialogue about how much they love Pokémon. Riveting stuff. This might be forgiveable if there were hundreds of buildings around, but this isn’t GTA we’re talking about – there’s only one main town that’s anything close to being fleshed out, and even this suffers from cut and paste syndrome. Disappointing.
Some seams: Another area where it pales in comparison to BotW is the overworld’s sense of seamlessness. Arceus’ ‘open world’ is more akin to something like Dragon Age, where the world is split into zones, which can’t be traversed between without going via the menu and a loading screen. It’s not a massive deal but does feel like a bit of a dropped catch, as BotW showed it can be done, and doing so adds a real sense of scope to the world.
Muddy scenery: Outside of the Pokemon themsevles, Arceus doesn’t look great, and the scenery is the biggest culprit here. The textures are low-res, the terrian is jagged, and some of the water looks atrocious. Again, a bit of care would’ve gone a long way.
It’s really just a proof of concept: All of these gripes really boil down to one thing – the whole game is essentially a proof of concept. A testing of the water of these radical new mechanics for a Pokémon game, with all the other parts boiler-plated. As brillaint as the core catching and battling mechanics are, having what feels like an vanilla asset pack make up the rest of the game just wears thin after a while, and the lack of care gone into things like the world design and the graphics dampens everything down.
Tutorial too long: I appreciate the need for a tutorial here, especially with the new mechanics that’ll take some getting used to, even for Pokémon veterans, but boy does it go on and on. Meeting forgettable NPC after NPC, trawlng through text – it makes the point where it finally sets you free feel like more of a relief than a moment of joy.
Story a slog: The story really is diabolical. Oddly, where things like the graphics and overworld feel like they’ve had too little love and attention poured in, the story conversely feels over-engineered and convoluted. The characters are dull and forgettable, and the game just keeps adding more and more of them, introducing you to the head of some clan or copy-paste scientist, none of whom have anything interesting to say. It wasn’t long before I’d just skip over any text as quickly as I could, just to get back to the catching, levelling and battling grind. Absolutely awful.
Ghost towns: As mentioned, there’s one main hub town, and it looks chamring enough. There aren’t any others in the game, which feels odd for a Pokémon game, a franchise known for its vibrant urban areas. Instead there are several camps of tents where the various clans are set up, and honestly there’s nothing to do in any of them. Not even quests. Just NPCs standing around. It’s very odd and represents the clearest sign of how underbaked things are outside of the core mechanics. Where are my gyms? Where are my other trainers to battle? Nothing.
Pokemon Arceus is an odd one. On the one hand, the catching, battling and Pokedex-filling mechanics are the best of the series, and the game is worth playing because of it. It’s just a shame everything else is so undercooked, and as you play the sense that this is a bet test for the real deal coming later on grows and grows, until you end up feeling short-changed. A shame. 6/10.
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