Pokémon Legends: Arceus comes out on Switch this Friday, the latest entry in a series that has seen highs and lows since its first outing in 1996.
Game Freak's latest title currently has a 86 score on Metacritic based on 41 reviews. As a comparison, 2019's Pokémon Sword and Shield stood quite high at 80, while the recently released remakes Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl scored a little lower at 73.
It's worth mentioning that not all major outlets currently have a review out, with prominent publications such as Edge and Kotaku not given a code.
IGN's reporter Rebekah Valentine also mentioned that Nintendo restricted what could and could not be discussed at the time the review embargo lifted, which is worth keeping in mind when going through the reviews that have been published already.
The overall impression from critics who were able to go hands-on with Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a positive one, with the series taking a welcome step out of its comfort zone. But it is also an experience that suffers technically.
"Think of things you know about Pokémon. Series staples. There is every chance it is gone"Alex Donaldson
In his 4/5 stars review for VG247, Alex Donaldson praised the drastic change in formula that Arceus represents, labelling it "one of the best Pokémon in years."
"Think of things you know about Pokémon," he wrote. "Series staples. There is every chance it is gone. Pokémon automatically changing forms when they hit certain requirements? Gone; it's now an opt-in process, where you evolve Pokémon through the menu once you're ready. Random encounters? Gone, replaced with Pokémon out on the overworld. Gym Battles? Gone; they don't yet exist in this ancient version of the Poké-world. Learning moves via TMs and deleting old moves forever to make room for new ones? Gone, gone, gone. Even the very concept of a 'Pokémon Trainer' doesn't exist in this game, as the world it's set in is one before any of those systems and concepts of the Pokémon lore came to exist."
He advised to leave any preconceptions players might have about the Pokémon series at the door before getting into this latest entry.
"Reading forums this last week, for instance, I've seen people talking about their planned team -- but that's a moot point. In this game, your best way to complete key objectives is to change your team up, often. As such, it no longer makes sense to have a team of specific Pokémon you love and only use them (at least for much of the game). Subtle changes to the systems and concepts of Pokémon weave through the game to make many traditions obsolete -- and these tweaks and overhauls add up to create something incredibly fresh."
This sentiment was echoed by Sam Loveridge in her 4.5/5 review for GamesRadar+, who said that Arceus comes very close to being the "Pokémon game of [her] childhood dreams."
"It forces the story to focus on the Pokémon themselves, truly making them the star of the show in a way that no other entry really has"Sam Loveridge
"By shifting the Pokémon formula to focus on enhanced open-world exploration, and the quest to catch 'em all, Pokémon Legends: Arceus has truly revolutionised the series for a more modern audience," she wrote. "But that's not to say that it's perfect, as there are a couple of elements that hold this experimental Pokémon game back from being the very best the series has ever been. What it is able to accomplish is impressive, particularly for a 25-year-old series that's always been a little rigid with its formula."
In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the main objective is to complete the (first ever) Pokédex, for the Hisui region. But each Pokémon needs to be researched more thoroughly via a variety of tasks to be added as an entry, catching them won't just do the trick anymore.
"By stripping away the quest to 'beat the Elite Four' and focusing on the 'gotta catch 'em all' aspect of the tried-and-tested Pokémon formula, it forces the story to focus on the Pokémon themselves, truly making them the star of the show in a way that no other entry really has," Loveridge added. "The series has always excelled in the joy of discovery, but rather than lurking in the long grass, you'll find your next catch wandering around in the overworld. You can spot something you've not added to your Pokédex and make your way over, allowing yourself time to pick the right ball, or the right Pokémon to attack it in advance. There's an extra layer of tactics at play."
In his 3.5/5 review for Digital Trends, Giovanni Colantonio also recognised that Arceus sometimes feels like "a dream come true" for any Pokémon fan, and praised the revamped approach. But it's not all rosy.
"It's most reminiscent of Pokémon Go, which unconvincingly gamifies repetition. Arceus handles that idea much better, but it can wear thin once you've caught your eighth Shinx"Giovanni Colantonio
"It can be a bit tedious," he noted. "Creature studying became a grind whenever I needed to do it to up my star rank (a sort of world progress indicator) and advance the story. It's most reminiscent of Pokémon Go, which unconvincingly gamifies repetition. Arceus handles that idea much better, but it can wear thin once you've caught your eighth Shinx."
He continued: "In its best moments, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a cosy game about humans learning to coexist with the unpredictable creatures around them. For those who never cared about the competitive side of the series, it's a warm, fuzzy experience that rewards players who identify more with professors than trainers."
The process for catching the critters themselves has been streamlined. There isn't necessarily a need to enter a battle anymore to do so, though higher level Pokémon will still require weakening before being caught, and Donaldson said combat is still a "core component" of Arceus.
The fighting system itself has been revamped, seemingly focusing on speed before anything else, and introducing two types of moves: agile and strong, which Donaldson said is the highlight of the new combat system.
"I absolutely love this addition to the Pokémon meta," he wrote. "Agile moves come out faster but are weaker, while Strong moves are of course the opposite. Normal moves, your standard, sit in the middle. Rather than a hard back-and-forth turn order, you can now use speed as a strategy and manoeuvre yourself into situations where you can do more than one move in a row, or sacrifice a turn to get in an extra-heavy hit. There's even a turn-order display you can check to see the next six turns ahead, and see when you'll be attacking. It's brilliant, and channels some real triumphs of the non-active turn-based RPG world, like Final Fantasy 10."
However, in his "Eurogamer recommended" review for the publication, Chris Tapsell wasn't quite as convinced as Donaldson about the revamped combat system.
"Generally, with both sides cracking the tactic of 'do an Agile-style first to get a small, extra hit in, then follow with a Strong-style for the KO', I found most battles with multiple rounds or against trainers with multiple Pokémon went something like: I knock out their Pokémon, their next one knocks out mine, my next knocks out theirs, repeat until they run out of Pokémon and I win.
"It's less than satisfying, really, and not helped by a slight lack of clarity, some of which will fade away as the community inevitably explains the system's unexplained, but some won't."
"[Battles are] less than satisfying and not helped by a slight lack of clarity, some of which will fade away as the community inevitably explains the system's unexplained, but some won't"Chris Tapsell
Tapsell mentioned that the new combat system means it's sometimes "leaving you down not one but two or even three Pokémon before you've pressed a button."
Gym battles have been replaced by boss fights against "Noble" Pokémon, in which you can be knocked out alongside your Pokémon. Tapsell said these fights "are so-so" and feel "like a bit of an afterthought" but pointed out that all these changes lead to something that's been lacking for years in Pokémon games: challenge.
"Some vocal fans have been crying out for this for years now, and as main series Pokémon games have generally pitched themselves younger and younger, Legends: Arceus will be a welcome change. Battles, clearly, can be pretty tough."
Story-wise, Arceus is scoring good points, though Tapsell pointed out that it was "heavily and somewhat absurdly embargoed, considering the titanic flood of leaks ahead of launch."
While Donaldson did have some issues with pacing, with side quests arriving "in a drip feed that feels slightly unoptimised," Loveridge said the franchise is at its best narratively.
"[The story] is surprisingly bleak at times, and not knowing where the narrative is taking you is such an invigorating change," she wrote. "Not having an Elite Four -- or the Elite Four adjacent tournaments of Pokémon Sword and Shield -- hanging there as the ultimate end is just as revolutionary for the series as shifting towards a more open-ended world structure. There's no spoilers here of course, but it involves a diverse cast of characters that you'll come to seriously care about, with so much time spent with them that it allows developer Game Freak to carve out its most complex and nuanced individuals yet."
For players hoping to see Pokémon: Breath of the Wild, the open world structure is actually more constrained than some might have hoped for, or than Game Freak might have shown. Donaldson compared it to last year's New Pokémon Snap: players can explore five distinct biomes from a central hub, in this case Jubilife Village.
Colantonio noted in his review that there's a lack of variety in the biomes and the open-world design itself "isn't inspired."
"There aren't many environmental secrets to uncover, which made Breath of the Wild's Hyrule so satisfying," he wrote. "Instead, it's a big empty space built to contain Pokémon -- one that feels like a testing prototype at times."
Arceus seems to be taking qualities from both Monster Hunter and Breath of the Wild, according to Donaldson, while very much having its own identity and remaining anchored to the Pokémon series. This balance could be capturing both returning players to the franchise and attract a few newbies as well.
"The loop of heading to an area, catching and battling to gather research, then returning to town to report your findings to the professor and do some upgrades and crafting feels particularly reminiscent of Capcom's keystone series," Donaldson wrote, referring to Monster Hunter.
He continued: "There's not much I don't love about the changes; the balance between old and new has been expertly struck.
"The essence of Pokémon is intact, but the game is ultimately a completely different experience to every other Pokémon game. People have been comparing Legends: Arceus to Zelda: Breath of the Wild from the minute it was announced, because in a trailer their open worlds look similar. In practice, they don't have that much in common, except for where the games stand in the wider pantheon of their esteemed series. BOTW was a revelation of new ideas after Zelda had essentially dined out on the formula established by Ocarina of Time, which itself was a 3D retread of Link to the Past, for almost two decades. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the same, breaking from the thesis set out in the original games while holding tightly to what makes Pokémon... well, Pokémon."
Tapsell also compared it to Monster Hunter, but it isn't necessarily in favour of Arceus. He says there's similarity "in theory."
"But compare the two in practice, where in Monster Hunter all the foraging, observing and grinding is part of gearing up for the big fights, in Legends: Arceus the two are completely unrelated, the Noble battles feeling like they were dropped in from another game entirely," he said.
Ultimately, while opinions might differ slightly from review to review about what makes Arceus a good game, there is one thing all reviewers agreed on: technical issues.
"When it comes to the tech side, I won't mince words: Pokémon Legends: Arceus is an ugly game," Colantonio said. "I say that as someone who openly mocked people who complained about Sword and Shield's visuals. While I felt that the unambitious art style suited that game well enough, it's less of a fit for an open-world game that's built around inspiring awe."
"When it comes to the tech side, I won't mince words: Pokémon Legends: Arceus is an ugly game" Giovanni Colantonio
Loveridge, while saying that Arceus "really is the ultimate Pokemon fan experience," admitted that it does have that one "glaring flaw," which is its visual performance.
"Given that the main draw is pushing into every corner of each map section, it's a terribly optimised world," she said. "Pop-in is a huge issue, as is the draw distance -- which is so limited that, as you begin to move through spaces, trees will appear around you and textures won't load until you're really close to them. Even quest givers you can see marked on the map sometimes won't appear until you're basically on top of them. Pokémon too aren't visible from miles away, instead only spawning in the area directly around you. You might spot something flying in the distance, but if you do it'll be at such a low framerate, you might wish you hadn't."
This is where the comparison with Breath of the Wild is the most cruel, she continued.
"It's not even like the Switch hardware is creaking under the weight of the game's graphical potential, especially when you compare it to the wide-open spaces of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Such is the vast gulf between the two experiences from a visual and performance perspective, you'd think it was Pokemon Legends: Arceus that was the one to launch back in 2017.
"Problems with the performance are the one thing holding Pokemon Legends: Arceus back from perfection"Sam Loveridge
"Problems with the performance are the one thing holding Pokemon Legends: Arceus back from perfection."
It feels like Arceus doesn't quite reach the high expectations that had been put on the decades old series then, which Tapsell reminds readers is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time.
"The temptation is to say that Game Freak has done well considering, putting together some lovely sunsets and something that leans towards -- if never really gets close to -- the impressionist strokes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But, considering what? This is the question that won't go away with Pokémon, now -- not until the presentation of these games gets anywhere near the expectations for a series that consistently sells in such remarkable numbers, and is supported by a brand of such all-conquering might.
"There's an overpowering sense of novelty to Pokémon Legends: Arceus. This is something new, and it's also Pokémon, a decades-old series, in its purest essence. Battle, trade, collect. Even then there's a fraction of the trainer battles, nothing online, an option but no more necessity to trade. Is it overzealous budget cuts or pure, minimalist design? Is it empty, or is it filled with newfound nimbleness, of the kind that inspires all that wonder and awe precisely because so much of it has been chipped away?"
Ultimately, Colantonio said it left him wanting more, while Donaldson said that the technical flaws and other challenges can't be ignored, but it doesn't detract too much from what is otherwise a very enjoyable experience.
"Far too much of what it was doing differently was hidden pre-release," he wrote. "Pokémon Legends: Arceus threads the needle and somehow finds a brilliant balance between old and new, between tradition and upheaval. It's the 3D Pokémon adventure that I imagined back in the 90s that never came. It's fresh. It feels new, exciting, and like a powerful new beginning for the series. Technical shortcomings and minor frustrations can't take away what this game achieves elsewhere; it's the best main-series Pokemon game in a long, long time."