A century before it became the land of Sinnoh, the Hisui region was a dangerous place where humans and Pokémon didn’t share the close bond they have today. In fact, Pokémon were treated like dangerous creatures to be avoided, and in Pokémon Legends: Arceus it’s up to you and the Galaxy Expedition Team to document and — yes — catch 'em all for the first-ever Pokédex.

This game offers the first real open-world experience in the Pokémon series. Technically a spin-off from the mainline games, Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place in a 'Ye Olde' version of the Gen 4 region first visited in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl on Nintendo DS — and more recently in the Sinnoh remakes Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl on Switch. The land of Hisui is split up into regions, each of which is filled with Pokémon native to that habitat. In order to document them for your Pokédex, you’ll have to catch 'em (obviously), but instead of your sole option being simply weakening the Pokémon and then picking 'Poké Ball' from a menu, you have the chance to throw it yourself this time.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

This is the best part of the game by far. The catching mechanics actually feel skill-based rather than luck-based, although luck does still play some factor. Certain Pokémon will require stealth when pursuing because, if they catch you looking at them the wrong way, they’ll either battle you or run away. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than slowly creeping up to a rare Pokémon only for it to spot you and sprint away as you launch Poké Balls over, under and to the side of it.

As a result, actually catching rare Pokémon feels like a great achievement and your team you build feels much more realised as you can remember exactly how you caught them. This also makes the experience of going into a new area and noticing all the different species you’ve yet to encounter feel so much more exciting than the equivalent in the mainline games.

The story in this spin-off delves into Pokémon lore in a compelling way that’s usually been reserved for books found in small corners around the world. There is, unfortunately, no voice acting, which feels like it would be the next logical step in the series, but the text dialogue is all well written, and the new shades added to the lore of Legendary Pokémon you’ve met before are welcome.

The overall roster of Pokémon is strong here, with no generation — with the exception of Gen 4, for obvious reasons — getting too much love. It feels balanced, but also as if all of these Pokémon could naturally live in these habitats. Some of the omissions from the Hisuian Pokédex are genuinely quite shocking, but we found that every type had an abundance of representation, and that there are plenty of ultra-rare creatures to go after once the credits have rolled.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Pokémon Legends: Arceus feels like the truest realisation of the fantasy of Pokémon — a wonderful surprise considering this is notionally a spin-off title. It’s a game about actually going out to catch them all and document the world, not just earning thousands of dollars as a 10-year-old destroying every professional Pokémon trainer in the world in quick succession.

Speaking of which, there are no Gyms in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Instead, early on you'll find your progress gated by the likes of Noble Pokémon Kleavor. This essentially serves as a boss fight for the region, and an introduction to the aforementioned never-before-seen Pokémon. Mechanically, the fight is somewhat clunky, especially when it becomes a bit of a third-person shooter for a few minutes, but Kleavor certainly looks great.

Jubilife Village serves as your home base and is also where you can change outfits, your hairstyle, or visit several shops. You need to go back here a bit too much for our liking, especially in the end game, but it’s handy having everything in one place and not randomly spread across the world. There are several rideable Pokémon that help you travel the world of Hisui. Wyrdeer, a new evolution of Generation 2’s Stantler, will essentially serve as your bike, allowing you to speed across terrain. Basculegion, a super-sized Basculin evolution, enables you to traverse the watery expanse, and more (which we won’t spoil here) make traversing Hisui a very easy, pleasurable experience.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

There is a part of us that almost preferred the early game — when none of the rideable Pokémon are accessible — and we had to make sure we were outfitted with the right items and were properly prepared for the on-foot journey across the opening area. It felt like those episodes of the Pokémon anime where Ash and crew would just walk for hours on expeditions between towns. Having the rideable Pokémon is a great option, especially in later areas that are much larger than the initial zones, but we’d recommend taking it slowly through your first journey in Hisui. There’s a lot to discover and you'll want to savour the exploration.

Battling receives a refresh in this spin-off in the form of Agile Style and Strong Style moves. These options are unlocked once a move is 'mastered' by a Pokémon. In battle, this manifests as giving the player the option for the move to hit harder, at the expense of skipping a turn, or it may give the player the opportunity to attack twice before their opponent.

This is a refreshing change and gives you an extra layer of strategy to think about. Battles generally are much harder than the ultra-easy recent Pokémon games, with several late-game encounters reminding us of the Ultra-Necrozma fight from Pokémon Ultra Sun & Moon. This means building a team that covers all your bases is essential and encourages players to go after Alpha Pokémon, which are super-sized and much stronger variations of Pokémon, earlier in the game. It's thrilling stuff if you're a Pokémon veteran.

These Alpha Pokémon are fairly common, and they’ll often be 20 to 30 levels higher than your best Pokémon in the early stages. Blacking out is a genuine threat, and as you can lose extremely rare items when this happens, it’s something to watch out for. In a nice touch, you can either select to run away from battles or literally just run away. EXP is shared across your party, and you’ll also receive XP for catching Pokémon without battling. The game does a good job of scaling against this; by the time we reached the final battle, our levels were fairly similar to the last boss, although, players who triple down on catching them all will likely be higher.

While players can trade Pokémon, there are no multiplayer battles in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. We wonder if this is due to having to balance all of the moves in the game against the new Agile/Strong styles, but it will feel like a bit of a miss for hardcore players of the mainline series. Incidentally, Shiny Pokémon are in the game and appear in the overworld. We were even able to capture a few ourselves.

The only real downside to Pokémon Legends: Arceus are the technical stumbles that are hard to ignore. The frame rate is prone to stuttering when a character is too far away from you, and there’s a blurry fuzz around character models. Despite having a certain style, the series has never been a technical tour de force (at least beyond the phenomenal compression wizardry that squeezed Kanto into Pokémon Gold and Silver) and that hasn't changed here — textures, trees and other elements all look very dated by modern standards.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

On the other hand, the Pokémon models themselves look great. There are new animations not only for some of the 'mon but for a lot of classic moves, too. The semi-accurate sizing of Pokémon and the new camera angles for battle also make you feel a lot more like you’re actually in the world rather than warping to and from segmented battle arenas every time you have an encounter.

A common joke when this game was first shown off was that it was going to be the “Breath Of The Wild of Pokémon games”. When people said that, they meant because it opens on a shot of an impressive mountain, punctuated with piano keys that sound like the prelude to an open, explorative adventure.

The reality? Well, Pokémon Legends Arceus is, in fact, the Breath of the Wild of Pokémon games, but not because of any of that. It’s because the developers have managed to take characters and mechanics that are exceptionally familiar to millions of players and rehouse them in a game that’s so much more than what has come before. It’s the most important release in the series since 1996 and fills us with hope for a franchise that we were worried was somehow drifting away from us. Sure, the game has technical problems here and there, but it’s telling how insignificant they feel when you finally catch that rare Pokémon you’ve been hunting for an hour.

Conclusion

Pokémon Legends: Arceus feels like the result of Game Freak learning lessons for 25 years, refining the formula, and finally taking the franchise in a new, incredible, exciting direction. With its emphasis on extremely rewarding exploration, addictive catching mechanics, a fine roster of Pokémon and a genuine sense of scale that’s unlike anything in the series, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is quite simply one of the greatest Pokémon games ever made.