Gaming

Pokemon Legends Arceus review: The open-world game I was hoping for

The Switch's latest game feels like Breath of the Wild, for your Pokemon.

You never know what's right around a corner.
Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

My 9-year-old son has had Pokemon Legends: Arceus on his birthday list ever since he saw the latest game trailers. And I'm sure he's not alone. My first few hours with Nintendo's latest exclusive Pokemon game on the Switch remind me of what it felt like five years ago to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo has tons of Pokemon games to choose from on the Switch, but Arceus, for me, is the most satisfying. Also, the weirdest.

Breath of the Wild was a massive, open-world Zelda that felt like a living universe, and showed off the Switch's gaming power despite being a handheld. Five years later, it feels like open-world game environments are pretty standard. Not always for Nintendo, though: The Switch's exclusive games have mostly felt like comforting throwbacks (Metroid Dread, a side-scrolling game, being a classic example). Arceus is, perhaps, a sign of change. Back to my son, it's not necessarily the game I'd have in mind for younger fans, but Pokemon Legends: Arceus feels like the Pokemon game for the future of Pokemon.

Five years into the Switch's life cycle, we're probably bound to hear news of a new Nintendo console platform sooner than later. Nintendo game consoles have generally emerged every five to six years or so. The Switch could be different, but the point I'm trying to get to is that Arceus feels like an idea Nintendo could build on as its gaming hardware improves. Arceus works now, and it's a wide-open sort of Pokemon wilderness adventure. I could see it being even more immersive, though, over time.

I'm not a Pokemon fan, but I like the idea of studying and discovering strange new lifeforms. New Pokemon Snap, which came out last year, was a Disney-like set of on-rails safari tours of wild environments, where you try to spot Pokemon and even catch them in different behaviors. Pokemon Legends: Arceus has some of this same vibe: Missions involve going out and collecting and/or battling Pokemon, but also discovering certain behaviors that you can mark down in a field guide. Arceus is a big RPG, with missions and shops and item-crafting, but the "go research Pokemon" part of the game might end up being my favorite part of it all.

pokemon-arceus-valley

Sometimes you'll see something and figure out what the best way is to get there.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Instead of the random dice-roll feel of old Pokemon games, Arceus shows the differently sized Pokemon out in the wilds, where you can choose how to approach them. I can also choose to run past them as I did with so many battles in Breath of the Wild. The game's setting, which feels more rustic and meditative than other Pokemon games I've played, is made to get lost in. 

There are small Pokemon running around everywhere. There are big ones, too, sometimes filled with red-eyed rage (and you have to figure out how to battle them, or calm them down). There are natural items to pick up that can be crafted into potions and other items. I can ride Pokemon, including one that carries me quickly like Breath of the Wild's horse. I can't climb cliffs as easily, but I'm already finding myself wandering to corners of the vast map, looking for surprises that might be there.

I'm already extremely deep in optional side quests, which can be done instead of the main quest. There are a lot more people I need to speak to. I could try evolving my own Pokemon more, which I've strangely avoided in favor of just doing field research. I wish the Pokemon in this game were more like those in New Pokemon Snap -- hidden in trees, burrowing, interacting. But it's not far off. 

Is Arceus sort of like a fusion of what Pokemon Snap was dreaming of, and what Pokemon Go enables with augmented reality on phones, and what Breath of the Wild was to RPGs? Yes. Is it also a more traditionally open-world RPG than I'd prefer? Yes. But I can see where this is going. Whenever Nintendo leaps forward again with a next-gen console, Arceus might be a template for its future game franchises.