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Armchair Dev - Pokemon Legends Arceus

Pokemon Legends: Arceus at the time of writing, is the latest installment of the Pokemon franchise is what happens when instead of adding more features to the already growing pile on a boilerplate turn based RPG - you upend everything by removing most of it, take it back to the bare essentials and bring something refreshing to the table. For the first time in 20 some years, I actually felt like the challenge to the game was beyond "are my numbers higher than theirs?" and it was a blast.

This is not a review, I unapologetically loved the game. Is it perfect? Nope. Do I think it could have been longer? Yup. Was I mad my favorite monster was excluded? Nidoking was not present, but I did have a Rhyperior in my party to make up the mantle.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Title Graphic

I mentioned initially how this game is a great example of removing features improved the game as opposed to adding more to the decades old pile. Every iteration of the core game, Gamefreak adds newer features to enhance the game and improve the experience.

While not all may stick around in every version, the list has grown quite large since 1996. Complex things are hard to make simple without rebuilding from the ground up, and I think Legends does this in spades.

So it's an Action RPG now? #

This was primarily one of the big changes introduced. You have your turn based combat, which I will touch on later. But the majority of the game play is done in an overworld where it is you versus nature. Nature being the world itself and all the wild Pokemon that may or may not attack you.

It feels like someone on the design team had played Monster Hunter, decided to experiment with similar mechanics, and it works.

You can engage with Pokemon in the over world with items to bait, stun, and capture them. There are mechanics to hide, dodge, and of course engage in a fight. If you wanted (I've tried for fun), you can engage a horde of Pokemon with just thrown items, hiding, and dodge rolls to catch them off guard through baiting or stunning them to use to your advantage for capture.

Traditionally, when you run out of Pokemon your fight is over - not so much in this game. When you "run" from a fight, you have to RUN from the fight or else you are at risk to being attacked to the point of fainting. When you faint, you respawn back in a camp but at the risk of losing items from your bag - more on bag mechanics further down.

The survival mechanisms really work well with the open nature of the maps you play in, which play into the monster capture functions, and introduce a challenge to the game that hadn't been there before.

But stuff is removed? #

Right. In order to make the game play and feel more like an action/survival role playing game, a lot of mechanics were either removed or simplified. This aids to either adding challenge or streamlining game play. To a degree, a lot of simplifications about the game harken back to Generation 1 when things were just getting started, a good parallel to a setting where you are literally just getting started on a new continent.

Bag of Not-So-Much Holding #

The unlimited and hyper organized inventory is no more. You now have very limited slots initially, and can expand it at exponentially increasing costs (though Key Items are in an infinite space to make sure you can progress the game).

Given status effects are limited to battles, this means the limited inventory space isn't as damning by not requiring you maintain constant slots for status healing items and can instead prioritize potions to fix HP or other thrown utilities.

When you faint as the player, you lose items from the bag. This forces you to think about what you're taking into the wild but also makes it less of a risk since you aren't walking around (hopefully) a cache of rare evolution items.

No Money, More Problems #

Money is hard to come by early on, but you can be rewarded for captures and diversity of captures in a run. Rather than being able to farm money from beating up bug catchers, it's a much bigger slog - though that gets a bit easier the more star ranks you get.

To offset a lot of this, there is a crafting system that lets you go hunter-gatherer and acquire materials to build everything from Poke balls to potions.

Pokedex, now with less data #

This is sort of a combo add/remove. The concept of filling out the Pokedex is still there just as it has been since the first games, but the data is nonexistent until you acquire it - all of it.

By removing the idea of the Pokedex providing a complete entry as soon as you make a capture, it adds a series of challenges around completion and aids to the flavor of the setting being this early settlement in the world of Pokemon.

From the story's perspective, you are building the first Pokedex.

It encourages you to catch multiple of the same type to catalog aspects about them, makes the grind feel like it has purpose and you're able to pick and choose which facets about research to focus on.

The completion requirements can go beyond just capture, but also include defeats, different sizes, seeing certain moves, etc.

While normally this would feel like a major grind, because of how much capture and combat has been streamlined you can knock these out a lot faster than you'd think.

Combat has had a lot of ambiguity removed #

There is a button to focus what you're targeting, this provides you with some scouter-esque functions to get a quick glance at what you're about to encounter including level & how much research you've already done on it.

When in combat, there is no question about what the flow will be - it's right on the side of who is going in what turn. This can be manipulated through move styles, a mechanic I've really grown to love as it actually makes fighting less of a mashing and more thought into "how hard do I want this to hit?".

Multiple opponents in fights is a bit annoying at times because there are no moves to hit multiple targets, but this understandably is a hard solve. There is no opponent side in overworld fights, and it'd require some sort of general area-of-effect hit to make sure you got them wherever they stand. That being said, this does introduce a neat challenge and is aided due to the rapid nature of the fights themselves.

Moves have very clear indicators of whether it's effective, super effective, or none at all. Even when transitioning between pokemon it'll show a quick breakdown at a glance who your best options may be based on moves.

Speaking of moves, the one major change they introduced was no longer having a limited pool but more of an unlimited pool. Moves are not so much a tactical choice of which 4 to keep, but rather you are given the full range of what a Pokemon knows and can swap freely when not in a fight.

The option to swap during trainer fights was removed, but given the small amount of them that occur it's not too much of a loss.

Dialog boxes that a player would normally mash through have been turned into toast notifications and are not a blocking action. I'm stealing that.

All in all, combat was basically enhanced by removing experiences around status effects and things you mash through but also not detracted from in a way that makes it something you'll gladly engage in. It's been a core of the game since day 1, and it's nice to see a bit of polish on it.

What else is gone? #

Trading is no longer a requirement, just an option. Any evolutions that required a trade now just use either a Linking Cord or what used to be the held item itself used during trade. Trading is still a nice option, especially for those that are rarer spawns and you know you have a friend sitting on like 10 of them and a shiny.

Hold items and abilities are nonexistent. This simplifies a lot of planning around fights, and many Pokemon are now vulnerable in ways they hadn't been since prior to abilities being introduced - like levitating no longer being an immunity to ground attacks.

Status effects, as mentioned above, are only present in fights. Sleep effects are just drowsiness - like confusion without damage; Frozen has been replaced with an icy burn equivalent.

Breeding Pokemon is not present at all. So there is no ease of acquiring early stage Pokemon, or anything that would encourage you to breed for optimal stats. A lot of the functionality around Effort Values, known as Effort Levels in Legends, are exposed directly and are able to be manipulated through "grit" items. Min/Max to your heart's content.

Gym Leader progression has been replaced with a core mission system with boss fights that leverage the action mechanics. At times it can feel repetitive, but there aren't so many that it feels cumbersome. Also, be ready to get good at dodge rolling.

On the topic of missions real quick, I love this change. It feels like they borrowed the UX from Breath of the Wild but it works. I can collect many missions and requests (side missions) and have no problem figuring out what I need to do or where I need to go. It reminds me a bit of the journal feature from Fire Red/Leaf Green that gave you a highlight reel of what you had done last time you turned the game off so you knew where to pick up.

What was the point to all of this? #

To summarize the point of my ramblings: iteration doesn't only mean constantly adding to a feature set.

Complex things are going to be complex, and to be simplified they must be rebuilt from the ground up. Adding things can work if you have a stable base to build on top of and features are able to harmonize rather - if they don't then maybe you need to boil it back to the core that matters and start from there.

Pokemon is one such game with a plethora of deep features added on over 25+ years that could not simply be adapted to an action RPG without stripping it back to its bare bones and then building it back up again around what it has always been - a monster collecting game.

This is one experiment I hope they decide to keep around and do a follow up on in the future.

Also Hisuian Growlithe is a treasure - a function to pet the dog should be included next time.