Last year’s by-the-numbers Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes did even less than most Pokémon games to spruce up and modernize the series’ decades-old formula. That’s understandable for a remake of a 2006 Nintendo DS game, but the games were still disappointing follow-ups to the more adventurous Sword and Shield.
The good news is that if you’ve been waiting for Game Freak to really shake up Pokémon‘s gameplay without totally burning it to the ground and starting from scratch, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the game you’ve been waiting for. Part Pokémon and part Breath of the Wild, Legends takes the free-roaming “Wild Area” concept from Sword and Shield and updates the series’ catching and battling mechanics to match.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect fusion of those disparate elements. Its mission-based structure gets pretty fetch quest-y, it leans heavily on an over-familiar roster of existing Pokémon, and the aging Switch hardware sometimes struggles to make it look good, especially when docked. But despite those problems, the whole package works together surprisingly well, and it makes the Pokémon feel fresher than it has in quite a while.
Legends is set up as a distant prequel to Diamond and Pearl that takes place in the Hisui region, which will someday become the modern Sinnoh region. The decision to set Legends not just in the past but way in the past gives it a distinct flavor from main-series Pokémon games. You aren’t just putting together a Pokédex—you’re assembling the first Pokédex. Item shops exist, but you’ll need to craft the vast majority of Pokéballs and other items you use with found materials. And there are few cities, no gyms, and no Pokémon League, which lets the series experiment with new modes of character progression.
Hisui is split up into five different biomes—you can’t walk from one end of Hisui to the other as you can in BotW‘s Hyrule, but each of the five areas has distinct topography that keeps things from getting too samey as you progress. Each biome is inhabited by a rampaging Noble Pokémon who you must calm and befriend, which replaces gyms and badges as the main way the game marks your progress. There are also plenty of side quests to keep you distracted if you don’t want to rush right to the end.
Your character, a member of Galaxy Team, also has a rank within the organization. You rank up by filling out your Pokédex, and you won’t be allowed into the game’s later biomes if your rank isn’t high enough (your rank also affects the kinds of items you’ll be able to craft, among other things). In the main series, all you need to do to fill out a Pokédex is see and catch a single Pokémon of each species. But in Legends, filling out each entry is done by accomplishing a series of sub-tasks, involving everything from catching multiple Pokémon of a single species to seeing Pokémon use specific moves in battle.
Catching and battling Pokémon in Legends is refreshingly fast and satisfying compared to the usual formula. There are no more random battles and no swirly time-consuming transitions between exploring and battling. All Pokémon are fully visible and walking around—if you want to catch one, the best way to do so is to sneak up on it and toss a Pokéball.
Some wild Pokémon will scamper away if they notice you getting near. Others will get mad and attack you directly. It’s possible to get totally knocked out by a wild Pokémon’s attacks, which will send you back to the nearest base camp with fewer items and a bruised ego. But you can defend yourself by tossing out one of your Pokémon, triggering an essentially traditional turn-based Pokémon battle.