Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are… odd ducks, and I'm not just talking about the greaser mallard that comprises one-third of the new starters. After the breath of fresh air that was Pokemon Legends Arceus, Scarlet and Violet feel somewhat torn by their desire to go back to the standard mainline Pokemon formula, but also carry on elements of the Arceus experiment, and even crib off other recent gaming trends – including open-world games like Breath of the Wild.
Release date: November 18, 2022
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokemon Company
It would've been an ambitious idea at the best of times, made even tougher by the limitations of the Nintendo Switch and a clear desire on the part of developer Game Freak to not alienate anybody along the way. And though Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are trying their fair share of new ideas to ensure that this long-running franchise stays fresh, not to mention bringing a lot of old ones back… Well, the result feels somewhat off-kilter, bordering on outright messy, even if it's probably the most interesting mainline Pokemon game in a long time – for better and worse.
Pokemon Scarlet (the version I played for review) starts with our character's first day at school in Paldea, a new region to add to the ever-growing list with a clumsily Southern European feel. You play as the new kid at the over-budgeted Naranja Academy, and even on our first morning commute, the blank-faced mannequin you pilot is given a new starter Pokemon, forges several one-sided friendships, gets accosted by a costumed street gang, and even falls down a cliff to battle with a dying demigod. Seriously, all of this happens in the gap between zipping your rucksack shut and stepping through the Academy's door for the first time. Tomorrow morning, I'm taking the bloody bus.
But it's not long before the objective is established: the Academy's annual treasure hunt! Which is, uh, not actually a treasure hunt as anybody from planet sensible would recognize it. It's an outrageously vague "go find whatever treasure is valuable to YOU" idea, in which the entire student body is sent out to just do… something. Kill time, turn some rocks over, maybe you'll have an adventure along the way? Fingers crossed, I suppose.
Still, this is the framework for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. The whole island is accessible from that point on, with eight gym leaders to conquer, five special boss Pokemon to hunt down, and a cabal of high-ranking Team Rocket wannabes who'd probably be a lot more threatening if they weren't wearing glam rock bicycle helmets.
Where Pokemon Scarlet and Violet eschew the traditional formula is that you can approach all these elements in whatever order you want, the natural evolution of the Wild Area from Sword and Shield. Stroll out the doors of the Academy, pick a direction, and march onwards towards adventure. Such a shame the distant horizon is compromised by a draw distance barely longer than arm's reach.
Despite the promotion of co-operative play, we were unable to test this feature, as online servers weren't made active until launch day. We plan to do so and expand on it post-launch, so stay tuned!
Yeah, let's address the Copperajah in the Mart: Pokemon Scarlet is rough, both in terms of its performance and visual fidelity. Crashes forced me to restart, lag and slowdown was frequent, pop-in was a constant bugbear, the loading times were testing, textures looked unimpressive up close, sprites don't appear until you're practically standing on them, and the game cuts frames of animation on anything too that's too tough for the hardware – like a single, slowly-turning windmill or several people sitting calmly in a classroom.
Admittedly, sometimes the glitches were funny: at one point a character's eye randomly slammed shut and she spent half the conversation staring at me like Popeye, or a Hoppip sunk into the pavement like Homer Simpson into shrubbery. Amusing, but it doesn't change the fact that Pokemon Scarlet's presentation doesn't do justice to the decent world design.
The vistas have a boxy, simplistic, and unrefined look to them that harken back to older console generations, for all the wrong reasons. I can't feel excited about exploring when the world looks this unappealing, when Pokemon keep spawning beneath my feet and when prolonged play results in a piercing headache.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet have brought in various elements from both new and old Pokemon games. Raids have returned with some tweaks to the formula, a legacy of Sword and Shield's success. Arceus' influence shows in the open-ended exploration, the use of mounts and some of the new catching mechanics. Terastallizing has replaced Mega-Evolution or Gigantimaxing from previous generations, and even older Pokemon games show their influence through the lighter story touch that emphasizes exploration. And of course from modern open-world trends, we have… well, an open world.
It was an idea I immediately put to the test. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet places you at Paldea's Southernmost point from the outset, and once the mandatory tutorial was over, I immediately strapped on my walking shoes, set a pin in the furthest region of the map, and began the long hike through desert, mountain, and a thousand flavors of grasslands. And by the time I had reached the Northern coast an hour or so later, wild Pokemon of level 50 or so were attacking my level 20 team. Developer Game Freak has not introduced any kind of level scaling, and while I appreciate the opportunity to test myself and find some tougher challenges quickly, that brings its own contradictions and confusions.
For example, I tried seeking the higher-level gyms first, wanting to test the game's biggest USP, but even after grinding up EXP to match them, I realized the mistake I'd made. There's no reward for doing them out of order (even Pokemon obedience is tracked by the number of badges you have, not the highest badge) so taking out the powerhouse bosses first only resulted in a disappointing de-escalation as I then wiped the floor with the lesser leaders I'd skipped past. The idea that you can take on tougher challenges earlier doesn't really mean much when there's no real reward for doing so, beyond an unsatisfying difficulty curve.
Beyond all that, my main objection to the open world is its aimlessness and notable lack of stakes. The Academy admits there's no larger plan or plot behind the Treasure Hunt, so while various options are suggested – beating gyms, taking down Team Star, battling Titan Pokemon, or even mastering the art of picnicking (no, really) – none of them are important enough to be framed as a necessity, just optional time-killers that make me wonder why I'm here at all. A clear end goal to tie everything together would've made all the difference, and the open world inherently changes so much for the series that it needed a total ground-up rethink of the mechanics to work as intended.
A mixed report card
All that said, there are things I like about Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Toby Fox's music is a strength, almost as good as the soundtrack to Pokemon Sword and Shield, the plot makes a… let's say, well-intentioned attempt to talk about tougher subjects like bullying, the UI has generally improved, the open world is a good idea in theory, and Terastallizing – the new mechanic which allows you to change your Pokemon's type – adds an engaging tactical element into the mix, whereby you can exchange your Pokemons' weaknesses for others. It requires more careful thought than a simple-power up, and I like that it's entirely possible to get it wrong and shoot yourself in the foot by Terastallizing into something your opponent is still strong against.
But there's just a lot that drags the experience down. Fundamentally the open world is the core of both the problems and potential, the reason I was excited to play in those first few hours, and the reason I find it difficult to recommend the game now. Putting aside the fact that my Switch was almost fizzing in my hands, the open world changes so much of how the game works and plays that there are many mechanics that flat-out don't make sense anymore, compromising structure without adding enough to make up for it, and it left me wondering what this big, wide world is contributing to the overall experience.
The basic mechanics of Pokemon remain largely untouched – it's still catching, battling, and training as you remember it – and while that may be enough for many devotees, Generation 9 is a tougher sell for those who need more of a reason to engage with the series, impacted as it is by technical issues, mechanical oversights, and a lack of vision. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet should have been a bright and bold entry that sets the series up for future expansion, but an attempt to modernize while staying loyal to the past hasn't really succeeded in doing either one – and the headache doesn't help, to boot.
Pokemon Scarlet was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch OLED with a code provided by the publisher.