Pokémon games generally don’t change much. Pokémon Scarlet & Violet releases after 28 years of iterative attempts, and the headline feature is the introduction of a truly open world without level scaling, letting players adventure in any direction they want.
Without this level scaling, it’s an open world in the same way that Fallout: New Vegas left you free to explore in any direction you want providing you were okay with sneaking through the desert full of high-level Deathclaws. Here, things work the same: there are hugely powerful Pokémon trainers and Pokémon out there from the get-go if you want to find them, a big departure from the rigid structure the games usually offer up.
Sadly, this exploration – excellent for players who crave freedom at the expense of everything else – comes at the cost of iffy pacing and a dodgy plot, meaning it’s one step forwards and two steps back for the beloved JRPG series, especially when you consider some odd design choices and a Pokémon game that’s full of more bugs than Viridian Forest.
The story will be familiar to anyone who’s played a Pokémon game over the last 30 years, or even watched one of the animated series’: you’ll catch and train Pokémon so you can batter gym leaders, get your eight badges and then go and throw down with the elite four to prove that you can be the very best, that no one ever was. Seconds after you visit the school, school is out forever as you’re turned loose into the great treasure hunt, an excuse for young children to roam the new island of Paldea with little to no adult supervision. So far, so Pokémon.
Here the story feels particularly arbitrary, serving as little more than a series of leads for you to pursue instead of plowing through the eight gyms that stop you from becoming a Pokémon champion. I found in a lot of cases the pull I felt was towards those gyms, and less towards battering villains or helping a frenemy defeat various titan Pokémon.
Really, only the faces have changed since the days of Pokémon Red and Blue: Team Star take the role of big villains, while your rivals are closer to friends these days but equally eager to whomp you with their collection of pocket monsters. Equally, in Scarlet & Violet you’re going to a school for Pokémon battling rather than taking a starter Pokémon and leaving your neglectful parent behind to explore the whole place. Generally though, there are no surprises here, except possibly your Pokédex smartphone app, and the fact Psyducks are so damned huge now.
While roving packs of Pokémon have been in the game for a while now, there’s still some joy to seeing a crowd of Hoppips bouncing around grassy area, a Diglet tucked away within a cave or even a Magikarp flopping around on the beach. The graphical style is serviceable but a little bland, but Scarlet & Violet should be applauded for taking some bold aesthetic steps from the anime toolkit, dropping in stylistic choices around things like eating or hearing important information. It’s a shame, because most of the game looks fairly average – brightly coloured but disinteresting.
This is a shame because it means when you do encounter the giant Psyducks, and they are very large in this game which is why I keep going on about them, you’re often less taken by how interesting they look and more by the slightly rubbery pallor that makes them look like a poor quality vinyl facsimile brought to life.
The landscapes are similar. They look and feel low-poly, and the worst offenders are the shops, with some featuring fully rendered environments while most just have buy menus for you to peruse. While it may not be the case, it often just feels like the shops were half-finished, with no time to include an interior for all of them.
The actual mechanical play of Scarlet & Violet is pretty engaging, although Pokémon battling hasn’t felt all that different since Red & Blue, all those years ago. It’s nice to see how your Pokémon actually stack up in a physical space, but really it’s the same old compelling gameplay there has always been, with a few fun new moves and a visual overhaul.
The big new ability is Terastallization, which allow you to upgrade your Pokémon, giving them a new crystalline look and a power boost for their Tera element. This is the same process as a Mega Evolution from earlier Pokémon games, but it lands a little better as it just supercharges a specific element for each Pokémon, making things feel a little more tactical than just Mega Evolving a Lucario and getting punchy.
All in all, it’s a fairly good Pokémon game. Game Freak didn’t need to reinvent the wheel and they could have delivered a game that’s great for Pokémon fans and those nostalgic for filling out a Pokédex. Sadly, the game often struggles with the frame rate when you get on board your motorbike Pokémon (a real thing) and move at high speed. Other characters glitch and stutter, and it really just feels like it’s struggling. Considering Nintendo has managed to perform miracles with the Switch with regards to performance before, it feels like this Pokémon game has been dragged to market a touch too early.
Still, given more time to get used to the idiosyncrasies of the bold ideas present here, Game Freak’s next run at Pokémon should offer a phenomenal open-world adventure using the blueprints established by Scarlet & Violet. Sadly, this game isn’t that phenomenal adventure.
Pokémon Scarlet & Violet is available on Nintendo Switch.
Pokémon Scarlet & Violet is a frustrating beast. I’ve enjoyed my time with it, and if you’re a Poké-fan you won’t begrudge it for the technical issues and design flaws, but it’s impossible to recommend when it feels so half-baked. There are good ideas here, but it feels like it would have benefited if developer Game Freak had been given a little more time to refine the numerous ideas here.
- Pokémon battling is a lot of fun
- Capturing Pokémon is as catchy as ever
- Open world encourages new ways to play
- Glitchy problems with performance
- Poor visuals
- Irrelevant story