When Pokémon Red and Green were first released in Japan in 1996 on the Nintendo Gameboy, it was a revolutionary RPG experience for its time. 150 Pokémon to collect, battle and train? Many NPC trainers and gym leaders to battle? It is easy to see why this, combined with other instalments in the massive multimedia franchise, has seen the Pokémon series continue to go strong well into the 2020s. With every generation of the series, while adding more to do, new settings, new Pokémon and so forth, the base game experience has been relatively the same. While this was set to change in Generation VIII with the implementation of an open-world environment, Pokémon Sword & Shield proved to be underwhelming, and ultimately ended up being a forgettable, almost entirely linear experience. Now in 2022 we have the start of Generation IX with Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, pitched as providing a fully open-world experience and a lot more autonomy on how you progress through the game. Now with both games out on the Nintendo Switch… did they meet the mark? Read on to find out.
While this review will go into the strengths and failings of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, I will say up-front that developer Game Freak have once again proven themselves to be competent in creating a range of unique Pokémon that are befitting of a gaming experience focusing on competitive play. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was given some truly unique options of Pokémon to work with, and outside of grinding heavily, you are required to use a variety of different Pokémon to get through the game. At this point, without lots of grinding, there is no use just hiding behind one overpowered starter. As you will read below, the single-player experience is lacking in several regards, but from the competitive side of things – I think there is just as much, if not more on offer to fans who are looking to enter the competition scene. The main downside being that less than half of the over 1,000 Pokémon in the series made the cut, meaning the favourites of many may not be available.
Changing from the usual approach of being a youth who just one day decides to become a Pokémon trainer and sets forth on their journey, Pokémon Scarlet & Violet see you as a new student of either Naranja Academy (Scarlet) or Uva Academy (Violet), who starts the game choosing their first Pokémon from the school’s director, before embarking on their journey from their home to the Academy. While initially seeming like a dull, introductory set of questlines getting you acquainted with the game – for potentially the umpteenth time – the story starts with you obtaining the game’s legendary Pokémon, encountering the story-centric characters and already being immersed in the game’s narrative from the opening minutes. A stronger start to the game was welcome and was a basic tutorial that could be enjoyed by newcomers and returning players alike.
From this point, through a series of events and a time shift, players are undertaking the Academy Hunt – a free-for-all period in the school calendar where each student can partake in their own activities to help find their own ‘treasure’ – whether literal or metaphorical. Pokémon games in the past can be broken down into three core elements – completing Gyms / the Pokémon League, taking down the Team of that generation or game, and collecting HMs to unlock new areas to explore. These three are broken down into three story paths – Victory Road, Path of Legends and Starfall Street. The non-linear nature of these means that the story behind them is relatively weak, going from point A to point B on your map to unlock a new plot event. However, the main issue is that although they are pitched as routes you can do at your own pace, there is no level balancing with any of them.
Ultimately this means that if you opt to take ‘Starfall Street’ first like I did, you might get past one or two bosses, before finding that you are way under-levelled to complete the others. Furthermore, if you do accomplish even part of one route and go back to the other routes, you will be severely overpowered which takes much fun out of the overall experience. So essentially, you need to do all three routes in tandem to get the most rewarding experience. Especially for the ‘Victory Road’ chapter, Game Freak should have used the approach introduced in the Pokémon Origins anime, where it is shown Gym Leaders had alternate sets of Pokémon to use depending on how many gym badges the trainer has. Once the three routes are completed, they combine into the final route, which is an oh-so-satisfying ending to the game (compared to all previous games) and makes me wish they better utilised that narrative throughout the whole game, tied in with the open world better. To some extent, what we have is a long underrealised slog with a tasty morsel at the end.
What Game Freak and The Pokémon Company International have once again failed to include in their flagship games, is voice acting – opting for the world to be full of voiceless characters and Pokémon regressed to small unique blips and bloops. I raise this now because I couldn’t help but feel throughout my play session that the three-routes option might have been better handled with three custom trainers, each with their individual adventures that would culminate in them, and their routes’ respective NPC, coming together for the finale. Many red flags would have come with that idea, especially with the competitive endgame, but would have made the main scenario implementation considerably less haphazard. Alternatively, I feel that voice acting would have helped bring the world to life.
Although it is never really pushed out to players outside of occasional notification prompts, as you progress through the ‘Victory Road’ chapter, you will incrementally unlock new classes you can partake in – from battle studies to maths. It is very likely that unless you are aware these are happening, you will discover them post-game with every one of them to complete – but from unlocking some of the game’s secondary legendaries, to just some nifty ways of learning different gameplay systems – they are short and enjoyable segments which help build upon the ‘school life’ experience.
Despite all routes players take being heavily centred around battling, trainer battles have been shelved for the most part. Each area of the Paldea Region only has a handful of trainers you can choose to battle, ‘choose’ being the keyword given they will only battle if you interact with them. In terms of pacing, it is a boon, as there are no instances of ‘battle these six unexceptional trainers to get from A to B’, but also, doesn’t provide much in the way of showcasing the game’s AI and teams specialising in more than one or two complementary types of Pokémon.. In terms of the combat system, the ‘special feature’ of Pokémon Scarlet & Violet is the Terastal phenomenon, allowing you to transform any Pokémon of your choosing into a ‘Terastal Pokémon’ for one battle per PokéCenter visit, not only powering up that chosen Pokémon but potentially changing its typing. I can see competitive tournaments blocking this system, but it makes for some interesting battle dynamics. However, this is just another system like Mega Evolutions, Dynamax and Z-Moves which will likely be forgotten about come Generation X.
From an ‘exploring the world and catching Pokémon’ point of view, I feel Game Freak did an appropriate job in offering a diverse ecologically (albeit empty) open world for players to explore. From there, my praise is limited. Granted, the Nintendo Switch doesn’t have hardware that could compete against the offerings from Sony or Xbox, but it is the platform that brought us games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wilds at launch, one of the most picturesque open-world games in recent years. Outside of towns, the Paldea Region has few landmarks worth trekking to. Since you will spend multiple dozens of hours in this open world to complete everything it has to offer, it is disappointing. Putting aesthetics aside, however, more notable is just how horrendous the performance can get. Go into Pokémon Scarlet & Violet expecting random crashes, regular and drastic frame rate drops, cameras breaking through world boundaries, and visual glitches that have become meme-worthy since launch. Hopefully, this is something that can be patched soon, I was left feeling like the game needed a lot more time on the technical and design side, improving world assets, optimising gameplay performance, and reducing the amount of pop-in/pop-out present. It doesn’t feel like this is exclusively because of hardware and needs to be resolved if Pokémon Scarlet & Violet is to continue being the go-to Pokémon RPG for the next 3-4 years.
At its core, Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet was successful when the gameplay loop didn’t deviate from the norm. Battles are enjoyable, there is a great variety of Pokémon, and theres a good emphasis on different type-pairings that upped the difficulty a bit. But while not a bad open-world experience, more work would be needed to bring any future game up to the standards most would expect, both from an open-world game and a Pokémon game. Game Freak should be commended for finally making the jump from their comfort zone, but yes, it still feels like they are experimenting with ideas rather than presenting a definitive Pokémon game for the 2020s. Perhaps the tenth generation will finally be that game? What is less acceptable, however, are the performance and crash issues, which need to be resolved as soon as possible.
This review was primarily conducted on a copy of Pokémon Scarlet for the Nintendo Switch, using a launch day version of the console.