• Navigation
View RSS Feed


Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Review -- A World of Possibility

Rate this Entry
Like many, there was a point that I grew tired of experiencing the same Pokémon adventure with only a fresh layer of paint applied from generation to generation. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment it happened -- on Route 17 on Ula’ula Island in Pokémon Moon. That was the first core Pokémon game that I did not finish when I picked it up when it originally released. When Pokémon Sword and Shield were announced, I was excited to play the game on the Switch, but I was not expecting an especially deep investment.

Well, I was completely wrong. Pokémon Shield is my most played game on the Switch and has grown to become my favorite entry in the Pokémon franchise. Sword and Shield were the first Pokémon games that delivered the experience that I had been craving from the franchise -- a challenging Pokémon experience where team choices, stats, and strategy actually mattered. The things that took the games from a twenty to forty-hour game and made it a game that maxed out the in-game playtime clock and only stopped playing because the the next generation released were the core competitive experience, the introduction of a ranked ladder, and the steps taken to make that competitive side of the game more accessible. Naturally, I was more than a little apprehensive when Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the core ninth generation games, were announced and knew they would not live up to my expectations. Even with my reservations, the actual finished product has been more of a mixed bag than even I expected.

Pokémon games have been knocking at the door of open-world gaming for a few entries now. Sun and Moon’s Poni Plains and Poni Island, Sword and Shield’s Wild Area and expansions, and the Monster Hunter-styled areas of Pokémon Legends: Arceus have allowed the Pokémon franchise to dip its toes into the open-world format, breaking the surface, but not committing to dive headlong into the change. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are the full open-world format that fans have been clamoring about for years. After a brief introduction that gives players a taste of the open-world format, players are told to create their own adventure. While there are three major storylines intended to drive that adventure, each is completely open-ended and players are free to choose where they go and which objectives to pursue.

In previous Pokémon games, movement and environmental abilities have been used to control progression and dictate how players encounter the world. You start with simple movement and add new movement tools as you progress through the game. It is a similar progression approach that was employed by older Legend of Zelda games where players were given a tool, mastered that tool, and then used it to unlock new areas and a new tool. Unlike Breath of the Wild, which gave players access to their full suite of tools within the game’s opening, Scarlet and Violet give players access to movement very early and then leaves it to them to choose when to expand on those capabilities. Within the games' first hour, players encounter Koraidon (Scarlet) or Miraidon (Violet), the box legendaries that serves as transportation and movement across the Paldea region. These pokémon can fly, swim, and climb walls, similar to Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ ride pokémon, but the transition between modes is more seamless. Or rather, they can as you progress through the game. Yes, there is still an order (running comes before swimming, for instance), but once you start expanding their movement capabilities, it becomes apparent how to do so, and players can choose when to seek out and acquire the upgrades. Miraidon (and I assume Koraidon) was one of the best parts of playing Violet. In previous games, I usually have felt a strong attachment to my starter, but playing through Violet, I definitely felt a stronger bond with Miraidon. It certainly helped that it had certain traits and mannerisms that resemble Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.

Of course, that is not to say Game Freak has executed the shift to a non-linear open-world game without any stumbles. Breath of the Wild received a lot of praise for allowing players to immediately go from the Great Plateau to the final confrontation with Ganon without any additional requirements. However, that worked because Breath of the Wild was an action-adventure game. That is not the case here, Pokémon games are role-playing games where leveling is a core element of progression. While Sword and Shield increased the level of pokémon in the Wild Area based on the number of badges players had acquired, I do not think there is inherently something wrong with having areas with pokémon of different levels in different parts of the world to steer progression.

Rather, the problem is more about how the games handles their major encounters. Scarlet and Violet give players the freedom to craft their own adventure as they complete the three storylines, but the developers created these with a clear sequence in mind. For example, as is the norm, one of the storylines centers on completing the eight gyms and becoming a champion. While players get to choose the order they want to tackle the gyms, the levels of the gym leaders’ pokémon are all predetermined and, with no guidance, it is easy to get out of order and challenge a gym leader with pokémon ten or even twenty levels higher than your team. This fundamental issue, coupled with various others, reinforce the sentiment that Scarlet and Violet are Pokémon games built around an open-world structure without the proper thought on how that change would influence other aspects of the games.

What is especially disappointing is that there are numerous open-world role-playing games that exist and have successful devised solutions that could have resolved this issue. Game Freak could have given players better guidance on the recommended order, they could have provided information on the level of the gym before challenging them, or, they could have instituted level scaling based on the number of badges acquired. Personally, I would have loved to see level scaling, especially since Sword and Shield scaled the pokémon in the Wild Area based on the number of badges acquired, so it is not like Game Freak has never experimented with this concept. Beyond progression in the world, there are other aspects of these games that suffer due to the open-world structure. For example, open-world games often feature resources which are typically used for crafting. In Scarlet and Violet, this translates to items dropped from wild pokémon that are used to craft TMs at the expense of reusable TMs. It is frustrating to see a feature that has existed in some form since generation five removed to conform to other games when it does not also provide a meaningful addition to the gameplay experience.

But this broaches one of the bigger issues with Scarlet and Violet, the lack of polish and finish on the game. To put it bluntly, Scarlet and Violet feel like they were rushed out the door due to the greater Pokémon franchise’s generational cadence when they needed more time in the oven. Even given its size, I imagine most would agree that Paldea is the shallowest region in franchise history. For instance, take the academy building at the center of the region. It is an impressive and imposing structure with a visible tree house and observatory. But once you get inside, players do not explore any of those areas and just rely on menus to travel from one location to the next. This lack of depth carries over to the towns where most lack any distinctive character, there are almost no houses that can be entered, and the majority of shops are simple menus. Even smaller things, like pokémon closing their eyes when asleep, are absent in these games and make them feel like a rushed product (although that was admittedly fixed in a patch a few weeks after release).

There are also a number of features and quality of life improvements that have been removed with no explanation or reason. Take the set battle setting or the ability to disable battle animations, features that have existed in Pokémon games since the first generation. The removal of these options is not game-breaking (especially in the case of set battles, since players just need to click no each time), but their removal reinforces the critique that corners were cut to get these games out. The games also lack a battle arena akin to Galar’s Battle Tower or Unova’s Battle Subway, an endgame feature that has been present for years. Can these features be added later? Yes, one-hundred percent. I honestly would not be surprised to see an endgame battle arena as part of the inevitable DLC, but that still does not make these games feel any less unfinished today.

Unfortunately, these issues are not even the worst problems plaguing these games. Scarlet and Violet suffer from horrendous visual and performance issues that have seemingly been exasperated by the shift to an open-world format. Perhaps the best encapsulation of these visual issues came during the cutscenes around choosing my starter. During this sequence, there was a visible delay in loading the objects as the camera switched between the characters involved in the conversation, almost if the game was only rending what was immediately visible and it could not load objects like the trees and flowers fast enough as the camera bounced between the characters. Beyond that, some of the other problems include the games' inability to maintain a reasonable framerate, declines in performance as there are more objects on the screen, noticeable slowdowns during weather, lighting issues, screen tearing, and frequent occurrences of the camera clipping through the map. Even the pokémon storage boxes somehow perform poorly. One of my biggest annoyances was the games’ inability to maintain models at any meager distances. When you get even a slight distance away from a character or wild pokémon, the movement stops looking smooth and starts to resemble stop-motion animation, assuming the model even loads in properly. I do not think I can stress how minimal the distance is -- the distance from the camera to the edge of an arena during a gym battle (but not online battles, strangely) is beyond the distance. Speaking of online battles, the performance feels like an enormous step backwards from Sword and Shield as the games cannot even process adjusting the health bars if multiple pokémon take damage from the same move.

In some ways, it is surprising to see these flaws after many of them were prevalent in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, but at the same time, given the short timeframe between that game and the release of Scarlet and Violet, maybe it was naïve to expect those issues would be adequately addressed. Having said that, I do not want to be misconstrued as excusing these issues. I firmly believe Game Freak deserves all the criticism they have received for the problems with these games. What makes these graphical and performance issues especially strange is the juxtaposition of things that look great and things that do not. Some of the character and pokémon models, animations, and the details are a vast improvement. But then the world itself looks undetailed and unremarkable and many other character models are bland and uninspired. Honestly, it is just another notch against these games that make them feel like they were rushed when they needed more time.

So this has already been a pretty meaty review that has been weighted with major criticisms of Scarlet and Violet, so the natural conclusion is that these are two games that can be easily skipped and ignored, right? It is actually a bit more complicated than that. To put it simply, Scarlet and Violet are fun to play and actually do a lot of things right. The core Pokémon experience still plays phenomenally and, for all their flaws, Scarlet and Violet elevate that experience thanks to the open-world setting. I have played other monster training games and none of them have ever been as enjoyable or delivered a comparable experience to Pokémon games. I grinded my way through both Digimon Cyber Sleuth games and I scratched the surface of Temtem at the request of a friend. And I think it is telling that those have been some of the more well-received games in the genre and none of them were as fun to play as Scarlet and Violet when some would argue that these are some of the worst mainline Pokémon games.

Soon after enrolling and arriving at Scarlet’s Naranja or Violet’s Uva Academy, players are tasked with going out into the world to find their own treasure, and that pursuit is framed by the games’ supporting cast. As I mentioned earlier, the narrative of Scarlet and Violet is largely told across three parallel storylines constructed around the three “rival” characters, Nemona, Arven, and Penny. Nemona is most similar to classic Pokémon rivals and spends the game encouraging players and looking forward to the day when you can stand on the same level as her. Her story scratches the surface of the fairly classic tale of someone who reached the pinnacle only to feel isolated at the top, but Scarlet and Violet fail to give Nemona the chance to exist beyond her passion for battling. Arven is the son of the region’s professor and his narrative begins with hunting down special ingredients and battling giant pokémon that have been appearing around Paldea, but quickly transitions to a heavier story. The final subplot revolves around Penny, a meek student who has been drawn into helping disband the "evil organization" of Scarlet and Violet, Team Star. Like some of the recent games, Team Star is not motivated by grandiose plans, instead, befitting the school setting, the team that have been classified as the bullies of the academy.

I am not about to suggest that these stories offer the same depth as a game like those of the Final Fantasy franchise, the Xenoblade Chronicles games, or The Witcher 3, but for a Pokémon game, I was not expecting this level of storytelling. Part of what makes these storylines (two of them, at least) shine is the characters struggle with the consequences of their decisions. Unlike the gym challenge storyline which does not really vary from start to finish, the other two start with straight-forward introductions, but then mature into complex stories that do a remarkable job helping develop not only their central characters, but the supporting cast and even the world of Paldea. I will admit that I did not particularly like Arven or Penny, but I still cared about their stories and those involved. The shortcomings of Nemona’s place in the story are only heightened when compared against Sword and Shield which nailed the gym challenge. It is difficult to go from Galar’s packed stadiums with an entire narrative and region built around becoming a champion to Paldea’s smaller, less grandiose stage where gym leaders do not have the same level of celebrity or status merely from being gym leaders. It also does not help that the champion rank is not really explored, and there is nothing like a gauntlet of champion ranked trainers that players unlock after beating the Pokémon League.

While these storylines are great, some of the strongest in franchise history, I am less sold on Scarlet and Violet’s setting. Specifically, the regional academies were too restrictive and shoehorned into every corner of Paldea. Pokémon games have always featured young protagonists, but it is weird to go to a school with traditional classes like math and history, and then leave that school as part of the curriculum to go out and become a Pokémon master. Also, why are there characters who look to be in their twenties or thirties (or older) who claim to be students? I have so many additional questions about the Paldean education system and none of them are particularly good.

Ever since generation six, Pokémon games have established a unique gameplay mechanic meant to shake up the combat experience. X and Y introduced Mega Stones and Mega Evolution, Sun and Moon featured Z-moves, and Sword and Shield had my favorite mechanic, Dynamax. Scarlet and Violet contain their own unique combat innovation, the Terastal phenomenon (yes, it is a stupid name). When a pokémon Terastrallizes, its appearance becomes crystallized, its typing changes to its Tera-type, and moves that match that typing become stronger. One of the interesting parts about Terastalling is that, while pokémon can lose their normal typing, they do not lose the same-type attack bonus. This effectively gives a pokémon the potential to have three boosted moves in their arsenal. But Terastalizaiton can also be used defensively to remove a glaring weakness or reduce incoming damage. Tyranitar’s four-times weakness to fighting moves has always been a detriment, but Terastrallizing into a ghost-type can turn that weakness into an immunity and cause an opponent to waste a turn.

I have two competing perspectives on Terastrallizing. From a single-player experience, Terastrallization is handled pretty well. Unlike some of the earlier mechanics, players cannot use it to sweep through every battle as it needs to be recharged, but, unlike Dynamax, players can use it in more than just major battles. At the same time, it is only used by opponents in major battles and it was poorly implemented as a last resort tool in those battles. There is a scene from one of the early trailers where the grass-type gym leader Terastrallizes his Sudowoodo from a rock-type pokémon into a grass-type. Visually, it was an exciting moment to see Sudowoodo go from fake tree to real tree, but it was a strategically poor decision, a trait shared by all gym leaders. I would have loved if this gym leader had not used Terastrallization to transform his pokémon into a grass-type, but to gain an advantage against pokémon that are strong against grass pokémon. For example, watching the water-type gym leader Terastrallize a Gastrodon into a fire-type to eliminate its weakness to grass-types while also taking advantage of the Storm Drain ability that would make it immune to water-types would have been a far more successful and powerful use of this mechanic.

Every pokémon has a Tera-type, usually based on its typing (a Charizard can be either fire-tera or flying-tera) but players can acquire pokémon with different types by playing Tera Raid Battles or by collecting Tera shards. Tera Raid Battles are similar to Sword and Shield’s Max Raid Battles and Dynamax Adventures, but with a few refinements. Four players come together to tackle tough opponents with empty slots filled by NPC trainers. Rather than playing until the opponent is defeated or four lives are used up, players must now defeat an opponent before the timer runs out. Knockouts of NPC-controlled pokémon do not affect the timer, but whenever a player-controlled pokémon faints, a chunk of time is removed, so bad teammates can do significant harm to a raid attempt. Every player largely acts independently of one another, so you are no longer constrained by needing to wait for others to lock in their moves. Additionally, the NPC trainers are not a detriment like they were in Sword and Shield and can actually assist during the hardest raids, a welcome addition given that the higher tier raids really draw attention to how many players do not know what to do when Pokémon battles require actually planning and strategy. Like a lot of parts of Scarlet and Violet, Tera Raid Battles are good on paper, but suffer due to the games’ performance issues. Higher tier raids feature health gates which trigger various effects (things like removing your buffs or the opponent gaining shields) and battle can slow to a crawl if multiple gates are triggered at once. When playing online, the games can struggle with processing buff and debuff stacking that cause the target pokémon’s health to take an enormous hit.

Players can also swap a pokémon’s tera-type by collecting fifty Tera shards which are primarily acquired from Tera Raid Battles. This is honestly an incredibly cumbersome and unnecessary mechanic. Let us say you wanted to change your Charizard’s Tera-type to water. You check your map and hunt down the four to five water Tera Raid Battles and get two to three shards after clearing each of those. You are still well under the fifty shards you need, so now what? Your options are, join other players’ raids to acquire one to two shards each, or clear out all the other raids on your map to get a new set of raids to respawn. This mechanic feels grindy for the sake of being grindy and, given that I do not see that many incentives to swap Tera-types for players who are not engaging with the competitive side of these games, mindlessly grinding away at raids does not contribute anything to the competitive experience.

So full disclosure, I finished Violet's main campaign last month, worked on this review, but then waited until the ranked season started and I was able to climb to Master Ball tier before finishing this review. I understand that competitive Pokémon is not for everyone, that is completely fine. But for me, the thing that is going to keep me sinking hours and hours into Scarlet and Violet, is not the single-player experience, but the competitive ladder, so I wanted to spend some time with that. And barring a few issues of varying severity, I am largely enjoying the competitive experience. Scarlet and Violet’s ranked ladder is structured similar to the one introduced in Sword and Shield. There are eleven ranks broken into five tiers -- Beginner, Poké Ball, Great Ball, Ultra Ball, and Master Ball. Players only match with others in the same rank, so a rank seven Great Ball player will only match with other rank seven Great Ball players. Players receive a number ranking upon reaching Master Ball based on, unless I am mistaken, a background Elo-style ranking formula, so players still only match against others at their relative skill level.

Unlike games like Destiny, Overwatch, or Call of Duty, where the developers constantly release balance patches to change metas and make adjustments, one of the things that I find really interesting about competitive Pokémon is that Game Freak only really balances the games once every three years. Instead, metas in Pokémon develop as players create and experiment with new strategies to overcome what is currently popular. Additionally, competitive Pokémon has hundreds of moving parts, so there is never a singular best pick. One of my favorite parts about competitive Pokémon, especially in the early days when some of the strongest pokémon are not eligible for competitive play (or even in the game), is seeing the diverse metas that develop.

As I started spending time playing competitively in Sword and Shield, it made me realize that competitive Pokémon spent years shackled by archaic role-playing game mechanics. However, similar to the more recent generations, there have been a number of changes that make it easier than ever to build competitive teams. Breeding pokémon and acquiring egg moves is easier than ever, mints can be found in the world, and mints, bottle caps, ability capsules, and ability patches can all be acquired from raids. Honestly, with many of the changes, it is possible to build a viable competitive team without spending a second engaging the breeding system. Battle Points (BP) have been eliminated and replaced by League Points (LP), a currency that players can amass from playing the single-player game, so it is easier than ever to acquire the items that speed up Effort Value (EV) training, a necessity given that Poké-Jobs have been removed. Having said that, it seems that Poké-Classes would have been a perfect replacement for Poké-Jobs, especially given the school setting. There are still the aforementioned issues with changing Tera-types, but building a competitive team does not require nearly the same investment as it did a few generations prior.

However, there have also been a number of changes that have harmed the competitive experience, some more significantly than others. Similar to some of my criticisms of the gym storyline, the arenas used in competitive matches are also a huge step back from those featured in Sword and Shield. Sword and Shield set its competitive matches in the same stadiums as the gym battles which created a superior atmosphere to Scarlet and Violet where matches are essentially held on a high school track. The cheering crowds in Paldea also do not help that atmosphere. There are only around a dozen characters standing around the matches in Scarlet and Violet, but there are only a handful of distinct character models. It is also not possible to change the location of ranked matches, although I have heard that this criticism does not hold for casual matches, so I am not sure I understand the logic there.

All the issues I have mentioned so far negatively affect the overall competitive experience, but do not affect the actual gameplay experience. And if that was where my criticisms ended, it would be disappointing, but not the worst problems. However, there are unfortunately a number of problems and steps backward even from a gameplay perspective. Some of these issues are fairly minor, like removing the ability to view an opponent’s team after a match. It was a nice feature, and removing it hurts the experience, but not drastically. One of my bigger complaints is that effectiveness of moves does not change in response to typing changes or when a move changes its type. When the core mechanic of this generation is built around changing types, this is a huge problem to overlook. The games also exhibit some strange behavior in doubles when a pokémon is knocked out, acting like it is still there until the spot is filled (assuming there is a pokémon in reserve to take its spot). I will admit that some of these problems might sound like nitpicking, which is a fair critique, but the fact that none of the issues I mentioned were present in Sword and Shield makes these stumbles inexcusable.

Unlike my single-player perspective on Terastrallization, as a player who engages with the competitive side of Scarlet and Violet, I am far less enamored with this new mechanic. Similar to Dynamax before it, I like how Terastrallization is more flexible than some of the earlier mechanics and allows players to adjust their Tera-strategies around their opponents. And while it is far too early to say for sure, and I can definitely see the potential in Terastrallization, my early impression is that Dynamax was a more enjoyable mechanic. I loved that, in addition to the health and offensive boosts from Dynamaxing, there were additional benefits that Dynamax moves provided that allowed for supplementary strategic considerations. Some of my most successful teams found ways to use Dynamax not just offensively, but to create opportunities for late game success, and the less complex nature of Terastrallization feels like a step backwards. Early on at least, it also feels that Terastrallization enables some powerful sweeping strategies that are driving the meta and team building. At the same, Terastrallization somehow also feels less essential than Dynamax. I had plenty of matches during Sword and Shield which were decided because of how a Dynamax went, whereas I have already had plenty of matches where I have not needed to Terastrallize or used it to counter only one of my opponent’s pokémon, while the rest of the battle played around more straightforward gameplay. There is something to be said that teams have to be more robust in generation nine and who knows, I might grow to love Terastrallization as this generation continues, but right now, I am not the biggest fan.

Like Sword and Shield before them, Scarlet and Violet continue the trend of not allowing every pokémon to be caught or even brought into the games. This is invariable going to be a sore subject as some fans still believe that every pokémon should be available (ignoring that it was not possible to catch every pokémon as far back as Gold and Silver). Personally, I see the benefit of these limitations, especially from a competitive perspective where a more limited Pokédex makes team building significantly more accessible. But even from the single-player context, four-hundred pokémon is more manageable than over one-thousand which has again allowed me to complete a living Dex.

Somehow this has become my longest review, and I think the reason is because of how conflicted I have felt. If this were a bad game across the board, this would be an easy review to write -- “Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are bad, do not buy these games.” But that is not the case. There are many things that are a lot of fun in these games, and I am not going to lie and pretend I have not been enjoying playing this generation. But it is still frustrating to look at these games and see all the things that could have been done which would have made them great. At the end of the day, Pokémon is more than just the games, it is a juggernaut of a media franchise, and the cadence of introducing new pokémon with a new generation makes it impossible to say if there will be any meaningful lessons learned from the missteps of these games. Personally, I recommend Scarlet and Violet, but I also acknowledge that I am someone who really enjoys competitive Pokémon and my view is skewed by this being the competitive platform for the foreseeable future. But I also think it is completely reasonable to want to wait to see if Game Freak can patch some of the performance issues or wait for the price to drop or a sale. And it is also completely reasonable to pass on these games.

You Pokémon Trainers are the treasure of Paldea.

All images owned by Nintendo.