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Pokémon Violet and Scarlet are an even bigger leap forward than they seem

When I walked into my hourlong demo of Pokémon Violet and Scarlet, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that developer Game Freak was serious about shaking up the franchise’s established formula after it delivered this year’s Pokémon Legends Arceus, a game that radically departed from the traditional RPG mold, but that was more of a spinoff experiment. Scarlet and Violet would be the real deal: mainline entries that would determine the true future of the series. Would we actually see a radical reinvention or would Game Freak play it safe, making another small step toward lasting change?

Jump into a Paldean Journey | Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet

After going hands on with Scarlet, I can confidently confirm that it’s more the former than the latter. The upcoming RPGs are a true overhaul of the Pokémon formula, actually committing to its new direction in a way I wasn’t expecting. If Sword and Shield felt like Game Freak squeezing an open-world aspect into a Pokémon game, the new entries are a total reversal: Pokémon ‘s various systems and ideas are slotted into an open-world game.

Like a lot of recent Pokémon games, I still get the sense that this isn’t the series’ final form. However, for those who have been begging for real change, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is undoubtedly the series’ biggest evolution to date — and based on my time with it, that seems to be a step in the right direction.

Truly open world

During my demo, I’m allowed to explore a specific chunk of the game’s map to my heart’s content. There are three quests I can choose to follow, but I’m otherwise free to simply roam around and see the sights. For those skeptical about how serious Game Freak is about its pivot, rest assured that this is much more than the Wild Area 2.0. Scarlet and Violet are true open-world games, as players can fluidly traverse a map full of monsters to catch.

Pokemon trainers run around with their monsters in Pokemon Violet and Scarlet.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In fact, Game Freak has gone to some extra lengths so as to not interrupt that experience. When you get into a battle with a wild Pokémon, you’re no longer transported to a vague arena. Like Arceus, the fight immediately begins in the world without an extra load (you can even see other Pokémon going about their business in the background). Pokémon centers and shops have been similarly altered, as they’re now outdoor kiosks that are quickly accessed while out in the world. I only needed to walk into a building once to sign up for a gym battle. Even trainers in the wild won’t stop you for a battle — you have to actively initiate one by talking to them first.

The world design itself isn’t too far off from Arceus, for better or worse depending on your opinions on that game. Nothing that I saw outside of its more detailed towns stuck out too much as far as landmarks go. I mostly traveled through basic grass and rock terrain that weren’t too visually distinct from one another. While that didn’t bother me too much during my demo, it did leave me wondering what the rest of the world looks like. I’m hoping to see some more involved spaces akin to Sword and Shield’s Isle of Armor, which is still the best explorable space Game Freak has assembled.

The Arceus similarities aren’t just visual. Scarlet and Violet borrow several mechanics from that game, including transportation. It turns out that the game’s legendary lizards aren’t just motorcycles, as they can also climb up cliffs, glide, and swim. Invoking Breath of the Wild is a tired cliché at this point, but it’s pretty clear that the Zelda game was a core inspiration. That DNA works too, as there’s some nice satisfaction that comes from scaling a cliff and discovering a thriving Pokémon habitat on top.

A trainer rides a motorcycle in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Those are all obvious changes, but the one that stuck out to me most was much smaller. While traveling around, I can send out a Pokémon to essentially scout the area around me. It can pick up loose items so I don’t have to and even auto-battle Pokémon in the area to get reduced XP. It feels like Game Freak finally making a compromise that it’s struggled to find over the past few decades. It’s an excellent feature for young kids or casual players who don’t necessarily want a challenging experience. And best of all, it’s implemented in an optional way that won’t hurt the experience for anyone who wants to avoid it.

Design decisions like that have me more excited about the future of the series than any of the big picture changes. If Game Freak can find a way to let players tailor their difficulty preferences going forward without explicitly adding difficulty modes, that could wind up being Scarlet and Violet’s most important contribution to the series.

Three quests

When it comes to what you actually do in the world, my experience was at once familiar and entirely different from any I’ve had in a Pokémon game. Rather than following a linear storyline, I had three quests on my map that were each representative of the game’s reworked narrative flow. The first of those was the more traditional gym storyline, where I’d have to collect badges by beating trainers, though it didn’t unfold the way I’m used to.

I biked my way into town and walked into a building to register for a battle with its gym leader. Before I could participate, I’d have to complete a challenge — something more akin to Sun and Moon’s rethought approach to gym encounters. This one was simple: find 10 Sunflora in the town and bring them back to a pen. It’s a simple hide-and-seek minigame, but one that at least feels different than just fighting a few trainers before taking on the gym leader. I’m just hoping some of the other gym requirements are a little more unique.

A member of Team Star looks down at a player in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The best of the three quests came when I tackled the Starfall Street story arc, which essentially separates the traditional Pokémon “bad guy” story into its own separate arc. Here, I’d have to break into a Team Star stronghold and fight a sort of end boss. The structure is similar to gym battles though, as I’d have to complete an initial challenge before getting there. This one required me to beat a bunch of Pokémon, mostly fire type, in a certain time limit using the auto-battle feature. I equipped three monsters and brought them in, slinging them at different packs of Pokémon like a commander in a strategy game (my Wiglett cleaned house, for the record). It culminated in maybe the most surprising trainer battle I’ve ever had in a Pokémon game, one that I dare not spoil here.

The only quest I didn’t get a great sense of was the Path of Legends arc, where I had to chase down a giant Klawf in a multipart battle. I only got to complete one of those battles in my demo, which was a pretty standard one-on-one encounter versus a larger Pokémon — somewhere between a normal encounter and a raid battle. I’m hoping there’s a bit more to these missions in the final game, especially when it comes to tracking down creatures and chasing them around the map.

It was hard to get a sense of what else there was to do in the world beyond that. I’m not sure if those quests make up the sum of its content or if there are some more organic challenges hidden in between. Perhaps that’s just the role that Pokémon catching is meant to fill, but I’m not sure if that’ll be enough to make the space feel like a true open-world playground. Even so, three primary quests should make it so there’s always enough to do in any given area initially.

But wait, there’s more!

Despite getting a good amount of time with Pokémon Scarlet, there’s still a lot I need to see in the final game. For instance, I did get a chance to try out the game’s Terastallize function, which is the game’s main battle gimmick. The option turns a Pokémon into a crystalized version of itself during battle, changing its type. I got to see that in action during a gym battle, which turned the leader’s Sudowoodo into a grass type, paying off one of the series’ oldest jokes. The feature has the potential to make battles more challenging, as you can’t always plan for an opponent based on their party or type preference.

A pokemon terrestalizes in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Terastallized Pokémon also add a bit of an extra hunt to the game, as you can find crystallized monsters in the wild and catch them. They’re not quite shinies, but they do give players a chance to discover creatures with unique forms that could be a secret weapon in a party.

I’m also a little obsessed with the game’s picnic function, which lets players sit down with their team and craft a sandwich. It’s a Cooking Mama-like minigame where players have to stack ingredients like tomatoes and lettuce on bread as they comically topple over. I made an absolutely embarrassing bacon and chorizo sandwich where almost nothing ended up on the bread at the end — and it was my favorite part of the entire demo, unironically.

I’m not left without questions though. The build I played gave me a pretty set part of the world to explore, but I’m curious to see how open-ended it really is. For instance, you can tackle gyms in any order, but it doesn’t seem like gym leaders scale to your level. And when I beat the grass gym, my badge made it so I could train Pokémon up to a certain level. It doesn’t really seem like it’s feasible to hit gyms out of order, which makes me wonder if the guardrails are still there, even if they’re less visible.

Pokemon have a picnic together in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

I’m also keeping my eye on the technical aspect of the game. This was an early build, so unfinished visuals are always expected during a demo like this. However, it looks to have some of the same visual problems as Arceus where the world loses all detail at a distance (it’s especially noticeable when flying). I don’t have much reason to expect this will be a different story than Arceus, so I hope the strength of the open-world exploration is enough to make me feel at peace if it’s not the cleanest game.

I’m ultimately not ready to pass any sort of judgment, especially since I haven’t gotten to try its multiplayer beyond one raid battle. But I’m most certainly more intrigued by the scope of the changes here than I thought I would be. I went in expecting a stopgap that was only halfway between Sword/Shield and Arceus. Instead, Scarlet and Violet seem like a much bigger leap forward than the series has ever taken. For those who have been begging for a change, that’s certainly what you’re getting here.

Pokémon Violet and Scarlet launches on November 18 for Nintendo Switch.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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