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Pokémon Scarlet and Violet review: radical reinvention sparkles in spite of tech woes

A Pokemon student holds a Pokeball in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet
MSRP $59.99
“Pokémon Scarlet and Violet's open-world pivot is exactly what the series needed, though poor tech holds back its true potential.”
Pros
  • Delightful academy premise
  • Sweet, kid-friendly storytelling
  • Much-needed freedom
  • Excellent diversity of Pokémon
  • Flexible challenges
Cons
  • Some dull quest objectives
  • Level scaling needed work
  • A tech disaster

Before playing Pokémon Scarlet, I didn’t realize how little freedom I truly had in a Pokémon game. Sure, I had the power to pick my monster party and customize it with moves and items, but that’s usually where my player agency ended. No matter what region my adventures took me to, I usually found myself following a maze-like map of routes, caves, and towns that spit me out at the Elite Four. The creatures I could add to my party were laid out for me in a careful order, while forced battles against wandering trainers would make sure that my party was always at the right level to tackle whatever gym leader I was predestined to beat next.

I’d been biking with training wheels for 26 years.

For perhaps the first time in the series’ history, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet takes down the guardrails (or at least pretends to convincingly enough). Developer Game Freak trusts players to carve their own path through the open-world Paldea region, even if that means letting them walk into a battle entirely unprepared. More than all of the big-picture formula shake-ups, it’s that psychological shift that proves to be this generation’s most important innovation. Though the bike maywobble, the training wheels are finally off.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a real step forward for a series that’s been locked in a holding pattern for well over a decade. The open-world pivot successfully reinvigorates a stale premise by giving trainers more control over the pace and difficulty of their journey. Like every recent Pokémon game, however, deteriorating tech and half-hearted experimentation still makes it feel like we’re five years away from the franchise’s true return to glory.

Independent study

In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, players don’t just assume the role of another young trainer looking to be the very best. Instead, the stories center around a student who’s just been enrolled in Paldea’s oldest university (the Naranja or Uva Academy, depending on which game you’re playing) and sent off on an independent study. Over the course of the journey, they’ll have to complete 18 tasks across a fully open map, which includes beating eight gyms, tracking down giant titan Pokémon, and shutting down bases belonging to the villainous (or perhaps misunderstood) Team Star.

It’s a cute setup that works on both narrative and game design levels. When it comes to the former, the framework creates some fun presentation touches that actually put me in that student headspace. The Pokédex is laid out like an adorable collection of textbooks, with volumes for each creature I catch. Tutorials are delivered through optional classes where I’m quizzed on different subjects via midterm and final exams. Even the “independent study” wording itself puts me in the mindset of a kid on a school assignment, rather than that of the interchangeable “trainers” that have starred in previous installments.

The more I settled into my flow, the more I grew to value my newfound freedom.

Most of all, I appreciate how the premise allows Game Freak to better tailor its storytelling to younger players. Rather than focusing on a sweeping, lore-heavy narrative with world-ending stakes, Scarlet and Violet’s three primary quests create space for more sincere stories about the Academy students. The Team Star quest, for instance, isn’t so much about vague bad guys trying to steal Pokémon or take over the world. Instead, it’s a bullying narrative that’s tackled with nuance and sincerity. Game Freak makes a firm choice about its core audience here, one that it’s been scared to commit to for most of the series’ life span. The decision to speak to childhood struggles makes for a more focused story with some actual emotional depth.

As an open-world motivator, the narrative setup serves as a good way to let players get lost in a giant map rather than locking them into a golden path. Objectives can be tackled in any order (sort of), which offers a level of freedom that’s never been present in a mainline Pokémon game. Remember the at-the-time special moment in Red and Blue where you first arrive at Saffron City and have the option to either tackle the fighting dojo or infiltrate the Silph tower? Scarlet and Violet is that choice turned into a full game.

Pokemon students take a selfie in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.
Pokémon

The more I settled into my flow, the more I grew to value my newfound freedom. Sometimes I’d pop into a Team Star base and find that I just didn’t have the right party to beat the boss within. In that moment, I could simply back out and hunt down a giant Klawf, try my luck at the grass gym, or just wander off and catch some creatures for a few hours. It’s an experience that finally makes me feel like Ash Ketchum in the anime series, going on adventurous diversions between the usual badge checklist.

Not every quest is a winner. Gyms, for instance, are no longer small dungeons full of trainers and puzzles. Instead, players simply have to complete a short challenge before taking on the gym leader. At best, those tasks are neutral minigames, like having to find 10 Sunflora hidden around a town. Similarly, each Team Star mission has players beating 30 Pokémon by completing a mini strategy game built around auto-battling. I had 10 minutes to complete these, but handily finished most in under two minutes every time without much effort. Few of these are particularly fun or challenging, but they at least bring some variety to a series that’s been short on ideas for a long time.

You wanted a challenge? You got it

Even with some weak ideas, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet excels when it comes to the fundamentals. The RPG formula that has carried the series through eight generations still works here, and parts of it function even better in the context of an open-world. Catching, for instance, is the best it’s ever been thanks to the wide diversity of Pokémon scattered throughout Paldea. By the time I arrived at my first gym, I already had 40 pals at my disposal with just about every type covered. It’s just another way that I’m given more agency here, letting me truly build a party from the jump instead of making me use monsters I know I’m getting rid of the first chance I get.

My Scarlet playthrough was by far the hardest I’ve experienced in one of these games since the earliest iterations.

The most important change, however, comes from the games’ approach to challenge. For well over a decade now, older fans have begged Game Freak to add difficulty options to Pokémon games. Those players will be pleased to hear that my Scarlet playthrough was by far the hardest I’ve experienced in one of these games sincethe earliest iterations. That’s not because I set it to hard mode; there are no difficulty siders here. Rather, the challenge is simply a great side effect of freedom.

Since I’m never railroaded into anything, that means nothing can stop me from wandering into a gym whose Pokémon are six levels above mine and trying to play from behind. Similarly, nothing’s preventing me from entering a far-off slice of the map and trying to catch some creatures that are far more powerful than my crew. All trainer battles in the world are optional too, which means that my party’s levels are never being stealthily raised as I go to maintain balance. I’m always in full control of the grind, which means I get to choose if I want to go into a battle unprepared. Players can essentially create their own difficulty level, which is a solution to the age gap problem that actually works.

A Pokemon trainer battles a member of Team Star in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

That’s especially helped along by the fact that story fights feel like legitimate boss battles. Titan Pokémon have giant health bars that players need to whittle away piece by piece, successfully riffing on Pokémon Sun and Moon’s Totem Pokémon. Team Star fights can be particularly challenging too, as each culminates with a similarly supersized fight. Those ideas complement raid battles, which return from Pokémon Sword and Shield with a slight real-time twist. Five-star battles prove to be a legitimate challenge, making combat more engaging. Let me put it this way: In Brilliant Diamond, the first time I wiped out was in the Elite Four. In Pokémon Scarlet, I routinely lost at least once on the majority of story missions I tackled — even when my average levels exceeded my opponent’s.

While I love how difficulty plays into the open-world design, Game Freak doesn’t quite find the best implementation of its latest idea — something that’s become a common problem in the series as of late. Choice is a bit of an illusion here, as there’s still an optimal order in which the game assumes you’ll tackle most tasks. For instance, gyms don’t scale to your level. If you decide to head to one on the other side of the map, you’ll find yourself woefully underleveled. Even if you manage to catch some creatures who can compete, you won’t be able to fully control them without enough badges, like in previous games. That left me in situations where I’d struggle to beat one gym that I wasn’t ready for, only for the next two gyms to be a cakewalk for my skill level. Going off the invisible path can turn the game into a mess, and it’s not always clear what that intended order of operations is.

A Pokemon gym leader sends out Belibolt in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

Though it’s not the cleanest solution, the fact that I’m never turned away from a difficult task is important. Some gyms pushed me to really strategize so I can take down Pokémon six levels above me. When I actually pulled off those victories, I felt a level of mastery that I usually only get from the endgame content in previous installments.

Unacceptable performance

For all my praise, there’s a black cloud hanging over Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: It is downright embarrassing on a technical front. The open world itself is an uninspired collection of basic terrain with few (if any) landmarks, but that’s the least of the games’ issues. Textures are muddy across the board, even looking bad next to GameCube games like Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness. Assets routinely flicker in and out of existence, while the camera tends to expose the underside of the world by accident. Worst of all, some areas that are densely packed with Pokémon will cause the game to essentially drop into slow-motion. While I love soaring above the world on my legendary lizard, it’s dampened by some of the ugliest scenic views I’ve seen in a modern game of this scale.

It is unfathomable to me that a series that generates this much cash can launch in such a poor technical state.

I generally avoid using the word “unacceptable” when critiquing games. Video games are incredibly difficult to make and I understand that there are times where corners need to get cut to make them work. Scarlet and Violet ultimately function, with most of these complaints being annoying distractions rather than game-halting issues. But it is unfathomable to me that a series that generates this much cash can launch in such a poor technical state. Maybe the money that went toward commissioning an original Ed Sheeran song could have gone to better use.

Scarlet and Violet wind up feeling like a rush job, and that’s what frustrates me the most. The machinelike churn of the Pokémon series is taking more of a toll on each entry, bringing down what could be excellent RPGs. That isn’t just leading to technical issues, but holding back design too. Earlier this year, Game Freak released Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which was praised for some of its creative system innovations. Features like streamlined catching would have felt right at home in the open world here, but there just wasn’t enough time between games for Game Freak to gather feedback and apply it here. Instead, I’m once again dreaming of the mainline installments that’ll launch three years from now — games that will feel similarly behind the curve by then if the trend continues.

Take the framework of Scarlet and Violet, combine that with Arceus’ systems, and I truly believe you have the next great Pokémon game. Instead, we wound up with two good concepts.

A fire Pokemon stands tall over paldea in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

While I have my share of disappointments, this ninth generation of Pokémon has exceeded my tempered expectations. I went in prepared for another set of games that flirt with bold changes, but still play it safe overall. Instead, Scarlet and Violet offer a radically reinvented approach to Pokémon that solves some of the series’ most pressing problems. The hard part was getting the confidence to ride without training wheels; now the goal is to keep the bike upright.

Pokémon Scarlet was tested on a Nintendo Switch OLED in handheld mode and on a TCL 6-Series R635 when docked.

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