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Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: The Teal Mask review: back to square zero

Three legendary Pokemon stand tall in Pokemon: The Teal Mask.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: The Teal Mask
MSRP $35.00
“The Teal Mask contains your average monster catching fun, but it doesn't do enough to address Pokémon Scarlet and Violet's biggest problems.”
  • Endearing story
  • Lots of returning monsters
  • Catching is as fun as always
  • Dull quests
  • Uninspired new world
  • Continued technical issues

While there have been a plethora of Pokémon games over the past decade, each of which twists the RPG formula in its own way, it’s a single DLC that sticks with me most. Pokémon Sword and Shield’s Isle of Armor is a strong expansion that would set the stage for Scarlet and Violet’s full open-world pivot. An intricately designed island filled with side-activities and fun scavenger hunts would convince me that developer Game Freak was headed in the right direction.

Three years later, it feels like I’m back at Area Zero with The Teal Mask. The first expansion for last year’s Scarlet and Violet is similar to Isle of Armor on paper; players are tossed into a bite-sized open world filled with new monsters to catch and a self-contained story to complete. It’s a proven formula for Game Freak at this point – and that might be the problem. What was once fresh for an aging series is already starting to feel old as I spend hours retreading familiar landscapes. We’ve traded one formula for another.

The Teal Mask shows diminishing returns for Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s messy groundwork. The base games’ technical issues feel worse than ever here, despite dealing with a less ambitious world. While there’s still fun to be had catching familiar monsters, I’m left hoping that a jump to a more capable console will be the spark the series needs to properly deliver on its open-world pivot.

Cultural education

The Teal Mask is the first part of a larger DLC story titled The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero, which will conclude with The Indigo Disk. As a setup for a grand story, Teal Mask isn’t much of a part one. The four-hour story barely hints at the larger tale Game Freak is weaving here, instead focusing on what feels like a fairly self-contained adventure. Fortunately, that story is charming. The DLC is set up like an independent study, as players are whisked away to a new area called Kitakami and paired up with students from the local Blueberry Academy.

It’s a sincere way to talk about kids’ emotions through colorful monsters.

The self-guided course has players wandering a small open world, learning local customs, and uncovering a folktale about the legendary Ogerpon. That central story doubles down on Scarlet and Violet’s storytelling strengths by telling an endearing tale that’s custom-built for young players. It centers around a shy, misunderstood Pokémon that’s been treated as an outcast for all its life, forcing it to hide behind a mask. That connects to a more human story, as one of the young Blueberry Academy students is going through the same journey. It’s a sincere way to talk about kids’ emotions through colorful monsters.

The actual quest surrounding that story isn’t quite as exciting. The quick adventure mostly has me finding signposts in the world that explain the folktale and battling the same two trainers several times. There’s at least a splash of variety in a perfectly fine berry-collecting minigame, a memorable final boss fight, and a late-game photography sidequest. Plus, it does bring a whole batch of returning monsters to the game alongside some fun new designs, like the Matcha ghost whistleblower. Still, nothing I do ever has me as engaged as I was while playing Isle of Armor, with its collectible Digletts, dojo upgrading, and tower battles.

Characters take a selfie together in Pokemon: The Teal Mask.

It doesn’t help that Kitakami is one of Game Freak’s least exciting Pokémon worlds to date. The fairly bland open world mostly looks like Paldea, with some grassy fields surrounding a central mountain. There are tiny splashes of extra detail, like an apple orchard or a crystal lake, but it mostly feels like I’m looking at familiar assets rearranged. It’s another strange step back from Isle of Armor’s excellent world, which seamlessly weaved together beaches, grassy wetlands, and deserts. For a story about cultural education, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to learn.

More performance issues

With a less engaging adventure to latch onto, Teal Mask lays Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s shortcomings bare. I didn’t realize how much I valued the choice-driven structure of those games (in which I could complete three questlines in any order) until I was locked into a fairly linear, uneventful quest. Without that choice, the open-world structure of the base game feels much less freeing.

I’m still playing a game that feels like it’s going to shatter at any moment …

With my mind less occupied by a wealth of things to do and see, technical issues stuck out to me even more than they did in Paldea. Assets flashing in and out of existence, frame rate slowdowns, muddy textures all around — every ugly issue that bugged me in Scarlet and Violet feels even more prevalent here. I had hoped that nearly a year of time between the base game’s launch and the arrival of the DLC would give Game Freak some time to optimize the experience, but that isn’t the case. I’m still playing a game that feels like it’s going to shatter at any moment, something that seems especially puzzling after the technically impressive The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

Contrary to what some cynics may say, the Nintendo Switch is a capable platform. We’ve seen it excel with games like Fire Emblem Engage and Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Whether it’s a shaky foundation or rushed development timelines, it’s been clear since Sword and Shield that something needs to change at Game Freak. Hopefully Nintendo’s next console, which may be right around the corner, can help.

The hub town in The Teal Mask appears.

Though those technical deficiencies only get more disappointing with each release, it’s a testament to the power of Pokémon that I still breezed through Teal Mask’s main story in one sitting. There’s an inherent joy in collecting new monsters and watching my Pokédex fill up. Even in the franchise’s weakest moments, that loop I loved as a kid still retains its power here. I still get a little thrill anytime I see a new friend out in the world, carefully knock its HP down, and toss my Pokéball. That still holds up here and will probably get me to download The Indigo Disk later this year (which will at least bring some of the high-level challenges that are lacking here).

Game Freak is on the verge of a good thing with its current generation. It’s cracked how to tell good children’s stories in the Pokémon universe, all while breaking up the usual “road to Elite Four” structure that had gotten stale. However, I feel the same frustration here as I do when I can’t quite catch a Pokémon. Whenever my ball shakes twice before the monster breaks free, I get stubborn. Instead of whittling down its health or trying to inflict a status effect, I just keep throwing more balls until one works. Sometimes I get lucky with my next throw; other times, I’m downgraded to one shake. Teal Mask feels like the latter.

Pokémon Scarlet — The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero: The Teal Mask was tested on a Nintendo Switch OLED in handheld mode and on a TCL 6-Series R635 when docked.

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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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