Pokémon is one of those series that’s not known for rocking the boat. The series is known for its turn-based combat, but what’s so fascinating about the series is that some can play it and just enjoy the myriad of cutely designed monsters, while others delve into an extremely deep and satisfying combat system that rewards predictions and strategy. Whenever a series like Pokémon tries something new, it’s usually a cause for celebration as the developer, Game Freak, is generally slow to try new gameplay ideas, or they’re too quick to throw away great ideas that worked. That being said, however, is the open world approach to Scarlet and Violet’s Paldea region a cause for celebration, or should we use amnesia to forget these games ever happened? Let’s find out.
Scarlet and Violet offer the player three separate story paths that all intertwine into one climactic ending story. The first path, Victory Road, is your traditional gym challenge where you approach a city, battle its gym leader for a badge, and then ultimately become a new champion of the region. The story in this path is simple, but the new rival is so peppy and energetic that she’s actually a joy to have interactions with, mainly because she doesn’t interrupt your experience anywhere near as much as the rivals from Sun or Sword.
There’s also five large Titans that you’re asked to defeat so a new friend can acquire the arcane Herba Mystica herbs. Titan battles are basically boss battles against very large pokémon with high health, but most are quickly dispatched after just two encounters. This particular path felt like it had the most character development, as the guide character for this route is connected with the Professor for this region, plus his reasons for needing the herbs is very sweet. The third path involves dealing with Team Star, where you’ll use the command with your pokémon implementing the new auto battle system to raid the camps of a bunch of bullied nerds to force them to come back to school.
For the most part, Scarlet and Violet offer you around 18 events to partake in- there’s eight gyms, five Titans, and five Team Star camps. While that sounds like considerably more main story content than a Pokémon game has had, it didn’t seem to take any longer to beat Scarlet as it did Sword, previously, but there was considerably less time spent in dialogue with characters who bloviate on like Hop, so it’s a big improvement from the last generation. There definitely was a lot more time spent exploring rather than having characters explain things the player already knows. However, similar to generation 8, Scarlet and Violet don’t really have a central villain like Giovanni or Cyrus. Well, the games don’t have a villain character, at least.
Truly, the real villain of Pokémon Scarlet lies in the performance issues that plague the game. This is said without a hint of irony, as out of all the games played and reviewed by me in the last year, Pokémon Scarlet has performed by far the worst out of all of them. I’ve played Bayonetta 3, which reviewers complained about the performance of, but it runs like a dream compared to Pokémon Scarlet. Sonic Frontiers had a lot of people complaining about pop-in, but Pokémon in generation nine will oftentimes pop pokémon in within inches of the player, if they’re not outright invisible or inside of the player.
It’s just interesting that this hardware was capable of Xenoblade 3, which has environments and characters that are much more detailed, yet Scarlet and Violet perform so much worse. The issue predominantly lies in the unacceptable frame rate and frame timing problems, abysmal pop-in, a memory leak issue that gets exacerbated if you switch between docked and handheld play and don’t save and close the game every so often, and absolutely unforgiveable bugs that should’ve been squashed before this product ever hit store shelves.
It’s difficult to explain just how bad the frame rate is in Pokémon Scarlet, but the easiest way to describe it is that it dramatically shifts between mid-20s and low teens in FPS nigh constantly, and when the frame rate dips below a specific value, the entire game runs in slow motion and drops inputs, which means doing certain tasks can take two or even three times longer than normal. Typically restarting the game can solve these problems for a time, but no one specifically knows what causes this problem. Areas with water, especially where one particular Team Star raid occurs, run in slow motion practically the entire time the player is there.
This is on top of a bug that cropped up early game where shadows in a canyon at night rapidly flickered between black and pure white multiple times per second any time the character moved, or if I rotated the camera which made me physically ill. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from epilepsy. I mean, who hasn’t tested this by watching the infamous Porygon episode that hospitalized children in Japan? The good thing is that this only happened the one time after shutting the game off and restarting it, but it was still wild to see a flashing light visual glitch to that extent.
That being said, Scarlet and Violet didn’t bring only bad things to the table. The inclusion of drop-in, drop-out multiplayer allows you to connect with up to three of your friends, and all four of you can venture through the Paldea region to explore and capture pokémon. You can’t battle together against NPCs, like you could in Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee, but players that stick together can see and catch pokémon that don’t even normally show up in their games. This can be a great way to score a Bagon if you have Scarlet, or a way to find a Larvitar if you have Violet, for example. Beyond wandering around the world with one another, players can also participate in link trades, online battles against randoms or friends, and the fun surprise trade system where everyone dumps their breeding rejects.
For those who have been long experienced in the series, breeding in Scarlet and Violet work differently than in past games. Prior to generation 9, if a player wanted to breed the perfect competitive team, or maybe hatch a rare shiny pokémon from an egg, you had to visit the daycare center and walk around enough for an egg to be found. In Scarlet and Violet, players can have picnics in any area of Paldea that has flat ground. As long as two pokémon of a compatible egg group are in your party, there’s a chance your pokémon will leave an egg in a basket at the picnic. Aside from the weirdly morbid thought of your adorable critters getting it on while you’re eating your sandwiches, this system can be pretty convenient as you can speed it up substantially through the use of sandwich recipes.
Pokémon games tend to have an additional mechanic where you get close to your cute, world-ending monsters of destruction. In generation 6, it was Pokémon-Amie which let you brush and feed your pokémon. In generation 7, you had Pokémon Refresh, which was very similar to Amie in many ways. Gen 8 introduced feeding your Pokémon curry at camp, and generation 9 traded in curry recipes for sandwiches and picnics. In spite of the sandwich animations being absolutely embarrassing by modern day standards, the Picnic system is substantially better than Sword and Shield’s curries.
Mixing the right combinations of ingredients for your healthy hoagies can yield a great number of benefits, similar to Pass and O-Powers from generations 5 and 6. If you like the idea of increasing the EXP gained from battle, or making shiny pokémon more likely to appear, you’ll likely be spending a little time making better grilled cheese sandwiches than Gordon Ramsay. Sandwich recipes have a variety of levels, as well, so if you need materials to craft multiple TMs, you can cut your grinding time pretty substantially by eating a sandwich that yields Item Drop Power and then auto battling the pokémon that drop the necessary materials.
TMs, the discs that teach your pokémon new moves, are back to being single use only. This was likely changed to avoid players finding an Earthquake TM early and teaching the powerful Ground type move to everything to wreck your opponents, but this does have the unintended consequence of forcing you to grind to acquire additional TMs. The materials needed for TMs usually come from pokémon- when defeated, you might find things like Fletchling Feather or Mareep Wool after knocking out or fainting a wild pokémon.
You can quickly gather up these materials with the new Let’s Go auto battle system, where you can send out one of your pokémon and it battles pokémon on its own and collects items for you, assuming you don’t walk too far away from it while it does so. The EXP gained from auto battle is quite low, but it does make collecting pokémon materials pretty quick if the pokémon you send out has a type advantage. Plus, it can just be nice to see one of your pokémon following along with you if they’re fast enough to keep up.
At this exact moment, online play via the Battle Stadium is completely broken on release due to an unfortunate and glaring oversight. You see, random in programming isn’t actually random- a game will generate something called a seed that predicts outcomes well in advance, but the seed is generated unbeknownst to the player and new ones are created so that players can never predict what outcome will occur, guaranteed. Unfortunately, Pokemon Scarlet’s online Battle Stadium uses the exact same seed for every single online match- so if you were wondering why you’re missing the first move of every single match, but the second one hits 100% of the time, you now know why.
This leads to incredibly annoying situations where any move of 90 accuracy or lower will always miss on the first turn, but the insanely low accuracy one hit KO moves like Sheer Cold are guaranteed to connect on the second turn, and players are already mapping out the seed to use this information to their advantage. For the first time in the series history, players will be able to call misses or crits purely skill issues; but all of this could have been avoided pretty easily. The good news is that this should be ridiculously easy to patch, but it’s abhorrent that such a major release came out with such an obvious and unintended bug, because it’s questionable if they even bug tested battles between players at all.
So, okay, you don’t like Battle Stadium, what other kind of content is there once you’ve caught them all? There is very little. Many players have lamented the lack of Battle Frontier since the Pokémon games turned 3D, but generation 9 goes a step further and removed the post-game Battle Tower equivalent entirely. This means you can’t even battle against increasingly challenging compositions of computer-controlled opponents of set levels if that’s something you’ve enjoyed in the past.
Once you beat the game, you basically can only take part in five- and six-star Tera raid battles, which are enjoyable enough, and you can catch some legendary pokémon that are hidden across the map, but if you were hoping for something to test your battle chops against, currently Pokemon Scarlet has nothing to offer you. There are no same-level-rules offline battles against CPUs, and the online Battle Stadium can be mapped so you can manipulate events like your opponent getting paralyzed four turns in a row. At launch, these games offer very little good post-game content. It’s just another bug in an extremely long list that should have been taken care of before the release of these games.
While the visuals of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet typically leave a lot to be desired, there were some great advancements made to a lot of Pokémon designs. Several flying pokémon that would simply hang in the air due to Pokémon XY’s Sky Battles now have new idle animations, and many pokémon have had texture or lighting upgrades to make them appear more metallic or visually interesting. The music in Scarlet and Violet is actually incredible- many of the tracks are bright, cheery, and uplifting. Several of the battle themes, especially the one for a particular Eevee-loving nerd, are incredibly catchy. The Elite 4 track would be a pretty great theme to battle to, but unfortunately the Elite 4 battle song didn’t play during any of the four battles in my playthrough, preferring to play the 5 second intro loop on repeat and never actually got into the battle theme, proper. That’s right: Even the music in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is bugged.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet simultaneously embody both the best and worst of the Pokémon series. The attempt at an open world design, adorable cast of new critters, plus different designs on familiar faces really make this one of the better generations, especially compared to gens 7 and 8. It’s fun tackling the three different storylines and resolving arguably one of the best ending plots in the series. Conversely, the performance issues can make venturing through the landscapes of Paldea a complete slog, and the lack of battling facilities can give players very little to do with the perfect pokémon they bred or captured in Tera raids, making Scarlet and Violet fall short due to content even more arbitrarily cut than previous generations.
It’s worth noting that, when the game worked well, I had an absolute blast with it. While losing out on the Pokemon Legends: Arceus style capturing is an unfortunate loss, being able to remember moves or nickname pokémon directly from the menu screen is an excellent change to bring into mainline Pokémon games. Scarlet and Violet aren’t all bad- in fact, should the performance issues and litany of other bugs be resolved, somehow, this would probably be among the best generations. It’s simply unfortunate that what is good about these games is buried underneath a plethora of issues that, quite simply, should not have been in these games at release.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, at their core, are potentially the best entries in the history of Pokémon. It’s just unfortunate that the biggest franchise in the world released a game that demands players overlook or not be bothered by a great number of annoyances. A nice, big world to explore is meaningless if traversing it isn’t fun because the game randomly runs at one-third the normal speed and forces you to press the B button three or four times to jump or glide on your adorable, cowardly bike dragon.
Developers: Game Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch