When Pokemon Sword and Shield were released back in 2019, the Wild Area gave us a glimpse at what the future of the Pokemon franchise could look like. Pokemon Legends: Arceus took that idea a step further, giving players multiple playgrounds of open areas to explore. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the full realizations of a Pokemon open-world. However, it’s unfortunately held back at almost every turn by performance and technical issues galore.
A new Pokemon world
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet mark the beginning of Generation 9. With that, these titles introduce a new region and a slew of new Pokemon to discover within. Continuing the franchise trend of basing the regions on real-world places, the Paldea region is inspired by Spain, with that culture influencing the locations and creatures that players will discover.
As a student at Naranja/Uva Academy (school name and branding depends on game version), players dress in appropriate school attire. You’re able to customize your hat, shoes, socks, glasses, gloves, and backpack, but your shirt and pants are limited to just four variations of the school uniform: summer, winter, autumn, and spring. While this makes sense narratively, it feels like an unnecessary restriction on customization, especially coming off Sword and Shield, which gave players the full freedom to dress how they want.
Early in the game, players will set off on a journey to discover their personal treasure in an independent study that the school holds annually. From here, you can explore the Paldea region with total freedom.
The Paldea region is vast, and players will use Legendary Pokemon Koraidon (Scarlet) or Miraidon (Violet) to get around. These motorcycle-like Pokemon are upgraded throughout the game, allowing them to glide through the sky and surf through the water. It’s a nifty way to get around, and there are several hidden items and interactions only accessible by using the ride Pokemon.
There are absolutely no strings attached to the freedom to explore, either. Scarlet and Violet feature three storylines: Victory Road, Starfall Street, and Path of Legends. Victory Road is the most familiar path, with players taking on eight Gyms scattered throughout the region. Starfall Street centers on thwarting Team Star, which has been causing trouble around campus. Lastly, Path of Legends sees the player hunting down mysterious Titan Pokemon and learning more about Paldea’s past.
You can tackle the related missions in any order you choose without needing to meet any pre-requisite. By the nature of my journey, I inadvertently skipped over a couple of Gyms, coming back to take care of them when my team was nice and powerful.
Although you can play through the game however you like, the world does not scale to the strength of your Pokemon. There were multiple instances where I wandered into an area populated by Pokemon 10-20 levels higher than the ones in my party, in which I promptly turned and went in the opposite direction. There were also times I took on a Gym leader that I was clearly under-prepared for.
This new approach restored the sense of difficulty in Pokemon for me. Throughout most of the game, my opponents’ Pokemon were either about on par with mine or stronger. I had plenty of uphill battles that made for thrilling finishes I hadn’t experienced in years. Despite that, I never felt the need to stop in my tracks and grind endlessly to get my team up to snuff. Between the three storylines, there was always something to do that fell in line with where my Pokemon were at.
Crystallizing new mechanics
Pokemon Scarlet and violet are a true marriage of classic and modern Pokemon tropes. While there are still eight Gyms to challenge, the process of doing so is a bit different. There is now a Gym Test, similar to the Island Trials featured in Pokemon Sun and Moon. These tasks range from retrieving a specific item to solving a puzzle or defeating another trainer. Some were more enjoyable than others, but it was nice to be free of the format that’s been followed by nearly every other mainline game in the series.
Battling in Scarlet and Violet is the traditional turn-based experience. Your party of six Pokemon can be outfitted with different held items and abilities that’ll give you the upper hand on your opponent. Like in Legends: Arceus, the transition into a battle is seamless, with various NPCs and wild Pokemon wandering in the background during the action. While you can’t run around the battlefield like in Legends: Arceus, you can move the camera.
Ever since X and Y in 2013, new generations of Pokemon have introduced a battle mechanic that’s unique to those games’ respective regions. In the Paldea region, Pokemon can Terastallize. This phenomenon gives the Pokemon a sparkly gem-like exterior, as well as a Tera Type. A Pokemon’s Tera Type will usually be one of its standard typings, providing a boost to moves of that type. For example, the Fire-type starter Fuecoco will naturally have a Fire Tera Type. However, there are rare Pokemon that can be found with unique Tera Types, primarily through Tera Raids.
Tera Raids are Pokemon Scarlet and Violet’s iteration of the Max Raid Battles introduced in Sword and Shield. With up to three strangers or friends, players can take on powerful Pokemon with high stats and a rare Tera Type. This time around, the four players can act simultaneously, streamlining the raid process. Once finished, players can choose to capture the Pokemon and are rewarded with Exp Candies and other rare items.
Exciting new allies
A new generation also means a brand new crop of Pokemon. I admired the new cast of Pokemon featured in Scarlet and Violet. With the number of existing pokemon approaching 1,000, Game Freak gets creative with the cast of creatures we meet in the Paldea region. There are unique spins on familiar animals, as well as some brand-new typing match-ups that will surely shake things up for casual and competitive players alike.
I was immediately impressed by the sheer amount of options given to me early on. In just the first few areas of the game, I felt like I had already seen enough species of Pokemon to assemble multiple teams. In past games, it took considerable progress before your options really opened up.
Players are encouraged to bond with their Pokemon by throwing Picnics, another new mechanic in Scarlet and Violet. Picnics can be initiated from the menu just about anywhere on the map (outside of towns and crowded areas). Your full party is released from their Pokeballs, and you can interact with them, wash them, and even prepare food. While making sandwiches seemed like a silly addition at first, I dug how it provided a bevy of boosts for me and my Pokemon, improving processes like breeding, training, and even shiny hunting.
While the open world of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is incredibly ambitious, it simply isn’t up to snuff with what players expect from a game like this in 2022. The game is constantly struggling to run on the Switch’s aging hardware, with frames constantly dropping during the transition in and out of battles, or when entering towns and other heavily-populated areas. There were times when it felt like I was playing in slow motion as my Switch tried to keep up with everything that was happening.
There are a lot of NPCs and Pokemon that inhabit the Paldea region. Many of them moving at just a handful of frames per second until they’re within a few feet of you. I also experienced a whole lot of texture and character pop-in while exploring the region as well. Groups of wild Pokemon wouldn’t spawn until I was just a handful of feet away from them, and I would often see them vanish and reappear depending on how far away I was.
As someone who can usually look past some light performance issues (like in Pokemon Legends: Arceus), the technical blunders of Scarlet and Violet made parts of the game thoroughly unenjoyable. I found myself frequently fast-traveling to avoid performance hitches while exploring and felt a lack of motivation to wander around catching Pokemon, as watching them materialize and then vanish while I was just yards away shattered any immersion I had.
The only time that these games ran consistently smoothly was when I was indoors. Given that just about everything is outside, including Gym battles and the Pokemon Centers, that wasn’t very often. Even the menu and animation loading felt like it took a second too long.
These performance issues persisted in both handheld and TV modes. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the first games to crash on my Nintendo Switch. It happened twice, both times with the day one patch installed.
Days of Future Past
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet lean heavily into themes of the past and present, as evidenced by the prehistoric and futuristic appearances of their cover Legendaries. These themes are present in the narrative and inform a lot of the biggest plot points throughout. The story went in directions I wasn’t expecting, and for the first time in years, I was actually surprised by the narrative in a Pokemon game.
Game Freak also steps its game up when it comes to cutscenes. While there are still plenty of sequences of characters standing idly while delivering unspoken dialogue, there are some fully animated cutscenes that felt like something plucked from an episode of the Pokemon anime.
Scarlet and Violet also deliver some nice tunes, continuing the series’ streak of excellent scores. From the idyllic music that plays as you roam the open fields to energetic battle themes, there’s a solid offering of music to enjoy. The Gym leader theme that kicks in during the latter half of those battles is easily my single favorite piece of music from these games.
One step forward, three steps back
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet have some excellent ideas that push the franchise in a fresh direction, but they’re unfortunately bogged down by unacceptable performance problems at every single turn. While my biggest problems with the games could theoretically be addressed in future patches, I’m not sure how feasible that is given the capabilities of the Switch’s hardware. That said, there is still a lot to enjoy, but it’s hard imagining that these games will have wide appeal outside of the dedicated Pokemon fans that are willing to put up with the issues and inconvenience.
This review is based on a digital Switch code provided by the publisher. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet release for the Nintendo Switch on November 18, 2022.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet
- Non-linear story progression
- Excellent cast of new Pokemon
- Terastallizing is a solid gimmick
- Story subverts expectations
- Severe performance issues
- Customization is weaker than Sword and Shield