Review: Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet

Last Updated on March 16, 2023

It’s not unusual for old video game franchises to reinvent themselves. With releases like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild taking on an open-world gameplay style that is in stark contrast to its 1980s predecessor, or the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise moving away 2D platforming roots to 3D open world, it was only time until Pokémon would follow.

The demand for a “next-gen” 3D open world monster-collecting experience has pre-dated the franchise’s attempts to veer into such territory, what with its rocky start in the form of 2013’s Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. On November 2022, we finally got the first stepping stone to such a 3D open world experience in the form of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, released exclusively on the Nintendo Switch.

Compared to the previous entry in the mainline series, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, Scarlet & Violet offers a far more free experience. Players are given more control over the game’s progression, where the locations you visit, creatures you meet, and treasures you find are experienced in a non-linear fashion. Those who’ve been demanding for a more challenging Pokémon experience finally have the opportunity to create it for themselves in this installment. Want to stray off the “intended” route and take on more difficult challenges early on? You can.

Those that want to find and collect the specific Pokémon they want are given a smorgasbord of options they can locate and capture throughout the game, even at the start. Those that just want to spend the game wandering around and finding new things in general are given plenty of opportunities to do so without ever getting a feeling like you’ve “cleared” any area and have nothing to do. The Paldea Region, this game’s primary setting, feels large and expansive enough where every subsequent playthrough feels like you are finding something new, in stark contrast to the more predictable, on-the-rails environment of past titles.

However, such an ambitious transformation of core gameplay formula comes with caveats. If you make the progression of challenge too approachable from any direction without any sense of scaling, you get an uneven and jarring experience where the game is either as easy as ever, feels challenging then completely loses that challenge later on, or a parabolic mess with random spikes and lows in difficulty. Under-design the vast overworld and you get bland, samey-looking environments that won’t be saved by how expansively massive the map is. Most importantly, projects such as these with a massive scope need ample development time, lest you risk breaking the player’s immersion through programming bugs and optimization issues, especially for a console that is gradually showing its age like the Nintendo Switch.

And, well…

Your journey into the world of Pokémon will be wondrous indeed.

The Intro

Let’s get into this, shall we? From the moment you boot up the game, you are taken to a character creation screen. This game decided to have its iconic “Welcome to the World of Pokémon” intro after this, instead of during it. The character customization is still a strong point as there are so many options you can choose in terms of facial expressions, hairstyles, and beauty marks. The character you create will definitely stand out among the rest.

You can still buy new clothing and hairstyles to expand your options during the game. This is somewhat gimped by the fact that while there are tons of sock, shoe, backpack and hat options to choose from, there are few options to change your main shirt. Perhaps this is to keep with the game’s primary setting. Your character is a student at either the Naranja or Uva Academy, depending on the version of the game you are playing, and it seems everyone has a particular dress code for a school dedicated to everything Pokémon. Still though, compared to past titles that featured much more variety for clothing options, it’s a bit of a letdown.

Choose a Pokémon

From there, you go through the tried and true slow introduction sequence of leaving your mother’s house, meeting the “professor” of the game (who in this case is actually the director of the academy), Clavell, to begin your Pokémon quest. You are given three choices of Pokémon to kick start your journey: the grass cat Sprigattito, the water duckling Quaxly, and the good fire boy Fuecoco. To save itself from traditional monotony is an adorable segment where you get to walk towards Clavell’s house with the starter Pokémon following you around. It may seem small, but it’s a neat touch that allows you to warm up to whatever critter you have your sights on. You are treated with a wholesome cutscene where each starter Pokémon plays around on the property, showing off their individual personalities. It’s difficult to choose which starter Pokémon to stay with, since they are all so charming.

It was a brilliant distraction from how within this same introduction sequence, the polygon count of bushes and other objects are inexplicably low compared to other models in the game. The textures look scaled up and muddy. And there are framerate drops right from the get-go. Of course, the game plays out with blissful ignorance to its performance, treating you to a memorable experience that really sells the fantasy of living in a world with powerful creatures that you can befriend. You come across an amazing cutscene where you get to meet your ride Pokémon, Koraidon or Miraidon, as they escort you through a cave and protect you from the threats within, all except for the eyesore of how dated and uninteresting the cave itself appears.

We All Live in a (Open) Pokémon World

The game has already let loose some of its traditional restrictions with the sheer variety of Pokémon you can obtain at the start. Want to have a Diglett or the regional variant of Wooper at the equivalent of Route 1 in the game? You can find it even without the later mobility features you are presented with in this game. And it shouldn’t be underestimated how beneficial this is because you can build the kind of team you want right off the bat, with both old and new favorites, without going thorough tremendous hurdles for them. But if going through tremendous hurdles is your thing, the game won’t stop you from that either. Gone are the days where you need a Pokémon Center to access a PC to store and withdraw Pokémon. In Scarlet and Violet, you can do it from anywhere at any time. There is even an auto-heal feature so you won’t waste time with menus.

To expand on this sense of freedom, you are presented with three main story quest lines that you can choose to complete at any time and in any order, completely foregoing the linear progression of the series’ past entries. These three quest lines are called Victory Road, Starfall Street, and Path of Legends. Similar to other standard open-world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can seamlessly divert from any of these quests at any point, so you never feel like you are tied down. Each story line also offers the player benefits, from upgrades to your dragon-bike to materials you can craft at Pokémon Centers. So each quest line is worth the time to fully experience. That being said, they are not without their egregious flaws.

Victory Road

Victory Road is your standard Pokémon affair: You must take on eight gym leaders to challenge the Pokémon League and become champion. It is by far the longest of the three paths and the one that shakes up foundations the least. But a nice catch to this is how every gym can be completed at any time. The game will give you a recommended route to have the smoothest experience. But you don’t need to follow it at all. Want to take on Grusha, the game’s hardest and designated “final” gym leader right at the start of your journey? It’s possible. You’ll certainly get yourself into a potentially brutal experience at the unfortunate expense that everything after that hurdle will be a walk in the park by comparison. What undermines this freedom to approach these gyms at any angle is the fact that there is no level-scaling. This results in an experience that feels unsatisfying and uneven when you take the “wrong” path, and monotonous when you do it “right.” This is a shame because it ruins how going through each gym feels like a worthwhile experience.

Your Trainer’s “Challenge”

To explain this, every gym has a “gym challenge” that you must undertake before facing the leader. These challenges range from pushing a glitchy ball around to finding NPC Pokémon to follow you around and test how many characters the game’s engine can run on screen before lagging to a crawl. Or you could be doing an input-based exercise routine at less than 20 frames per second. They’re underwhelming and often devoid of any real sense of challenge. The aforementioned ball minigame, for instance, doesn’t have elements like a timer to add pressure to get the ball through the maze. Some of these challenges feel like a test of the player’s patience more than anything else. To give them some credit, every challenge avoids being similar to each other. For example, the challenge with Larry’s Gym feels like a genuine effort at problem-solving and piecing together vaguely presented clues to finish. It was genuinely fun and a refreshing change of pace from the boring minigames of the rest.

The better features of these gyms are the fights themselves. While it’s your standard monotype affair with each leader, every gym battle has the twist of utilizing the game’s new core battle mechanic: Terrastalization. Similar to other “super moves” of previous games, Terrastalize adds a neat curve-ball that allows the game to stand out and give players an edge in battle. It works by changing a Pokémon’s type into their “terra type,” which can be completely different from their normal element types, giving you a boost in using the moves of that terra type and the ones you already have by default. It’s satisfyingly busted and opens up new avenues for outplay potential, especially within Pokémon’s competitive scene.

While other games within the series have been shy about using their new mechanics, notoriously Pokémon X&Y with how none of their gym leaders utilized mega evolution to any degree, Scarlet and Violet goes hard with it. Every gym leader’s final Pokémon is a type that doesn’t match the rest of their team, and it throws the mix of terrastalization, compete with flashy animations and a climactic change in background music to spice up the challenge in every fight. Unfortunately, due to the level scaling issues mentioned earlier, these moments are hilariously undermined when you can just out-speed and one-shot the terrastalized enemy Pokémon with your own over-leveled one.

Ultimately, even as a route that merely iterates off of what is tried and true, Victory Road is a potentially amazing experience that is short-changed by its flaws. Even with its wonderful additions, such as a likable cast of gym leaders with proper character development that was ignored in some of the previous games, and the exciting challenges that the terrastal mechanics have to offer in their fights, the game tends to wrestle with the under-utilized potential and technical shortcomings for the player’s attention. 

Warning: This will be a recurring theme when talking about this game.

Path of Legends

To go alongside this “main” path, we have the Path of Legends questline. This involves seeking out giant and powerful “Titan Pokémon” to defeat and obtain a mythical plant ingredient known as the Herba Mystica. This route is comparatively shorter to Victory Road, but no less important. Completing each trial in this story will unlock abilities for your ride Pokémon, from swimming to climbing cliffs. Unlocking these upgrades will make Pokémon Scarlet & Violet’s massive map a lot easier to traverse.

A Boy and His Monster-Dog

With Path of Legends, there is a bit more focus on storytelling because you’re embarking on this quest with one of your not-so-friendly classmates, Arven. This aspect is handled quite well. Your buddy Alven will initially introduce himself with a very stand-offish, untrustworthy attitude that makes you wonder just what his whole deal is, in contrast to how he’s advertised in the game’s trailers. Each and every trial you overcome in this route is an opportunity to learn more about his character and motivations. What starts off as a guy who’s kind of a jerk turns into a troubled boy you want to hug. Compared to any other story quest line in the game, Path of Legends is the one that will tug at your heartstrings the most and get you to really feel for the game’s characters, which makes this stand out among other entries in the franchise. Like a lot of things in this game, however, it could have been handled a lot better.

The fights against Titan Pokémon easily set themselves apart from regular battles as you are facing giant, “boss-like” variations of existing Pokémon with massive HP bars and unique perks. But where they egregiously fail is creating any sense of progression within the fights themselves. The game is pretty bad about making these fights stand out from each other. Your first battle against a Titan Pokémon is likely going to be against the rock crab Pokémon named Klawf, found in early routes.

The fight’s structure is quite simple: use a super-effective move to get it to low health, watch a cutscene where it runs off, chase that Pokémon, watch another cutscene where the Klawf eats a magic plant to become buffed, Arven joins in with his own Pokémon, beat it again with roughly the same tactics, and finally watch another cutscene to finish it off and get a badge for completion. This would be fine if it remained mostly introductory to Titan Pokémon battles themselves. But this formula is painfully consistent for the other four battles you have to go through.

The only fight in this path that manages to do something interesting with the core formula is the “False Dragon” fight. You get to see some funny shenanigans pulled by a tiny Pokémon that is controlling its larger buddy, Dondozo. Beating that big boy means you also get to fight the smaller one. Had more fights used this level of variation, I would have nothing but praise for this story path. But as they are now, the fights are underwhelming compared to the gym leader fights, since there is little room for any creative approaches into how the Titan fights are handled.

You’ll win just about everything by using the right move on the right Pokémon, or possibly stalling through poison strategies. But a poison strategy takes too long and none of these big bad gatekeepers of legendary herbs have anything to throw a curveball against that “strategy.” What should act as a fun diversion from the standard formula winds up being obnoxiously repetitive. Again, this undermines how potentially magnificent the experience could have been alongside its upgrade in storytelling.

Starfall Street

Unfortunately, the last main story quest doesn’t fare much better in this regard. Starfall Street has you taking on the main “villainous” team of the game: Team Star. I put that in quotes because, as you further progress through this arc, you’ll find that practically none of these gangs of academic delinquents are truly “villains” by any conventional sense. They are closer to Team Skull from Pokémon Sun & Moon, existing more for their comedic relief, than to Team Rocket in Pokémon Red, Green, & Blue, who have a major presence in the game world and actively do terrible things. This is by no means a negative, because if anything, Team Star is what would have happened if Team Skull had a chance at in-depth character development and an expansive backstory connected to the history of the game world itself.

Yet again, you are greeted by a surprisingly likable cast of quirky characters in the form of Team Star’s bosses, whom also have a lot more going on with them than what is initially presented to the player. Beating them in specialized battles gets you a similar story exposition that goes into their backstory and how they came to be where they are, from the reason they were bullied to how their unique battle theme was created.

“Hasta la Vistar”, Baby

To get to all this, you have to locate the team’s bases. So you send your first three Pokémon to participate in one of the game’s new features: Auto Battles. Defeat enough Pokémon through this battle method to bring out the boss and fight a seemingly standard singles format battle, with an added twist of being able to fight one of the crazy vehicles they ride on as well. It’s honestly quite a thrilling experience – at least for the first time around. Not so much the second, third, fourth, and fifth.

This route shares a similar problem with Path of Legends in that it just gets too repetitive to feel worthwhile. It’s enough that the auto battle mechanic is implemented so strangely in this game. But there is yet again a lack of rising stakes. The most that changes in each Team Star base raid is the type you have to face against and the amount of Pokémon each boss has to get in the way, with no twists or turns that would’ve added an exciting change of pace.

Adding insult to injury, and without spoiling too much, the final battle you need to win to complete this path is nowhere near as grandiose as the others. It’s the equivalent to a regular Pokémon battle against yet another trainer. There’s nothing to really give it some “oomph” to perfect the route, ignoring the technical jank and performance issues you would easily bear witness to upon getting to this point.

I wouldn’t know, mysterious floating Pokéball.

The Game’s “Not Very Effective” Moments

In fact, now is no time better than ever to address the Donphan in the room. This game is a buggy, poorly optimized mess that fails to give you as a player any sense that, in its current state, it’s a “complete” game. There are evident performance issues, like the choppy movement of NPCs near the main character, or the tremendous tanks in frame rate when you surf above water in the ocean areas. And there are collision glitches that seem to happen during certain terrain in Pokémon battles. You get bad camera angles that give you a shot of the void underneath the game’s world, an inexplicable Pokéball stuck inside the ground that shows up in the middle of indoor areas that you can’t interact with, and broken animations that don’t play properly during certain cutscenes.

There is fortunately not much that actively hinders your actual game progression. But these glitches are so effective in taking you out of the immersive experience the game desperately wants to offer. It leaves you wondering if anything was play-tested prior to release. Near the beginning of the game, one of the main characters comment on how beautiful the region of Paldea is from atop a scenic lighthouse, yet what you are seeing as a player are jagged, low-polygon mountains and glitched out textures. Instead of feeling this moment as it’s presented to you, you instead laugh at its irony, and again can’t help but wonder if anyone overseeing this game thought this was good to go.

Disappointing Auto-Battles

Even the core features this game has to offer suffers in this regard. Auto battles promised a very convenient way of leveling up a single Pokémon while the player multi-tasks through exploring the rest of the area. But its implementation is so bizarre and lacking in clarity. For starters, whether a Pokémon wins or loses an auto-battle is entirely dependent on element type match ups and level differences. Other factors like your Pokémon’s move pool have no other weight on the outcome of these battles.

If you, say, send a fire type that knows fighting-type moves against a rock type Pokémon to auto-battle, your fire type would likely lose, even though if you were to do that battle manually, you would still likely KO the rock type regardless because of your fighting-type move. To an unusual benefit, the opposite can also be true. You could send a Pokémon with no offensive moves to auto-battle, and it could still win through simple type advantages or being of a higher level. You would think this new system would work intuitively.

Even worse, Pokémon that evolve by leveling will not evolve once they reach the level requirement if they got it through auto-battles, meaning you have to either level it up through a manual battle or use a rare candy. Competitive Pokémon players are also let-down in the same way. Despite hordes of similar Pokémon spawning in the same area, beating them through auto-battles rewards no effort value points to increase your Pokémon’s stats. So what even is the point of this feature?

Tera Raid battles add a neat multiplayer option aside from the typical PVP and Trading, but is it that good?

The Online Multiplayer Used “Struggle”!

Tera Raids are another addition that looks astounding on paper but bafflingly awful in implementation. It’s a neat diversion where you can capture all sorts of Pokémon with unique terra types in a cooperative environment with players from around the world. Participating in the raids by beating a supped-up Terrastalyzed Pokémon boss rewards you with a potential new addition to your party, loads of items and experience-growing candies, and even rare cooking ingredients like the aforementioned Herba Mysticas. The low-level bosses at least manage to be perfectly fine. But the end-game levels are disappointing in how awkward and frustrating they play out. Each session has a timer where you must defeat the enemy Pokémon within a certain amount of turns or you lose the battle.

Unfortunately, these turn timers seemingly end faster than what is indicated, as well as a weird lack of syncing between players within the battle. What should have been a fun multiplayer break from the usual one-on-one battles ends up becoming a confusing and downright infuriating experience. To top it off, during the game’s initial release, there was a major bug that made it so that as long as you aren’t hosting these raid battles, the rest of the team can grief and lose the match, but still get away with all of the rewards for completing the raid. It doesn’t help that this mode is tied to acquiring much of the post-game objectives with regards to obtaining shiny Pokémon or gaining specific tera types you want.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, most of these issues could have been avoided if the game was polished on release. Players would be allowed to enjoy every great thing this game has to offer if there wasn’t something underwhelming or horrendously broken wrestling for attention. For everything this game did right, it always ended with a “but if it did X, it would have been better.”

I like to compare this game to a poorly made cake. But to get a grasp at the kind of “bad” we are talking about, it’s one on an essentially amateur level. It’s where all the ingredients were fresh and of the best quality, perfectly measured and mixed together to create a dessert you know will come out excellent upon taste-testing the batter, molded well and placed in the oven to rise. Then you take that cake out far too early, so what is formed is too runny and doesn’t hold together well. And in an impatient haste, you apply the frosting before that cake base has had time to cool down. So nothing is put on the cake’s base sticks, and what you have is something that, while tastes pretty darn good, is crumbling before your guest’s eyes and looks far more horrible than what it is. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is this cake, where everything that is good is evidently not allowed to fully flesh itself out over what has to be one of the worst technically-performing games of the franchise since the original Pokémon Red, Green, and Blue released in the mid-90’s.

No, Not even cute moments like this will save you from my savagery, game.

It’s a crying shame because I enjoyed my experience. The core Pokémon formula is still fun and arguably better than it has ever been here. However, for as much as there absolutely was to like about these games, there is not enough to recommend this game to others at its full asking price of $59.99 in its current state.

Hopefully, future patches will gradually improve the game’s abysmal presentation. But for now, we’re stuck with a somewhat embarrassing entry into the Nintendo Switch’s library that can’t compete wih other open-world games on the console, all of which have nowhere near the same level of poor performance and lack of polish as this.

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