Pokemon Scarlet / Violet Review

Much like my other pieces where I talk about Pokemon and the myriad of problems which plague the series, I come from a place of love, this is no different. I might come off quite negative, but I just kept writing, and this stuff just kept coming out.

As a Pokemon game, Scarlet and Violet are fine enough. As a game released in 2022 from the highest grossing entertainment franchise of all time, this is unacceptable. Alright, let’s get into the tall grass and discuss what Game Freak got right and wrong this generation.

The quest to be the best

Scarlet and Violet are the first games in the series to feature a fully open world. Sword and Shield began to explore this with the inclusion of the “Wild Area”, but this is rolled out across the entire region of Paldea. Paldea itself is a lovely setting, based on the real locale of Spain, having only travelled there a handful of times, I hesitate to comment on how authentic this rendition is to the real thing, but it does have a Mediterranean feel. Within the large open world, Game Freak have managed to cram in many different biomes, from sun-drenched beaches to icy mountaintops, there is a great variety here and the balance of Pokemon types is pretty even. Ghost types get a lot more love here than in previous generations, whilst it doesn’t tip the balance, choosing a single ghost to have in your team can be challenging. 

Along with this new open world (which took 25 years to get to) comes freedom in how you want to approach the story. There are three stories to pursue and you can tackle these in any order you like, or progress them all at once, which is clearly the intention of the developers. These plotlines follow three companion characters; Nemona, Penny and Arven. Each of these characters have their own aspirations, all believable and relatable in their own way.

The journey begins after joining the academy which varies on your version of purchase. Your objective for this semester of school is to go out into the world and “find your treasure”, presumably after getting your mum to sign your permission slip, but they brushed over that part. Whilst this is a vague brief for an assignment, each of your pals wants to embark on a different quest, and you’re going to be along for the ride. I have to say, I do like the premise of this being set in a school, but it really takes a back seat following the initial couple of hours. You can go back and attend class, but you’re never forced to, so I didn’t. Badass, I know. 

Nemona, the usual ‘rival’ architype, just wants to get stronger and become the world champion battler. The usual Pokemon questline, get eight gym badges, battle the Elite Four, become the very best, you know the drill. Arven and Penny have their own agendas too, each unique the generation 9. Arven wants to battle Titan Pokemon to make performance-enhancing sandwiches and Penny wants to help take down a Team Rocket-like threat, I’m paraphrasing here, of course. Each of these characters have unique designs, and I didn’t hate seeing them crop up throughout my adventure. I do however long for the days of a true rival, the likes of which we saw in generation 1 and 2, but that might just be me, these new-age rivals are too likable for my tastes.

Each of these narratives, once completed, open up an epilogue containing the final battles, and those lingering plot threads are neatly tied off. The whole story is surpringly heartfelt and there are some resonant themes woven in throughout should you care to find it. Being set in a school, there are large topics touched upon, from bullying and belonging to learning one’s worth amongst family. Whilst clearing the admittedly low bar set other titles in the series, it is nice to see this effort here, and I do hope that these stories resonate with the younger audience of Pokemon, as the adventures through Kanto, Johto and Hoenn did for me in my youth.   

The map here is huge, probably the largest seen in any Pokemon game to date. Mercifully, fast travel points are sprinkled out liberally across the landscape to ensure that you can zip around to mop up any tasks in previously explored areas.

Let them fight…

The actual battle system underpinning all of this exploration and questing you’ll be doing hasn’t evolved all that much from the inception of the franchise. I could probably copy and paste this section from my Sword and Shield review, but I’m not that lazy, and, if you’re reading this chances are you already know all about Pokemon anyways. The battles are all about hitting your opponent for as much super effective damage as possible and trading blows until one of the gladiatorial monsters falls. It’s simple, but it works. Where this doesn’t work so well however is that the battle animations and text slow the pacing of each battle to a crawl. This is Game Freak being stuck in a rut in the worst possible way. Let me give you an example, there is a new Pokemon called Clawf, it’s a crab-looking dude and he’s quite cool design-wise. When he is at low health, he sheds his armour which raises all of his stats, with the exception of the two defensive metrics. Game Freak chose to display these buffs and debuffs one after another, in text which takes literally 30ish seconds to skip through. Why can’t this be displayed in the way other RPGs do it? The same goes for critical hits, surely there can be some kind of indicator like a flash in the on screen animation to convey the additional damage? Nope, this is how it worked on the Gameboy Colour, so that is how it is going to work here.

The big gimmick on show this generation is the inclusion of terastallising. Basically turning your Pokemon into a H Samuel product and brandishing it with an utterly ridiculous head piece. This looks silly and goofy, and I still long for the days where Game Freak choose to bring back mega-evolutions, but in practice it is actually quite cool. What this means is that you can change the base typing of any of your Pokemon at any point in the battle. So if you wanted to lose the fighting typing from your fire/fighting type Pokemon to better defend against psychic and flying foes, you can. If you want to change your typing to boost an attack that you don’t actually support with STAB (same type attack bonus) bonus, you can do that too. It’s a shame it just looks so silly, meaning that I rarely used it. I also averted from using it due to the fact it just adds more time to the already lengthy battles. With no way to skip the lengthy animation leading into the transformation, I’d rather take my chances and win the old-fashioned way.  

Auto battling is a new introduction that can be used to skip out on the grind of regular battling. At any point in the overworld you can send out your lead Pokemon, to let them forage for items, or battle some of the roaming wild monsters. This comes with a substantially lower XP benefit, but if you send your partner into a crowd, all of them will be battled, meaning that you can still rack up levels fairly easily by using super-effective type match ups. This also nets you some items in the form of materials to craft TMs with. I like this system, it makes a lot of sense as to which Pokemon give you the materials for which TM. For example, Sycther claws, allow you to craft the move False Swipe. This also means your money can be spent elsewhere, not just on teaching every Pokemon ‘protect’ or ‘earthquake’ as it would have in previous games. Unfortunately, these TMs are a one-time-use item again, so bear that in mind.

Titan Pokemon are also a new addition to one of the main quests. There isn’t much to say about these to be honest. They’re Pokemon, but they’re big.

Raids make a return from Sword and Shield, and whilst these seem to be more kinetic by removing the traditional turn mechanic, I haven’t played around with it enough to be able to make a judgement on whether this is good or not. I have heard from my friends that they’re enjoying these raids, particularly the more challenging late-game ones, so I trust that there is some fun to be had here. Be warned though, for the tougher ones, you will need to breed and train Pokemon specifically for these battles, which might put some people off.

Do they make you want to say “I choose you”?

The new Pokemon on the roster that have been added in generation 9 are all pretty good. I think I like this generation the most that I have since way back in generation 4 with Diamond and Pearl. None of the themes are too bad and the names which focus on puns are as charming as ever “Smoliv” and “Flamigo” are excellent additions. There are of course a few misses in here, with the likes of a Pokemon based on salt, the condiment, erm, okay. I’ll take that though if it means we get more of the likes of Baxcalibur, Cetoddle, and Fuecoco.

As was the case with Sword and Shield, the entire National Dex has not made the jump over to Paldea, meaning some of your favourites may be left out in the cold. After the huge stink that was kicked up during generation 8, I’m surprised this didn’t get dug up once more. Much like the rest of the fanbase, it seems that I’m willing to take whatever Game Freak is willing to give. I haven’t even looked at the list of Pokemon which didn’t make the cut, but some of my favourites like Flygon have alluded me in the many hours I’ve spent playing this past month. Instead, by going in blind, I was happy to see some Pokemon that had made the cut, I was elated to see Mareep bounding around the mountainside, like “ooooh yay, you made it” rather than being in a grump that I can’t get a Swinub.

Another nice touch is that the placement of Pokemon throughout the world is a lot more deliberate than it seemed to be in Sword and Shield. You’ll regularly find packs of Buizel wandering the shores and swarms of Noibat deep within caves, retreating from the light, it’s nice. That’s all I can really say, it isn’t groundbreaking, it is almost good, but at the moment, the only adjective I can muster is ‘nice’. If Game Freak wanted to take this capturing to the next level, I would love to see some contextual puzzles, similar to what you see in Bugsnax. This would add far more tact, and create some memorable moments as to how to encounter certain species. For example, early in Scarlet and Violet, you come across a Roundtula hanging from a tree. Now, this spider-like Pokemon would normally just drop down to battle you. How cool woud it be if you had to figure out how to get it to come down, either by throwing something up at it, or shaking the tree to knock it loose. All of a sudden, the ‘catch ‘em all’ element could become it’s own game to subsidise the simplistic battle system.

It looks…. Eeeeesh

The overall art style of the game isn’t anything to write home about, it feels soulless compared to the sketches which accompany the release of new generations. It is difficult to put into words, but it everything feels soft and I never liked seeing my character, unlike Sword and Shield. If I was feeling harsh, I’d call the game ugly, if I’m feeling generous, it is inoffensive. This is referring solely to the ‘style’ of the game, when referring to the raw graphical fidelity, I don’t think there can be any debate here, it is ugly.

The textures on show here are truly behind the times, I don’t think I have ever paid so much money to receive such an antiquated product, this is excluding the old action figures I regularly scourer the darkest corners of the internet for. The ‘N64 tree’ in Sword and Shield was a funny joke, but this feels like the whole thing is straight out of 2001. It seems utterly baffling to see such a low bar being set by the highest grossing entertainment franchise of all time. There shouldn’t be any excuses here. I have to say, playing this alongside God of War Ragnarok gave me whiplash as I went between seemingly no budget, to infinite budget.

Playing the latest Pokemon in 2022, kind of feels like using a Sony Walkman in the same year. You find it fun and nostalgic for a bit, but ultimately, that’s not how you want to listen to your music – Walkmans are clunky and inconvenient, with poorer quality sound to boot.  

I’ve heard people say that these titles buckle under the weight of their own ambitions, but I feel that is wildly generous. Pokemon Scarlet does not buckle under the weight of ambition, it buckles under the weight of modern expectations. Frankly, Game Freak need to do better. The Switch isn’t a powerhouse, everyone knows that, but I would still say that Mario Odyssey looks good, and Zelda is downright beautiful – these came out five years ago.

As I’ve mentioned, the game doesn’t look the best. It gets worse though, because as bad as it looks, the performance is somehow even worse. Constant frame dips, poor draw distance, mirky filters, all plague this latest title. If you need any examples of this, there are compilations upon compilations online which outline the true extent to which this title can fall to pieces. It really is unacceptable, especially when you consider that this is coming from the most profitable entertainment franchise of all time. Maybe if Game Freak had spent more time on development and less time strong-arming Ed Sheeran into performing the end credits song, this might have come out of the oven a little more than half-baked. 

Despite all this, I’m still playing. I gave them my money and so they have no incentive to change. I am part of the problem.

It isn’t all Beedrills in the ointment

Being set in a school, you are confined solely to wearing your uniform, which offers up very little customisation. I can’t overstate how disappointing this was, I love playing dress-up, particularly in these kind of adventures. Whilst you can purchase accessories, like hats, glasses or shoes, there aren’t any options for new shirts or trousers. Having bought Scarlet, I had to wear bright orange trousers the entire game, which severely limited what I could wear to match and more importantly, not clash with the academy’s uniform.

Shiny Pokemon are now easier to find than ever, through the use of chance-boosting food items and the ability to see them in the overworld you’re quite likely to find one of these specially coloured monsters on even the most pedestrian of playthroughs. Apparently this isn’t as easy as it was in the likes of Pokemon Legends Arceus, but it is still surely a step up from those games which came before.

One quality-of-life improvement which I loved is the ability click ‘X’ to make the highlighted companion your lead Pokemon. This is so small it is comical. It just shows that small tweaks like this can improve the game, and it frustrates me no-end that Game Freak isn’t doing more of this stuff. Alas, I guess I’ll have to wait until generation 10.

Knowing your EVs from your Eevees

Some players, me included, tend to look at Pokemon as a statistics game, especially in the competitive scene. I love going on Pokemon Showdown and trying out a new team with no consequences, it isn’t for everyone when you start digging into the likes of EV spreads and high roll damage calculations, but the depth is there should you want it. Looking at the current state of the meta in competitive Pokemon, it seems the litany of new Pokemon, items, moves, abilities and the terastallising mechanic have made everything fresh again. I’m seeing some patterns like the abundance of Gholdengos on every team, but the initial reception seems to be positive. It is difficult to say whether this is ultimately going to be a good generation to play competitively, but I’m open to it. I doubt I’ll get as into the weeds as I did during gen 5 and 6, but it is always nice to keep up to date.

It needs to be said though, Pokemon Showdown is still the ideal way to play in this style. With much snappier animations to keep battles short, statistics easily accessible, like damage dealt on a percentage basis, along with zero barrier to entry. You have to ask yourself, why wouldn’t you just log on there instead of going through Nintendo’s janky online service?

Overall, do I like it?

I think I go into these titles knowing full well that they are going to underwhelm me, yet, hopeful that I can regain what made me fall in love with the franchise in my younger years.

There are glimpses of what could be peppered throughout the adventure, however they are far too fleeting to make a recommendation on that alone. If I was trying to introduce someone new to the series, I’d probably point them in Sword and Shield’s direction, if I was wanting to share a genuinely good RPG from the series, it still doesn’t get any better than Heart Gold or Soul Silver.  

This is yet another case of Game Freak putting out a title to take my money, and keep me entertained for a good few hours. Rather than get back into the competitive scene on the game, there still isn’t a reason for me to stray away from Pokemon Showdown to get my battling fix.

Oh, I didn’t even talk about the picnics. There are picnics now, make sandwiches and eat them with your party. The eating animations are really bad and I find the whole thing kind of stupid. I never did it, for completeness though, it is in there. Maybe that will sway your decision to buy this game or not? Maybe?

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