At the start of this year, I said that Pokémon was in the best position it could be in. 2022 was predicted to be one of the strongest years for Pokémon in video games. With two brand new titles from Game Freak and a positive remake in the last 12 months, The Pokémon Company had every reason to look forward to their next big release. After Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the bookend to the eighth generation of the biggest franchise in games, we now have Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, the first duology in their ambitious 9th generation.
Each new chapter in the core Pokémon videogame series introduces a fresh feature to set it apart from its predecessors. This time we’re dealing with the first (real) open-world games of Nintendo’s most prized IP. New region Paldea offers the player more freedom than ever before, allowing budding trainers to go off the beaten path and sometimes end up being humbled by the wild Pokémon encountered.
Go off the beaten path only to get beaten to a pulp
Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet come with – not one, not two, but three different stories, which can even progress alongside each other. The Victory Road story is – in essence – the staple of all previous titles, but in a new version for Scarlet and Violet. Its plot involves the leaders of the eight gyms, who must be successfully challenged in order to stand up to the Elite Four and the champion that follows so that your character can be crowned Champions. The Starfall Street storyline is dedicated to the new villain team, Team Star, and their five major bases, each of which is run by a different character. The third story is titled Path of Legends and is all about the quest for five different types of Herba Mystica – new items that dramatically boost Pokémon’s power.
Victory Road and Starfall Street will sound familiar to most trainers, as they consist of tasks that you’ve been taking on since the very first Pokémon games, Red, Blue, and Yellow. Of course, there are significant differences. Given the open-world element, you now have the option to go to any gym in any order.
I wouldn’t recommend jumping too far ahead and entering one of the gyms that are far beyond your capabilities, but the Scarlet doesn’t make a… diligent effort at pointing out which one is appropriate for the player, based on the Pokémon available at your disposal.
Each gym is made up of a team of qualified trainers and its leader; the head of the team with one of the eight badges you need. In the past, you needed to defeat a number of these trainers before we could get to the boss. Now, Scarlet assigns us several tasks that require platforming, along with battles against (very few) trainers. After completing these tasks, you then challenge the leader. I can comfortably say that the traditional experience of entering a gym, dealing with a group of trainees, and then dealing with the leader is a better way of earning badges. The tasks you need to complete often feel uninspired and therefore pointless. The final leader battles, however, are a breath of fresh air, as they take place mostly in open spaces rather than inside a building.
Pokémon Scarlet is a true open world filled with things to see
Of course, the difficulty of Scarlet lies in the order in which you choose to tackle their challenges. As I said before, there is the possibility that you may visit a gym that is beyond your current capabilities. Similarly, the areas surrounding these gyms are full of Pokémon and trainers with a distinct advantage over our team. However, once you understand the correct order of the areas in Paldea, then a sort of natural progression and evolution will occur.
The three Scarlet stories are (generally) well-written, albeit with superficial characters and mostly dull dialogue, with a few exceptions. Along the way, you’ll discover and play with several new mechanics, including terrastalizing (which turns your Pokémon into a stronger version, making them look like diamonds), co-op (with up to 3 other players, playing from their own Nintendo Switch), and battles with Pokémon Titans, which have a significantly higher HP than standard ones. Apart from these, there are the classic Raids, but also Mass Outbreaks, that is, spots on the map where many Pokémon of the same species roam, which can be dealt with faster thanks to another new feature: auto-battle. To activate it, all it takes is the press of a button and, one of your Pokémon will take on the wild encounter on its own.
Scarlet and Violet contain a total of 400 Pokémon, of which, 107 are brand new. I won’t say I liked all the new Pokémon because, in appearance alone, the new Pokémon are some of the most inferior we’ve seen, but there are some exceptions. The complete lack of legendary Pokémon from previous titles is a letdown, and I wish we’d been given some sort of bridge to add them into one of the many Boxes available. Oddly enough, you’re given one of the legendary Pokémon from the start of your adventure. At first, you’re able to ride them throughout Paldea and care for them. Since there aren’t existing legendaries available, there are a few consolidations available that I think are worth capturing.
Regarding the technical issues many players are facing, I can’t stress enough how disappointing it is that the biggest franchise in video games allowed this to launch to customers in such a sorry state. The Nintendo Switch is unable to maintain a consistent framerate, having frequent stuttering, countless bugs and glitches, and unnecessary loading screens (even at the trigger of a battle). Random NPCs (which are constantly recycled) roam the screen in the middle of a battle, and, some of them, move at sub-20 frames. All the issues present in Scarlet are exacerbated by its technical undoing and if there was a game that performed well, I’d be singing its praises. I love the aesthetics of the Paldea region but it is mired in shortcomings including low-resolution textures, winding and uninspired stretches of terrain, and a ton of pop-in.
While Game Freak has delivered a patch since launching in November, this isn’t enough and I am disappointed to see the series launch a new generation in such a dismal state. Aside from a brief apology not long after launch, we’ve had radio silence from the developers, leaving me holding my breath at a better experience.
The ninth generation of Pokémon has unfortunately begun in the worst possible condition. Their open world and complete freedom to explore can’t carry the weight of their technical problems, which makes it abundantly clear that they either shouldn’t be released when they did or six months down the road. It’s clear Game Freak is listening to feedback but at such a snail’s pace that it has begun to hurt the series. Many of the new ideas introduced in Scarlet are welcome and much-needed additions to the formula but at the same time, the very same ideas cannot support the technical shortcomings and performance issues.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]