Pokemon Scarlet & Pokemon Violet Review – Wanna Be Starting Something
Having reportedly sold a record 10 million copies in just three days, it’s safe to say that Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet is a rousing success, at least commercially. Few franchises could hope to reach such heights almost three decades into their lifespan. And yet, Pokémon Scarlet and its sister title Violet are something of a conundrum; a pair of games which push the main-series entries of Pokémon titles to soaring new heights, whilst also hitting some of the lowest lows ever seen, much of which I would attribute to the blistering pace at which GameFreak is expected to work.
Those who have played a Pokémon game at any point since 1996 will be familiar with the opening hours of Scarlet & Violet, a routine that hasn’t changed much – nameless protagonist leaves the family home in search of adventure and excitement in the world of Pokémon, meets a rival – albeit a much friendlier one in the form of Narona – and selects one of three increasingly derivative starter Pokémon designs (I went with the Mexi-Croc, but the Jerk Duck seemed like it would have been fun too, sorry Grass Cat). Despite this rigorous adherence to Poke-tradition which I forgive only because I know first-hand that every Pokémon game is quite literally somebody’s first, the promise of an open-world Pokémon is teased to the player almost immediately.
For all the late 30-somethings out there, let’s take a moment to flashback to more innocent days when such a thing was a pipedream, to be yearned for at the start of each subsequent handheld generation. Open-world Pokémon; a living and breathing world in which Pokémon aren’t beholden by the limitations of GameBoy memory and creaky JRPG random battle design. It’s glorious, something now common in many JRPG’s since the PS2 era but never as anticipated as in a Pokémon game. Ok, so it’s not quite the seamless open world we’d imagined, with some areas technically gated off, but it’s still an improvement over Pokémon Legends: Arceus and its Monster Hunter-esque divvying up of areas into smaller chunks. Dear readers, I’m not ashamed to say I choked up a little, at first due to the beauty of this barely-remembered childhood fantasy come to life before my very eyes, right before the spotty performance and uneven visuals of Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet pulled me out of the fantasy and dropped me back to reality.
I’m not exactly coming in hot with this news, but both Pokémon Scarlet and Violet suffer from serious performance issues in terms of texture pop-in, animation errors and a frame rate that drops faster than a vegemite slathered piece of toast. It’s pervasive, frustrating and yet not the biggest sin either game commits – we’ll get to that. But there is a strong sense that, where PL:A was clearly bumped from a late 2021 release to sort out some last-minute issues, no such thing could be done for Scarlet and Violet, instead leaving Pokefans with a level of performance I wouldn’t have expected out of GameFreak or Nintendo (the latter of whom, let’s be honest, have somewhat of a history with such practices towards the end of hardware lifecycle, just ask anyone who tried playing Hyrule Warriors or any twilight release on an early model 3DS).
After sorting out a Starter Picante ‘mon and quickly acquiring Koraidon (geddit – no, it’s not just a motorbike joke you baka gaijin), Scarlet/Violet’s version exclusive motorbike Pokémon, it was time to explore this exciting world and defeat some Gym Leaders along Victory Road, as is tradition. The Paldea region feels less distinct than recent predecessors like Alola or even Galar, a mix of biomes which contain environment-suitable Pokémon to catch, and boy-howdy are there a lot of them – 400 to be exact. Honestly, you can’t swing a Meowth around without hitting a wild Pokémon while traversing Paldea, resulting in frequent encounters with cute critters spoiling for a rumble. While Scarlet/Violet allows players to explore Paldea in any order, for wusses like me who prefer to take advantage of group levelling and type advantage, there’s some clear direction in Gym order based upon Starter Type and the Pokémon living in the surrounding area of each Gym. Anybody looking to freestyle the order in which they tackle the eight gyms scattered around the world might be setting themselves up for a difficult time given a lack of level scaling could see frequent party-wipes if some areas are visited before your Pokémon are sufficiently levelled or you have a variety able to withstand type advantages and disadvantages. There are very few shake-ups to the battle system here, the most obvious being the introduction of Tera types, a form Pokémon can take using a Tera orb which gives them a ‘Teratallised’ crystalline appearance and buffing their strengths as well as removing some of their type weaknesses by supplanting them with the ‘Tera’ type designation. This effect is only available once per battle however, and the Tera orb must be recharged after each use at a Pokémon Center, so it very much feels like a ‘Hail Mary’ move by both the player and rival Trainers and Gym Leaders.
While the core journey of Pokémon remains intact and the world of Paldea is a joy to traverse and explore, there are still enormous gaps in the experience when compared to previous titles. It goes without saying that a leap to a 3D open world brings with it certain expectations set by many entries in the genre over the past 10-15 years and Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet fails to reach quite a few of them. These lacking elements are the looming shadow over the entire affair; uninteresting towns which are dull to interact and explore, larger cities like Mesagoza even more so due to the sheer number of repeated shops, many of which can’t be entered by the player character and instead default to a menu-based interface. Few NPC’s can be interacted with, the vast majority of citizens instead giving a little thought bubble over their head and nary the time of day to the player character. Aesthetically, Scarlet and Violet are an odd mixture of detailed and barebones textures, animations of gently swaying trees and bushed as leaves flitter to the ground while jittery NPC’s running at half their usual framerate traipse around in the distance, clouds drifting past the moon on a cool autumnal evening while the low-resolution shadow of a lamppost undulates unnervingly. While some would point the finger at hardware coming up on its sixth birthday, it’s questionable when said hardware had better performing titles at launch with a similarly impressive open world to explore.
These shortcomings aren’t gamebreaking all by themselves, but cumulatively contribute to a loss of immersion in what should be the most engaging Pokémon game to date. Performance issues I can tolerate to a degree, but to make my eyes glaze over as I push through every town and city in search of the next Gym, eager to escape back to the wilderness isn’t the experience I’m hoping for. In another year or two, perhaps the promise shown by Scarlet and Violet will come to fruition, but for now it’s one step forward, a few steps back.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are a wonderful foundation for future Pokémon adventures, but what’s been put atop this foundation for now is rather shaky in a number of ways. Poor performance this far into the Switch’s lifecycle doesn’t bode well for GameFreak or the pressure they are put under to meet holiday deadlines, nor does the phenomenal sales success mean they have much incentive to refine what’s here, when such time and resources could be better spent on whatever pair of titles succeeds Scarlet and Violet. Near lifeless towns, copy and pasted shops; it’s these seemingly small elements which break the spell of an immersive Pokémon experience, making the grandiose elements of Paldea seem smaller for them. In Pokémon Scarlet & Pokémon Violet, GameFreak have succeeded in bringing two decades of Pokémon dreams to life for me as I journey across the many areas which make up Paldea, unhindered by linear paths, scores of Pokémon littering the woods, desert and snow-capped peaks – now I need them to make the rest of the game world feel just as magical as those ephemeral moments.