Over the last twenty-five years the Pokémon franchise has used an iconic style and proven mechanical design to become a transcendent hit. A lot of change has happened in the medium in those twenty-five years, however. That has led to an inevitable moment for this franchise: adapt or get constantly harassed by gamers. Pokémon has been attempting these adaptations during its time on the Switch, particularly in the pretty good Pokémon Legends Arceus. However, with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, we now have Game Freak and The Pokémon Company’s idea of what the future of the series is. That future isn’t as bright as I’d like.
Pokémon on the Open Road
The biggest change to the formula is the foray into the open-world design concept. True to Game Freak’s word, once the game’s set the stage properly players are given full reign of the Paldea region. This is primarily facilitated by a special Pokémon players are given at the outset: the Pokémon on the cover. To say much about them would be story spoilers, but with the exception of the starter Pokémon, this is the monster everyone spends the most time with in the game.
As for other Pokémon, they roam the hills and slopes of Paldea in the multitudes. Random encounters are excised entirely in favor of the Arceus style of models populating and visible. Compared to Arceus however, there are significantly more Pokémon all over. Because players can go in any direction relatively early in the game, Game Freak has taken care to populate significantly more species in every area, including the earliest areas. That’s a huge improvement to the early game in particular. Game Freak also held back a huge majority of new species of Pokémon from advertising, leading to moments all throughout where I had to stop and ask myself “What the hell is that?” and immediately sprinting over to investigate.
The quest for those moments will take you over an admittedly sizable landscape; not colossal but definitely larger than any game prior. The Paldea region very much invokes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with its arrangement of areas; a big grassy field, coastlines, frozen mountains, a harsh desert. That’s not exactly a new thing for either Pokémon or open world games in general, but the environment is the first indicator that something has definitely changed. Sure, previous Pokémon games have only had the bandwidth for so much in the environmental design but in Scarlet and Violet (I played Violet for this review) feels a bit more surface level than normal. It is almost like the Paldea region is only ever depicted at a surface level.
Longitude without latitude
What tips this lack of depth off is the buildings. A majority of towns in Paldea are comparatively small; not only having one main path from one end of the town to another but also having only a handful of buildings being accessible at all. Most of the time, doors don’t work. That sounds trivial but that just doesn’t happen in Pokémon games usually. Early on in my playthrough, I found myself attempting to walk through all the doors I saw, expecting to enter a space to interact with NPCs or find items, just like every other game in the series. Instead, I found the camera clip through the wall I’d just walked into, over and over again. Stores don’t even have internal architecture, instead a menu just pops up. Eventually I just gave up on trying to open doors.
I realize that this sounds nitpicking, but I think it betrays exactly what the mentality behind the open world being implemented is. In other titles, many times entering a building would get you a one-liner from an NPC and you’d never go back. Even so, that gave the idea that the area was actually lived in by people in this world. Now, NPCs on the streets of these towns will have those lines appear over their heads – which is more streamlined at the cost of no longer making any of these towns worth spending any time in. There’s plenty of Pokémon out in the wild, but other characters are few and far between, static encounters that are always battles or rewards for battling. Pokémon Centers, previously used as town hubs where information and quest information could be gleamed, are now just booths set up all over the map to perform their initial functions and nothing more.
The longer I think about this the more it makes the entire map feel flat. Before long, it became clear that not only were all the towns just the gyms for the traditional gym leader system but all the other touted questlines are also just gyms. What do you get when you beat a titan Pokémon? A badge and a Technical Machine for moves, just like when you beat a Gym. Despite that, while advertising suggested you could play the game in any way you want, on any pathway you want, it becomes clear quickly that you will eventually need to do the gyms anyway. There’s no other way to increase your ability to catch and use higher leveled Pokémon, even though, again, you can get badges from the other questlines.
While the scale of Paldea is massive compared to previous Pokémon titles, I found that once the initial reaction wears off the game is just another Pokémon game with the waypoints spread out further. That’s not necessarily bad, I’ve been perfectly fine with Pokémon games being incremental with their changes before and would have been here. Instead, I feel that a lot of the details have been sanded down in favor of scale. I question whether or not that scale is worthwhile, given what that scale cost.
The Cufant in the room
There is a growing idea in the discourse within games media that we should avoid being too harsh or critical of a game. I believe this idea to come from a genuine place. As we’ve learned more and more about the conditions that games are created in and the very complicated work that goes into simply making them, it makes sense to try to not crucify people for things outside of their control. That said, I prefer honesty over platitude and understand I’m being as honest as I can when I say that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet run like shit.
I understand that sounds crass and unprofessional but again, it is as honest as I can be. Scarlet and Violet might be some of the worst performing games I’ve ever spent a sizable amount of time tolerating. Assets clip through the world all over the place, trying to pin down a target frame rate is literally impossible, sometimes entire animations fail to play or text fails to pull in. There are larger issues too, events that can cause game crashes and battle engine failures where random hit moves will always hit their maximum output (note: this last issue was fixed as of the most recent patch) and a complete derailing of whatever a player was trying to do as the game effectively has to re-render the entire visual elements of itself. Things are so messy here I genuinely question if there is even a way to get this game into a “working” state.
There’s a desire to pin this on the Switch’s hardware – I mentioned as much in my Bayonetta 3 review recently – but even a much less optimized game on the Switch runs laps around Scarlet and Violet. Putting aside even stellar examples of optimization like Bayonetta or the recent Nier Automata port, Splatoon 3 didn’t have these visual and mechanical issues. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and its billion UI elements didn’t warrant entire meme categories on social media. No other Pokémon game on the Switch, of which Scarlet and Violet now make the eighth and ninth titles not even counting spin-offs, runs this poorly. This isn’t the Switch. This is a breakdown in the development process.
In truth, I somehow managed to avoid a lot of the technical issues others made joke fodder out of online. Most of my issues were contained to colossal frame rate drops and issues with assets either not populating or doing so while clipping through the environment. Things get real wild when multiplayer comes into play.
Weirdly enough, where Sword and Shield had sluggish performance when in multiplayer (possibly due to rendering sometimes fifteen to twenty players at time), Scarlet and Violet actually allow players to see each other and explore pretty well. Once you try a feature together is where the issues now arise. Having a picnic between two players and their Pokémon led my game to have a hard crash; the only time that would happen to me thankfully. Raids are streamlined because you don’t have to wait for each other to take turns but performance issues make it literally impossible to tell what’s actually going on at any time. Issues also make it possible to miss your opening to take an action without any prompts coming up. Ultimately I feel that I spend more time waiting around for the game to even register the situation than I ever did during Sword and Shield’s fully turn-based raids.
Plenty of things, reasonable and unreasonable both, could explain how this happened. What likely happened is that Pokémon is one of the largest multimedia brands in the world and honestly nothing in games truly compares. The anime’s last episode of the Sword and Shield era is set to air next week at time of writing, and the TCG has already started spoiling cards based on these titles. If Game Freak wasn’t fully ready to ship Pokémon at this scale, it kind of doesn’t matter. It would be like trying to stop a hurricane; and then an earthquake when Nintendo had to delay Zelda again. Yet, I don’t really care what the reasoning was – this is really unacceptable.
Mining for a gem
What really grinds my gears about the choices that make Scarlet and Violet a mess is that they completely eclipse the actual good things in this game. The designs of the actual Pokémon in this generation are a lot of fun, especially the very weird ones. I’m a sucker for a good weird Pokémon, and there’s several here. Actually having more creatures than we’ve had in recent releases helps with this as well, giving a good spread of choices across the entire region map.
Brought along with the new ‘mons is Terastallization, the new battle gimmick for this generation. When Terastallizing a Pokémon, it gains a crystalized form and can change its type. This can manifest in a few different ways, either with giving a Pokémon a completely different type or augmenting one of its existing types for an extra advantage. The mechanic has layers to it that bodes well for raids and the competitive scene. If anything, the main storyline doesn’t leverage the mechanic enough. Gym leaders and other bosses all use it, but only to enhance whatever their assigned type is. It would have been way more compelling to see the occasional opponent throw a curveball and Terastalize into an unexpected type to throw off veterans. Instead simple knowledge of type alignments still makes it possible to coast through battles, and using Terastallization myself was rarely needed.
What is leveraged well during the main game are the characters you do meet across the disparate storylines. The character designers at Game Freak have deserved awards for their character designs for some time and at this point all of their adults are pretty much all walking thirst traps – that’s not a complaint from me. However, the students that join the player at the game’s school hub world are the real standouts from an actual character perspective. Each one you get to know has a decidedly different arc that is delivered well and grows alongside your progress in the game at a steady clip. In particular, the young Arven is a standout. He gets the heavy lifting of the story right from the start and by the time I was done I felt the writing really paid him off well. I found myself liking the kid quite a bit, and I’m sure he’ll fit right in with my other favorite troubled Pokémon children.
When nothing else matters
Writing about the aspects of Scarlet and Violet I like makes me feel like a clown. Every amount of praise feels like I have to put in an asterisk pointing back to the earlier paragraphs of this review. In the past, I’ve often told people that my enjoyment of the Pokémon games is like a comfort to me. I’m less interested in being blown away as I am by the refined familiarity. That does also make me potentially resistant to the changes that Scarlet and Violet bring already, but if the only issues I’d have were design choices I could probably swallow the pill.
In fact, I know that. I’ve played nearly 60 hours of Scarlet and Violet in preparation for this review and I absolutely would have purchased the game even without the obligation to follow this piece. I’ll likely play even more, because there’s still Pokémon to catch and even the lingering mysteries from the storyline that almost scream “wait for the DLC” have me genuinely intrigued. I want to praise the auto-healing, the ability to relearn and replace moves immediately from a Pokémon’s status screen that was carried over from Arceus, and gush about the story’s conclusion.
Yet, I can’t. Because the actual act of playing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a study in patience. There’s nothing here that can really overcome the general performance issues in general and the lack of depth in places personally. The presentation here is unacceptable and embarrassing to the point where it makes me question if I actually do enjoy these games or if my brain is completely poisoned by three decades of unchecked marketing. Things are not going well if a regular purchaser of Pokémon plush is able to take enough pause to ask those kinds of questions.
I’m not angry
I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in a developer that, compared to a majority of this industry, always managed to show a true enthusiasm for the art of creating their games. I still believe that Game Freak, a studio that started as a zine about the art of game creation, has that passion deep down. However, I’m afraid the burden of the Pokémon franchise has really done some proper damage to that passion. Being disappointed feels worse than being angry, honestly. Disappointed is how you feel when you still care.
Even if there is a way forward so that future games don’t turn out this way, it wouldn’t excuse that Game Freak and The Pokémon Company actually released Scarlet and Violet in the state that they have. Pretending otherwise wouldn’t be honest to myself or to a developer I expect better from. Calling this out and remembering it – reasonably – will be important for myself going forward; something to keep in mind three years from now if Generation Ten decides to show its head.
I still enjoy this series, and even if a part of my attachment to it is conditioning it is still genuine to me. I’ll probably still be playing Violet for time to come, but I hope that Scarlet and Violet has given pause to The Pokémon Company and Game Freak and they actually do feel the embarrassment that I would in their shoes. In the best outcome, the next time we look at a new game things will be greatly improved. For myself though, I’m going to be a lot more skeptical going forward, and I think if you haven’t already picked these up, you should be too.
Featured Image via The Pokémon Company
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet - 4.5/10