It is still unbelievable to me that after 26 years of linear, straightforward RPGs, developer Game Freak really looked Pokémon players dead in the eye and said, “It’s fine, go wherever you want.” In the lead-up to the launch of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, I thought this claim would end up being a marketing gimmick, a little joke, something we’d all be mad about later. But from the moment I left the hallowed halls of Uva Academy, that promise has been wonderfully fulfilled, with open-world, open-ended gameplay serving as a shining beacon for the future of this beloved franchise. And yet, a finger on the cursed Mankey’s paw has curled anyway – Scarlet and Violet’s wonderfully innovative design is dramatically undermined by the numerous ways in which they feel deeply unfinished, with issues ranging from an incomplete world to massive and ubiquitous technical problems. So even though I want to celebrate how this generation reinvents and reinvigorates the world of Pokémon, I can’t without putting a great big warning label on it.
The actual act of playing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is some of the most fun Pokémon has ever been, thanks to Game Freak’s commitment to a truly open world. From the second you leave the school after the tutorial, you can run all the way to late-game areas full of powerful trainers and Gym Leaders, catch high-level Pokémon, and make the adventure very difficult and rewarding for yourself accordingly. For anyone worried about accidentally leaping into a too-difficult area, fear not: Paldea is largely arranged to be friendly to those looking for a more gradual challenge, and even moreso is designed just right for getting pleasantly lost, backtracking, and wandering off the beaten route.
Given that there’s no level scaling at play (as is Pokémon tradition), exploring Paldea at a steady but unguided pace will somewhat inevitably have you encountering foes that are either extra challenging or too easy at different points. Running up against a trainer who’s just a few levels higher than you can be a blast, especially when an unexpected Pokémon on your team comes in clutch to get the win and earn a giant pile of EXP. I had multiple tense moments against Team Star especially, like when their giant car Pokémon nearly decimated my slightly underleveled team as I pushed down a more challenging road.
But even when I briefly ran roughshod over several areas in a row because I’d outleveled them, I didn’t find it dull. With roughly 400 different Pokémon species available, I was still enjoying poking around the lower-level areas and finding monsters I hadn’t seen yet, and those discoveries were rewarding even when the battles weren’t. It’s a process made especially delightful by how silly and clever many of the new Pokémon designs are this generation, like the apparently edible Lechonk, or the absurd not-actually-Diglett eel Wiglett. The monster behavior is much improved too, as I loved stumbling upon flocks of Starly, Magikarp flopping on the shoreline, Hoppip floating nervously out of the rain, or herds of Deerling protected by a kingly Sawsbuck. With so many monsters to see, it was wonderfully easy to get lost and distracted in the enormous “areas” – Scarlet and Violet’s replacement for routes.
Moving across the grassy plains and rocky deserts of the land of Paldea is made easier thanks to a legendary Pokémon you obtain right at the start that’s determined by whether you are playing Scarlet or Violet. Either way, this Pokémon can be used as a bike and is upgraded with new movement options through one of the three main storylines. The dash, climb, and swimming upgrades are all helpful for crossing big Paldean expanses quickly, but one of those upgrades is a glide ability that can’t hold a candle to the one we got earlier this year in Legends: Arceus. It’s better than nothing, but I’m disappointed by the way you almost immediately lose altitude when gliding, dashing my dream of jumping from atop the highest mountain and soaring across the whole map.
Biking across all that land, especially as I closed in on the endgame, also made Paldea feel strikingly empty. Scarlet and Violet are at least an improvement over Legends: Arceus in this regard, mostly thanks to their robust Pokémon variety, tons of hidden items, and the general design and placement of rare Pokémon and secrets. But there still isn’t the same level of detail we’ve seen in other open-world Switch games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and no sign of anything resembling the dungeons, puzzles, or other more contained challenges that were staples of older Pokémon games, either.
The realization that almost the entirety of Scarlet and Violet are their interconnected outdoor zone is even more pronounced when you look closely at the detail that is there. Towns are all unique, colorful, and full of personality. Each one has distinct buildings and landmarks, like Artazon’s windmill or Porto Marinada’s fishing docks, and there’s clearly been a lot of thought put into modeling them after diverse and specific locations in and around real-world Spain. But for the most part, that’s where the thoughtfulness ends. Most buildings are facades you can’t enter, with nothing to do around them. Most stores are just menus you open when you interact with the door, and the biggest cities have the same storefronts repeated over and over. To give an example, in one city I was excited to run into what was clearly a warehouse for in-game store chain Delibird Presents – it looked like a warehouse, had the logo, and everything. I expected I’d be able to go inside, and that there might be workers, a sidequest, vendors, or something unique in there. But it was just an unopenable box. Someone put enough thought into the world to imagine this company would have a headquarters in the town I was in, but the idea went no further.
That blankness unfortunately extends to many of the NPCs scattered around the world, too. Older Pokémon games are dotted with characters who would engage in short conversations with you about gameplay tips, Pokémon, world lore, or just goofy one-liners that gave them personality. I wouldn’t say that element is absent from Scarlet and Violet, but it’s certainly lessened, almost like someone ran out of time to write interesting dialogue for all these people walking laps around their towns. A lot of the trainer and bystander NPC dialogue is roughly on the level of “I like Pokémon!”, while the more in-depth explanations of the world are relegated to classes you can take at the school. Don’t get me wrong: I love the classes and the ways in which they manage build Scarlet and Violet’s lore while also tutorializing things about Pokémon even I didn’t know after decades engrossed in the series. But it’s strange that the NPC department has suffered so much when the writing in the central storylines is otherwise stellar, especially given that the main cast of characters are some of the most interesting Pokémon’s had in a while.
While previous games have essentially followed one plotline with a few momentary distractions, Scarlet and Violet’s three main stories – one about the usual Pokémon Gym challenge, one about a bunch of student delinquents, and one about five powerful “Titan” Pokémon – are an idea Game Freak has successfully made the most of. By giving each story its own separate threads and main characters rather than blending them all together, some truly excellent personalities are able to shine. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a Gym Leader as much as I’ve loved the everyman Normal-type leader Larry, and the Path of the Titans plot had me a little choked up when I learned about my classmate Arven’s true goals. Sure, it’s still a kids game – don’t expect Nier: Automata levels of depth here – but there’s a lot of humor, cleverness, and heart contained in Scarlet and Violet’s writing, and it all culminates in a bombastic ending that goes surprisingly hard for a Pokémon game. All told, it took me about 35 hours to reach the credits, and I’ve played through the hearty endgame PvE content for an additional 15 since then, without having quite finished every sidequest and found every secret.
Alongside their open world, Scarlet and Violet come with a number of new and returning features to supplement their exploration. Character customization is back, and while the initial character facial design is much more detailed than in the past (except for skin tone, we’re still limited to only four options for some reason), the clothing customization is just sad. Both Sword/Shield and Arceus have tons of cute outfits to select from, but in Scarlet and Violet you’re stuck with four ugly school uniforms, and that’s all you get… forever. You can customize hats, backpacks, shoes, socks, gloves, and glasses, but when the main outfit you’re going to wear for the next 50 hours is aggressively purple, those little accessories don’t feel much like real options. What am I going to do with a green hat, for instance? I’d look like a grape!
Another supporting feature that’s returning with significant modifications is the ability for Pokémon to follow you out in the world. This time, you can also send them out in “Let’s Go!” mode to automatically battle wild Pokémon they encounter, earning you EXP and items accordingly. It’s a touch clunky in terms of whether or not your Pokémon will actually target the thing you’re asking them to, especially when you’re supposed to use it during specific story segments to battle a horde of trainers all at once. But it’s a pleasant and fast way to gather items to craft TMs that teach Pokémon new moves, and works well enough for the kind of item economy Game Freak has built with Scarlet and Violet. I’m not sure it’s game changing, though, especially since my Pokémon never run as fast as I do, and if I want them to follow me I inevitably have to keep sending them out over and over as I repeatedly outpace them.
While the battle system remains largely unchanged from past Pokémon games (and certainly doesn’t embrace any of the more interesting shifts I loved in Legends: Arceus), the one major new addition is the expected generational battle gimmick of choice: Terastallizing. That’s a fancy term for a mechanic that temporarily gives one Pokémon in your party a superpowered monotype and a cool new bejeweled hat, but what’s most interesting about it is that any Pokémon can have any Tera typing, including types they wouldn’t normally have. This results in fun and unusual combinations, like a dragon-type Cloyster or an electric-type Gyarados. While some of these unusual Tera types can be found through exploring Paldea, the best and most interesting combinations are gained through Tera raid battles, which are Scarlet and Violet’s endgame answer to Sword and Shield’s excellent Dynamax raids.
As with Dynamax raids, up to four players can participate in these time-limited battles to take down and capture superpowered Tera Pokémon with strange Tera types. Tera raid battles also feature a major improvement over Sword and Shield’s raid battles, in that you no longer have to sit through all of your opponents’ attacks each turn – everyone just moves simultaneously. It’s a huge time saver. I’ve had a great time hunting down interesting Tera Pokémon, and am extremely optimistic about its potential to keep the Scarlet and Violet community alive and well for the next year or more – if the technical problems don’t kill it first.
Let’s talk about the Donphan in the room here: these games run like garbage. The framerate is an inconsistent mess, lighting effects toggle on and off seemingly at random, models pop in and out at short distances and sometimes very rapidly like weirdo ghosts, characters who aren’t even that far away walk like a bad stop-motion animated cartoon, everything slows to a crawl when there’s more than one environmental effect (like rain or ocean waves) on screen at a time, and battles themselves can take an agonizingly long time as new Pokémon are swapped in. There are also tons of bizarre clipping issues where Pokémon can get caught in walls or underground, or the camera gets stuck at an odd angle and show an empty void on half the screen. Wild Pokémon will sometimes appear directly underneath you unexpectedly, trigger battles when you’re not touching them, or vanish inexplicably – a problem that’s especially annoying if the Pokémon in question is rare or, worse, shiny. For a more in-depth rundown of the technical mess, we’ve done a Performance Review on the specific issues that sheds some light on what’s going on here:
This is all bad enough, but it’s all exacerbated by the fact that Scarlet and Violet would be far from pretty games even if they ran well. While the aesthetic and architectural aspects of many of the towns in Paldea are interesting, they’re surrounded by incredibly low-resolution textures, long stretches of ugly, unremarkable terrain, and a weird, vague, shimmery effect around most objects. This is made especially odd by the fact that some of the character models and most of the Pokémon do actually look very good, but then you stand next to one of the pixelated Team Star flags and wonder what happened to cause such a dramatic disparity between that and your character’s uniform.
The issues do not end there – Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are also stuffed with bizarre bugs. They mostly manifest as small, funny, or harmless problems, such as being able to move at twice the speed with a second controller plugged in for some reason, but also there are more severe problems. For example, for some reason two of our guides writers suffered hard crashes when they walked near a ladder. At one point, two items were sitting on the ground that I was unable to pick up or interact with at all until I progressed the story further – and then they mysteriously began working again.
If you checked IGN ahead of launch you may have seen my review in progress, in which I held off on a score largely because I hadn’t been able to try Scarlet and Violet’s online features – and it’s a good thing I did, because online adds an entirely new layer of weirdness. In addition to all the aforementioned technical issues, while online I experienced brand-new problems – at one point my friends turned invisible while riding their bikes, and at another the bikes turned invisible so my friends were floating in odd squats midair. I saw everyone’s faces get stuck in different emotes after using the camera app, resulting in permanent shocked or depressed expressions. One of my friends appeared in the doorway of every building I entered in a weird YMCA pose despite being nowhere near the area I was in. There were multiple communication errors that forced us to disband and reform groups just to keep playing, which is itself a time-consuming process. Oh, and there was an utterly bizarre moment where my friend briefly turned into a giant noodle man. Local co-op seems to have slightly fewer weird bugs than online (my colleague kept weirdly teleporting across the map on my screen for no reason), but broadly still runs as abysmally as the rest.
— Rebekah Valentine (@duckvalentine) November 19, 2022
This is a massive shame because, like the rest of Scarlet and Violet, the actual gameplay ideas in its co-op system are promising, if unrefined. Between debilitating bugs, my friends and I were able to do almost everything you can do alone in Scarlet and Violet side-by-side, if not explicitly cooperatively. They were able to complete early game story events that I had already finished while I hopped to the next town over to do some endgame content they didn’t have access to yet. I could take photos with them, set up picnics and build absurd sandwiches together, and watch them battle wild Pokémon. They can battle trainer NPCs in the field, too, but this is an odder situation because you can’t actually see the Pokémon fighting, so the two character models just sort of stand there and glare at one another while the friends of the battling player can run through the middle of the battlefield and make weird faces mid-fight. The bones of an excellent co-op system are mostly there – they just feel like they are held together with bits of wire and string.
By far the best part of cooperative play, both technically and design-wise, is the aforementioned Tera raid battles. Though still plagued with some lag and occasional online connection weirdness, the four-person battles against powerful, jewel-like Pokémon mostly ran smoothly while in co-op, and they provide a fun treasure hunt of their own to embark on while playing with friends. Jumping into battles randomly online without turning on co-op mode could have been a great way to hunt Scarlet and Violet’s strongest monsters, but that has its own drawbacks. Even with an ethernet connection, matchmaking was a painful process with repeated connection errors and awkward queues that left me sitting around for an hour trying to find a raid I could join – not to mention intermittent lag and more of the same visual bugs that cause Pokémon to appear and disappear mid-battle.
Having talked with several others about their own experiences with the technical mayhem in Scarlet and Violet, it does seem like your mileage may vary. Some people are reporting nothing more than some minor framerate blips. Other people I know have had multiple hard crashes, and have lost save data as a result due to turning off autosave (though alongside all the other weird bugs in this game, there’s apparently a workaround to retrieve that data). My personal experience has fallen somewhere in the middle of those, but the middle is still extremely rough, and fundamentally none of this should be the case for anyone. It’s shocking that a behemoth like Pokémon would be released in such a messy state, with no communication yet on whether or not we can expect a fix any time soon. (Nintendo has historically not been very aggressive about patching its games, which leaves us to worry that fixes might never come.) While I truly believe that patches could bring Scarlet and Violet into a more playable place, the fact remains that this is a product Game Freak, Creatures, The Pokémon Company, and Nintendo deemed acceptable to release. Pokémon and its fans deserve far better than this.