Review by: Daniël van Wensveen
Earlier this year, Game Freak launched Pokémon Legends: Arceus. The first semi open world Pokémon game. Some of the best concepts from that game now return in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The Switch’s performance groans under all that innovation, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this ninth generation of Pokémon is one of the best ever.
Right from the start of the game, it becomes clear that Scarlet and Violet takes on a very different approach than its predecessors. In the tutorial area, the game still holds you somewhat by your hand, but it soon becomes clear that this time you are plotting your own path. Instead of following predetermined routes, you decide which areas and quests to tackle first. Your options in doing so are extensive, but certainly not endless. After all, the levels of wild Pokémon and trainers are fixed per area, so you initially have little to look for in the strongest and most remote regions. However it doesn’t feel prohibitive, as the “logical” choices the game presents you with are ample.
The questlines in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are also tailored to that open world experience. For example, the Victory Road questline guides you through the eight gyms in the region. The classic puzzles and trainers to get to the gym leader have been replaced this time with short mini-games in which you play hide-and-seek, for example. In turn, the Starfall Street quest takes you to the bases of crime organization Team Star where you challenge the local bosses. Finally, there is also the Path of Legends. In that questline, you go in search of Titans: giant versions of normal Pokémon. In theory, you can start and complete any quest first. However, since the difficulty of the bosses within a questline also varies, in practice you’ll be tackling different quests interchangeably. The main activities thus offer a varied mix, although they are not always challenging. After all, it is perfectly possible to miss certain low-level activities initially only to simply waltz over them afterwards. So while the quest structure is certainly not perfect, it does represent a real breath of fresh air after eight generations of linear gameplay.
The biggest eye-catchers of Scarlet and Violet are the Pokémon themselves. In this ninth generation, Game-Freak rounds the bunch to a thousand creatures. In previous games, this huge variety was not always noticeable. SInce you were led via a set route and many Pokémon appeared only after obtaining the National Pokédex, it was often not easy to assemble a diverse team. The contrary is true for Scarlet and Violet, each area is bulging with old and new Pokémon. In the process, a healthy mix of all the different generations have been carefully considered. These are complemented by local variations of existing Pokémon and more than a hundred completely new creatures. Among those new Pokémon you will also find some of the best designs in a long time. I’ve already enjoyed building a team with only newcomers, including the fluffy Pawmot, the majestic Arboliva and the badass Annihilape.
The way you encounter and catch Pokémon has also been thoroughly overhauled. As in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the creatures simply roam the world, finally eliminating the obligation to endlessly plow through fields of grass in search of that one Pokémon. Nor are other trainers going to spot you from miles away and challenge you to a battle this time around. You have complete control over when you do or do not engage in battle with a hostile Pokémon or trainer, which provides a streamlined experience. And when you don’t feel like fighting for a while, you can simply let one of your own Pokémon roam freely via the “Let’s Go!” feature to fight other Pokémon or pick up items. So whether you want to level up your Pokémon or quickly comb an area, there’s always a gameplay style to suit your needs.
Despite those bold innovations, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are far from perfect. In particular, the performance is underwhelming. The Switch is now almost six years old, but that should not excuse this game’s painful performance. A stable frame rate is rarely, if ever, there. Moreover, the technical tricks Game Freak uses to improve performance somewhat are quite notable. For example characters are loaded very late, so you often bump into a Pokémon that only appears at the very last moment. Even more striking is how the frame rate of characters and buildings varies depending on how fair they are from you. For example, in the distance you can see windmills whose blades only move once a second. Deadly for the immersion, as are the many glitches still present in the current version of the game.
Although the open world is a huge step forward for the series, it also could have used some additional development time. After all, aside from the three questlines and completing the Pokédex, there is little to experience. The only notable other activity is fighting Terastralized Pokémon individually or in groups (that’s the Mega Evolution of this ninth generation: essentially Pokémon with crystalline skin and crazy hats). A nice change, but a bit thin to fill the entire world. In the many villages, for example, there are hardly any interesting characters or conversations going on. Even more striking is that the stores and restaurants in the game don’t even have interiors. If you visit one, all you get to see is a boring menu. The open world remains an attraction, but thus it could definitely use additions.
The limited range of individual side activities is somewhat compensated by the extensive multiplayer options. Besides the classic trading and fighting with your friends and the Tera Raids mentioned above, for the first time you can also simply walk around in the same world as your friends. So you can decide to search for rare Pokémon together or organize a cozy picnic for your friends and their Pokémon. The new multiplayer additions are a big step in the right direction.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are certainly not the perfect open-world games you dreamed of as a kid, but Game Freak deserves credit for all the innovations in this ninth generation. Despite the limited number of side activities and the lack of performance, Paldea is a world in which you can easily lose yourself for dozens of hours. Visiting the various gyms, enemy bases and Titans are a good start, but it’s mainly the impressive array of old and new Pokémon with ironclad design that keeps you coming back. “Gotta catch ‘em All” rarely sounded as enticing as in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.
Reviewed on the first Switch console after 30 hours of playing time.
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