Pokemon Scarlet and Violet review

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is the 9th generation of Pokemon games, and finally we have our true open-world we have wanted for years. Unfortunately the monkey paw curled at that moment, and together with this fantastic open-world we have some of the biggest technical problems we’ve seen in a Pokemon game, perhaps ever. For some this hasn’t diminished their fun, for others it’s a step too far from Gamefreak, The Pokemon Company and Nintendo. Buried under the technical mess is one of the best Pokemon experiences I’ve ever had, so today let’s dive into my review of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

Gamefreak have done it. They’ve crafted a wonderful open-world in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Getting through the start of any new generation Pokemon game tends to be a slog, but once you step out from your school after the tutorial hours, you can pretty much go where you please. The world is filled with Powerful trainers, Gym leaders, and high-level Pokemon. The Paldea region has been designed fairly well, it’s a good mix of indicating where to go, not holding your hand too much (baring in mind this is a Pokemon game), and allowing you to get lost. That does mean you can encounter Pokemon that are way above your level, and also way below. It also means you can run into trainers a few levels above and if you manage to take them down the game can be very exciting.

Much like Pokemon Legends Arceus, you can see all the Pokemon throughout the world, and there are lots of them. Over 400 species at launch, with the potential for more to be added at a later date. Pokemon tend to roam the world in packs now, rather than individually, which is a great sight to see a gaggle of Starly. Pokemon appear to be more intelligent this time too as they interact with each other, sometimes bullying one another. The designs of the Pokemon this generation are very good, bright, interesting designs including the new Fidough being one of my early favorites.

We have a huge open-world in the form of the Paldea region and getting around is nice and easy given our Legendary Pokemon, which we get very early in the game, helps us traverse the environment by doubling up as a vehicle. You legendary Pokemon doubles up as a motorbike, and the variant depends on which Pokemon Scarlet and Violet game you get. As you progress through the game you can upgrade your Legendary Pokemon to have new abilities including dashing, climbing, swimming and also gliding – which is a game changer.

While Paldea offers the player freedom, it does feel like a sparcly populated open-world with not that much to do. This isn’t like Breath of the Wild, where you felt like their was an adventure around every corner. This is a shame, given Breath of the Wild is now approaching 6 years old, and we still haven’t iterated on that on the Nintendo Switch platform. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet does feel like a net improvement over Pokemon Legends Arceus from earlier on in the year, given the sheer amount of Pokemon you can catch, but the level of detail in the open-world is disappointing compared to other released like Xenoblade Chronicles 3, which also released this year on Nintendo Switch.

Paldea has plenty of towns to explore and people to meet. The towns themselves have a decent amount of design and thought to them, although you cannot enter many of the buildings, and the areas surrounding the towns are relatively barren. This is likely a combination of things related to the amount of time Gamefreak gets to work on these games, as well as the processing power of the Nintendo Switch.

Scarlet and Violet’s main story campaign is good, which managed to elicit some emotion from me. Normally, I play through the campaigns and I’m skipping through the dialogue. But this time the story grabbed me and I was invested in the characters, and even the legendary Pokemon. The supporting scaffolding around the main story feels a little lackluster here in Scarlet and Violet. The NPCs around the world are still there to offer you tips and tricks, but it feels much more like a cookie cutter experience and they aren’t really invested in it. This again is likely a product of not having enough time to flesh out the world with NPC dialogue.

Scarlet and Violet has three main stories. We have the standard Victory Road, which is where you have to take on a bunch of Gym leaders to become a champion. There’s a storyline about the bad students at the school and then you have one storyline about the five ‘Titan’ Pokemon. Each storyline has it’s own characters and story threads, which Gamefreak has done really well to make work. The gym leaders have real character and the path of the Titan’s is entertaining as we get to learn more about Arven, our rival turned friend in Scarlet and Violet. While I feel the Team Star storyline is probably the weakest of the three, it’s nice to have the option, and all three storylines are woven together very well into a singular package.

The biggest stand-out feature of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is the open world, although there are a number of features that have returned from recent Pokemon games like Legends Arceus and Sword/Shield. We can customize our characters to a certain extent, although the variety in skin tones are still severely lacking, reduced to only 4 options here, and you don’t have the ability to customize your outfit as much as you could in previous entries. Pokemon games are strange, great features don’t seem to carry from one game to the next. Given the team has been split at Gamefreak to work on multiple Pokemon games at the same time, it appears as if features are difficult to transfer between teams. I don’t know if it’s because they work in silos, or it’s hard to port from one game to the other… but for players it feels a little disjointed and confusing.

One great new feature is the ability to throw out your Pokemon using the R button and they can go and independently fight for you. They will only earn a quarter of the XP, but it’s a decent way to level up. Some Pokemon have to be walked to level up, and you can still wedge the joycon and walk around in circles to level them up quickly, without having to do any work on your part. Throwing out your Pokemon is called ‘Lets Go’, which again is a little confusing given the Let’s Go games like Pikachu and Evee for the Nintendo Switch. It’s all part of the Gamefreak and Pokemon modern day jank which is hard to explain.

Battling your Pokemon stays largely the same, albeit for a new mechanic called Terastallizing where you cover your pokemon in a jewel-like substance to improve their battling mechanics. While it’s a nice visual change, it also means Pokemon can have any tera type, including ones they wouldn’t normally have. The result of this are interesting Pokemon combinations you wouldn’t normally get. Unfortunately Scarlet and Violet didn’t take on the more interesting elements of Legends Arceus, which is a shame.

One thing that really stands out with these games is the performance on Nintendo Switch. The game hasn’t been optimised at all, and runs very badly. Pokemon and characters pop in and out, they clip into the ground and when you look off into the distance characters walking look like they are running in stop motion animation, because the frame rate is so bad. One possible reason for this is because it’s running on Nintendo Switch, which is now legacy hardware, with many modern mobile phones capable of running the game much better. I don’t think the Nintendo Switch is the main culprit through, given Xenoblade Chronicles 3 also came out this year and runs very well, and looks beautiful. The environments in Pokemon Scarlet are fair;ly empty, the definition of the ground and grass looks worse than Breath of the Wild, which is a 5 year old game at this point. I don’t think the blame rests with the Nintendo Switch, I think it has to be directed at Gamefreak themselves. Pokemon is the largest entertainment franchise of all time and simply rakes in millions of dollars, pounds and yen every month.

It’s clear that Scarlet needed more time to be ready. It’s pretty unacceptable that a game can release in this state, let alone a game as big as this mainline Pokemon entry. Legends Arceus was the same, it didn’t run well, and yet Gamefreak wanted to release in the same year. I don’t think anyone would have minded if Pokemon Scarlet didn’t come out this year and was pushed into 2023 or 2024, given we had Arceus in January 2022. It’s unclear where the pressure to release it; is it Nintendo? The Pokemon Company or Gamefreak themselves?

What’s sad is the fact these issues probably won’t get fixed, because they can release a completely broken game like Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, and still sell million of copies and make even more millions of cash. There isn’t an incentive to fix the games, because they will sell well irrespective of the performance. Perhaps kids have a lower threshold of what is acceptable, but I don’t think this is true because plenty of free to play games perform hundreds of times better than this. It’s worth repeating, this is the LARGEST entertainment franchise of all time. We were also greeted with the news the game sold ten million copies in 3 days… which is unbelievable. This is why the issues probably won’t get fixed anytime soon.

Underneath all of the performance issues is one of the best Pokemon games I’ve played in more than ten years. I fell in love with the original Gameboy game, when it first came out. I’ve played Shield, Brilliant Diamond, Legends Arceus, and they are all fine, but Scarlet’s gameplay and adventures are definitely much more fun and engaging. This makes the performance issues even more sad.

Overall, if you are a Pokemon fan then you’re going to get a lot out of this game. The open-world is a major step forward for the franchise, and this is the closest we’ve got to the Pokemon game fans have been clamoring for since the reveal of Sword/Shield. Legends Arceus was an iteration in the right direction, and Scarlet/Violet is another. But Gamefreak, god damn, you have to take more time on these games. There’s no need to release two Pokemon games in the same year, it clearly isn’t working for you, as both of them suffered with major technical issues. The game is fun, and I’ll keep playing past the end game, but the performance is rubbish, and as paying customers we shouldn’t accept this kind of behavior. Look at what happened to Cyperpunk and CD Projekt Red. Nintendo appear to be immune from that type of backlash, but either the Nintendo Switch is creaking or Gamefreak need some help.

Developer: Gamefreak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company and Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release date: 18th November 2022