Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Switch Review
I never thought Pokémon would still have such a strong bond with players after so many years since we tasted the first games with Pokémon Blue and Red back in the UK in 1999. I remember being super excited about that game. On launch day, my friend and I went to the local GAME to pick up a link cable so that we could trade all the starting Pokémon between us and start our journey towards capturing all 151. It’s clear now that the series has enormous staying power, as it is more popular today than ever. One thing that has stayed true to the mainline duo release titles is that they do not stray far from the tried and tested formula, with the spin-off games doing all the experimenting. This is no longer the case as Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the 9th generation, brings with it new ideas that make this the most refreshing and innovative Pokémon game yet, but one that feels it missed the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” stamp that we have come to expect from Nintendo’s games.
The setting and story are all very Pokémon, nothing new in that setup, but now the 9th Generation is set in the Paldea region. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet begins with the player creating an avatar for the main character. After that, it is a quick walk around the house until arriving at the kitchen to find their mum preparing stuff for their first day at the new academy before bumping into your new friend, Nemona, in essence, a more friendly rival who just wants you to go the way of the Champion. It is here where students learn the ways of Pokémon. It is only a short time before the annual “Treasure Hunt” begins, and the player is sent on a journey throughout the region of Paldea solving three major storylines.
Game Freak’s approach to the story is one of the main differences compared to previous games; there are three major stories that need completing here. There is the typical Victory Road story, the one we all know as collecting the eight gym badges and then taking on the Elite Four to claim the title of Champion. The other two stories involve finding five Titan Pokémon scattered around the region for a key character, while the other is taking down the five Team Star generals.
Each story on offer can be completed in any order, giving the player the freedom to tackle them how they see fit, targeting whatever plot is currently interesting to them. Each story has its own set of supporting characters and they get time to take the spotlight. For example, gym leaders have never been able to make such an impression in their short time, but this time their personalities get to shine. Iono, the Electric Gym leader, is a perfect example of this. She grabs the player and forces them to take part in a live stream with them as she takes centre stage as the host, giving the player challenges to find a person in the crowd, a sort of “Where’s Wally” mini-game, as she rakes in the subscribers due to the success of the player. In the end, this is a story targeting a younger audience, so there is nothing too shocking or overwhelming with the plot. Pokémon remains a solid kid’s adventure with some happy, funny, sad and annoying moments. The only issue is some people might find the lack of voice acting bizarre, as at first, it seems strange to have cutscenes but no voices coming out as the models mime the dialogue text, but players will get used to this as they get further into the game.
There is the best pathway to beat the game, but the player is not told this, so exploring becomes learning about Paldea and running into areas to see how the player holds up against the trainers and wild Pokémon. There is no level-scaling, meaning areas and bosses have a set level. Out of curiosity, I checked a guide online after beating the gyms to see if I had done them in any sort of correct order. I had started with the second gym first and then went to the third one after, mainly because I thought she looked like a cool gym leader on her profile. You can get an idea of the gym level by seeing what levels the Pokémon in the wild are, but sometimes the wild Pokémon can be higher than average for that area.
This makes battles interesting because while no level progression translates to low-level areas that are super easy to overcome if missed early on, it also means the game can be more challenging at times, as players delve into areas that are above their power. I certainly died more in this game than in previous Pokémon games due to the freedom to go where I wanted. I found that exciting. Pokémon games in the past are precisely streamlined to give the players a comfortable and straightforward progression experience, but now, that is all out of the window, and I love the challenge that comes with walking up to a higher-level trainer or wild Pokémon which are that more difficult to overcome.
Pokémon roaming in the wild is not new for Scarlet/Violet, but it helps present its open-world approach, as the player walks into new areas and can see all the new Pokémon available to capture. This is better than the random generation that was part of the random battles in the older games. Seeing Pokémon roaming around also makes it easy to find the Pokémon missing from the Pokédex, as players can run up to the one required and start a battle. There is a lot to find in the game, as the local Paldea Pokédex contains 400 Pokémon to discover and capture. These are not all new, as there are 107 new types, so the remaining ones are made up of older generations, even going back to some of my favourites, such as Gengar, Lucario, Arcanine, and Scyther. In terms of the new Pokémon, I can see Sprigatito being the favourite of the starters. This grass-based cat is so cute compared to the fire and water options. Fidough, and its evolved form Dachsbun, is adorable, more so if you like bread, as this dog is shaped with various bread products. The overall originality of the new Pokémon is a mixed bag. Some of them look amazing, like Chien-Pao and Ceruledge, but some are questionable; such as Nacli, a rock mushroom that looks like it is inspired by a Super Mario power-up.
Fighting with Pokémon remains like previous entries, the tried and tested turn-based system with four moves available for each Pokémon. The new twist for the 9th generation is the added Terastallizing mechanics, a phenomenon to the Paldea region that involves crystallizing a Pokémon in battle and giving it additional properties. This can be buffing the element type of the Pokémon or helping cover its weaknesses, such as helping a grass-type Pokémon be strong against fire. Initially, how the Pokémon react to Terastallizing is out of the player’s control, but eventually, the game unlocks a way to alter these by collecting shards and using them to change the default Tera type of the Pokémon to open more possibilities within this new mechanic. Activating the Terastallizing mechanic requires using a Tera orb, which can only be used once per visit to the Pokémon Centre. Terastallizing is a big part of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s story and identity, as it is used by all the gym leaders. Terastallized Pokémon can be found in the wild as shiny Pokémon or through the game’s Tera raid battles, a new take on Dynamax raids from Pokémon Sword and Shield. After a battle with your lead Pokémon and three others making up your team, either AI, friends or random players online, the raided Pokémon can be caught to reap its tera form benefits.
On the topic of online, this latest entry has quite an online presence. This is due to the way the game can be played cooperatively with up to three other people to explore the world of Paldea together. Most things are available to do apart from story elements. This must be done solo, but the cooperative companions can still go about their own business while the host continues their story. Cooperative offers the chance to have some fun together as players can take to the world and capture Pokémon, have picnics, fight each other, and take selfies with each other. It seems the next logical step after having years of interactivity between people which was limited to battling and trading with strangers online or with friends in real life.
Game Freak did not go crazy with the scale of the open world, so while players are free to go wherever they want, its size is tiny compared to some of the giants of the open world map design. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s world is not trying to be the next Just Cause, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or the recent Assassin’s Creed games, and in fairness, the game is the better for it. I cannot imagine what the game would be like if it went any larger in scope. This is due to the performance issues in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The world outside of the cities is often largely barren, with natural elements, such as hills, cliffs, trees, rocks and lots of grass. Games with exceptional open worlds have areas that stick with you after the adventure, but here, all I can remember are brown hills, grass plains and some snow on a mountain. There is nothing that makes you go “oh wow, that is awesome” when walking into a new area and discovering some amazing vista or monument. There are not even any puzzles to truly solve within this open world, so it ends up being a rather forgettable place.
Thankfully, the map’s small size is what helps keep this from becoming a drag to explore. All the Pokémon running around helps keep the player’s focus away from the lacklustre world. Finding an old favourite Pokémon in the wild is met with some excitement, as old memories come rushing back. Sure, it is not as stimulating as it could have been with a more interesting environment, but without the Pokémo, it could have been so much worse. I’m not sure why the world is this plain, it is not like the Switch cannot handle good open worlds. Just take a look at some other titles on the platform, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Xenoblade Chronicles 3, which both have much bigger and better designed worlds and do so with higher-quality. The cities in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are better looking than the outside world, taking all the detail and being unique in their design, but there is not much to do in these cities apart from changing the avatar’s clothes, buying new items or taking on the gym leaders. One thing to note is that getting through the open world is fast thanks to the introduction very early on of the game’s front cover legendary Pokémon, which acts as a mount for the player
While all the great additions and improvements to the core Pokémon experience should be celebrated, sadly the trade-off that has come with this should not. This is probably one of the worst-performing Nintendo games I have seen in some time. I wish I was joking, but sadly, the targeted 30fps is hardly reached and exploring the world of Paldea is met with constant imbalances in frame rate. The developers have tried to implement techniques to avoid issues, such as reduced animations, which sometimes happen right up close to the camera to give a jarring scene as the main character walks smoothly but everyone around him is animated at like 10 frames per second, skipping animation to keep up the frame rate. Other things pop in and out randomly, such as the camera clipping underground in battles or light effects flickering. There have been reports through online forums and sites about crashes and other bizarre bugs, which personally I did not have, but I do turn off my Switch rather than leaving it in sleep mode, and reports seem to pinpoint that sleeping and returning to the game causes some of the more extreme issues. Still, this lack of polish is very un-Nintendo-like, so I hope it can be improved through patches. I would normally argue that the ambition of the game outstrips the hardware, but other developers have created decent-looking visuals in open-world titles, so other issues seem to be the source of this poorly optimised release.
Away from the poor performance and graphical issues, there are some quality-of-life improvements that have been needed in the series for some time. The main one is related to battling and gaining experience. Grinding can now be made less dull by throwing out the lead Pokémon in the team and having them run around to automatically fight wild Pokémon close by. This does not offer as much experience as doing the battles yourself, roughly losing around 60% due to the automation, but these auto battles last a couple of seconds before the Pokémon continues exploring. If the Pokémon takes too much damage it will be unable to fight in this manner until it is healed. Since other Pokémon also gain a share of the experience, it is a good way to level up the party in a quick time. Returning from Sword and Shield is the ability to relearn all the old moves forgotten by the Pokémon. I love how this has been made extremely easy as this feature sits in a menu a few clicks away. All this makes for a better Pokémon experience and shows that away from the performance issues, the developers are trying to make the Pokémon games less archaic in their design.
Moving to an open-world concept is a brilliant step forward for the Pokémon series, but currently, this release lacks the Nintendo quality that we expect from their published titles. In terms of mechanics, vision and gameplay elements of Pokémon, this is a shift in the right direction, and it only makes me get excited to see what future games do on new Nintendo hardware, whenever that arrives. I still recommend Pokémon Scarlet and Violet to fans of these wonderful little critters or to people who grew tired of the original formula, as the shift to an open world makes for a more exciting experience. Just be prepared to suffer from something that is very un-Nintendo like with this game’s inconsistent frame rates and the occasional glitch, which will put a dent in what should have been a wonderful new direction for the extremely popular creature collecting series.