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Home Technology Pokémon Scarlet, Violet review: A vast open world with big tech problems

Pokémon Scarlet, Violet review: A vast open world with big tech problems




Pokémon Scarlet | Pokémon Violet

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Developer: Game Freak | Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company

Under embargo: Any unannounced new Pokémon; the total number of Pokémon available in the Paldea Pokédex; any unannounced gym leaders, titan Pokémon and bosses from Team Star crews; all content following the completion of the three main story quests.

Since coming to the Nintendo Switch, the Pokémon series has steadily inched closer to the promise of a truly open-world experience with each new release. “Let’s Go! Eevee” and “Let’s Go! Pikachu!” ditched random encounters. “Sword” and “Shield” introduced players to an expansive “wild area” where catching and battling Pokémon took place out in the open. And “Legends Arceus” experimented with a more seamless catching mechanic and adding different biomes into the mix.

“Pokémon Scarlet” and “Pokémon Violet” mark the first fully open-world Pokémon games, and Game Freak has done a truly commendable job translating what has always made the series so fun to a broader range of playstyles. But that transition is not without its growing pains, and persistent technical problems and pacing issues make this generation feel more like yet another baby step toward the open-world Pokémon experience rather than a confident stride forward.

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The following is a conversation between two Washington Post editors, Jhaan Elker and Alyse Stanley, which will act as Launcher’s review of “Scarlet” and “Violet.” It has been edited for clarity and contains light spoilers.

Jhaan Elker: So Alyse, I played “Scarlet,” you played “Violet,” but there aren’t too many differences between the two, so the experiences will be pretty similar. These games are way better than the previous gen’s games, “Sword” and “Shield.” The freedom of exploration and gameplay events that Game Freak gives you, while still limited in “Scarlet” and “Violet,” is much greater. I think, generally speaking, the Pokémon designs are way better in these games too. There are little interface changes that make the gameplay loop faster, like how there’s a dedicated button to quickly access your Poké balls [in battle].

The story is more intriguing overall, too, across all three of the main quest lines. I know Game Freak calls them “story paths,” but I wish they’d call them “quest lines,” because “story paths” implies that you can only take one path, when the reality is you have to do all three to access endgame content. That said, there still are some big flaws with this game, mostly graphics and pacing related. What did you think?

Alyse Stanley: Each generation has kind of felt a rough draft for the next one. Even though “Scarlet” and “Violet” definitely built a lot on the games that came before them, they still don’t feel totally finished. I feel like Game Freak is in this weird place — they have these dedicated fans that want all the Pokémon that have ever existed to be in these games and also want to play competitively, and then they have people who have never played a Pokémon game.

I think Game Freak struggles to walk that line. And that’s where a lot of the issues with “Violet” and “Scarlet” come into play. It feels at times both simultaneously overstuffed and not super substantial, even though I did really like the main plot more than I have liked it in some Pokémon generations. And yes, there are also a lot of graphical issues. But I am very excited for the direction that Pokémon is going.

Uneven pacing, right from the tutorial

Jhaan: One thing Game Freak continues to take baby steps on is how they handle easing players into the world. I personally think the tutorial section is way too long, dragging on before cutting you loose into the world. And even when we’re set out on the world map, it’s not truly an “open world” a la “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” where you can just head in any direction. Sections of the open world are gated off, and you have to get certain travel abilities before you can actually explore the rest of the map.

The other downside is just the overall lack of level scaling. I don’t think that there is any in this game. I purposely tried to go to more difficult regions at first and then go back to the easier ones to see if like anything would change level wise. It didn’t seem like anything did.

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Alyse: I ran into the same thing. I tried to tackle the gyms out of order or, you know, not go toward the closest ones first. Then I would go back and do the earlier gyms. Those earlier gyms were just as easy. It was the same with a lot of the side quests. By the time I got to the last Team Star crew, I was just one-hit killing everything.

Alyse: Another pacing issue: I checked in the menu to see if there was a way to enable skipping cutscenes. You can either leave them unskippable by default or opt to auto-skip all of them. And I was like, “Well, I don’t want that! I just don’t want to have to do the same cutscene five times in a row, because one of the story paths is literally the same thing five times.” And it’s kind of the same with the tutorial, where I really wish there was just a way you could say, “Hey, I’ve played this series for 20 years. I really don’t need to know how a Poké ball works.” Game Freak really seems to struggle with that, with just trusting the player. Fortunately, the school stuff was all optional.

Jhaan: The thing that’s a little annoying about the school segments is that they do offer good rewards if you do engage with them. So it’s annoying that there is no option to speed up that process a little bit, particularly because there’s a loading screen in between you going to each class, which just makes the process even slower.

Why the starters and new Pokémon designs shine

Jhaan: Moving on to an aspect of the game that has been improved: the new Pokémon of Paldea. I think all three starters have their charms throughout their evolution lines. You’ll find different reasons to like all three. It helps that the beginning of the game really hammers home each starter’s personality well. There’s this cutscene in which you just see how they interact with their environment, and they follow you around a bit. You see that one is really playful, one is kind of derpy, one is just full of themselves and a bit of a prima donna. And overall, the Pokémon designs of Paldea seemed more thoughtful and interesting than the previous gen. What did you think?

Alyse: I would definitely agree with that. I actively hate most of the designs in “Sword” and “Shield” because I think some of them are just very ugly and they feel … tortured, almost.

Alyse: One of the coolest things about the open world with this new generation was, you’re running around, and you spot a Pokémon you haven’t seen before and you’re like, “Oh my gosh! I need to know what that is. I need to go catch it. What type is it? Does it have evolutions?” That sense of wonder reminded me a lot of playing my first Pokémon game.

“Violet,” and “Scarlet” especially, does a lot of cool stuff with different Pokémon type combinations. I won’t go into specifics because I can’t, but it’s really clear that Game Freak thought a lot about, like, “What if a Pokémon had this type and this type? What would they look like? How would they act?”

Jhaan: I think that that’s a perfect way to put it. Sometimes in the past it’s just like, wait, why is this new Pokémon this type exactly?

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Alyse: Another thing about the starters I wanted to mention is that their inspirations carry through the whole evolution line, even when they get into battle.

Jhaan: Yeah. To give “Sword” and “Shield” a little bit of credit, they do a similar thing with their starters where they try to have one specific concept in mind that’s dependent on the region that the Pokémon gen is based off of. This game follows suit, but I think it just does a way better job of it.

Alyse: And incorporates it from top to bottom, like in their [battle] animations and the moves and everything!

Jhaan: Yes, exactly! Because for some of the themes in previous gens — picking on “Sword” and “Shield” again — the designs in the evolutions kind of come out of nowhere. I’m thinking of the Sobble line in particular.

Alyse: I’m still upset about Sobble. It was so cute, why did they have to do that to him?!

Combat and catching mechanics are mostly good, with minor issues

Jhaan: Really quick point before diving into the mechanics. I love the new Pokédex that they have in this game. I love how there’s little snapshot pictures of the Pokémon in their environment. It’s super cute. It’s a great way to understand the personality of the Pokémon and their habitat. Really, really great choice.

Alyse: Yeah! And every Pokédex entry is set up like a book on a bookshelf. It is very cute.

Jhaan: So starting with the catching mechanics. What I will say is I appreciate how some things have been streamlined in this game, but there is one glaring omission from a previous entry. What were your thoughts, Alyse?

Alyse: I was a really big fan of how catching in “Pokémon Legends: Arceus” worked, like the “Pokémon Go”-style catching where you sneak up on a Pokémon, throw a Poké ball and you can catch it right there. I was sad that this wasn’t carried over to “Scarlet” and “Violet.” But I thought I would be more disappointed in its absence than I ultimately was, because even though the games go back to the traditional turn-based system of battling, weakening then throwing a Poké ball, it was still really cool to see that on an open map and to be able to run up to a Pokémon and do that.

Jhaan: I would agree with that. I think what was confusing was that Game Freak seemed to sort of want to at least incorporate one element of the “Legends Arceus” catching mechanics anyway, because there is a way that you can sneak up on Pokémon. Some of them are a little skittish.

Alyse: Yeah, and you can’t engage them in a battle if they’re hiding. Also, if you surprise a Pokémon, you can catch them off guard and stun them for a turn. But it’s just a single turn, so sneaking is not going to make or break the experience.

Jhaan: On to the auto-battle system, which I appreciate to a certain extent, especially early in the game when you’re trying to just grind your really, really weak Pokémon. It saves a bunch of time. It’s a shame that the game doesn’t lock you out of auto battling Pokémon you haven’t captured before, though. I found myself accidentally fighting one that I hadn’t actually captured yet on multiple occasions. But otherwise, it’s a good way to grind out certain materials and Pokémon levels.

Alyse: I mostly used it, like you said, near the beginning when I was trying to grind. Or if I had a Pokémon in my party that I was trying to evolve because I’m very anal about filling out the Pokédex.

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Jhaan: I don’t know if it was just a matter of my Switch controller getting stick drift or whatever, but I also found simple things like aiming the direction where I wanted my Pokémon to auto-battle to be really really finicky.

Alyse: Yes! I ran into that issue both with auto-battling and throwing your Poké ball to enter a battle. I would be facing one way, and then I would go to throw my Poké ball, and my character would turn slightly and throw it a way I wasn’t looking. It was the same with directing my Pokémon in auto-battling. Or sometimes I would throw my Pokémon near a group to auto-battle them, but then the group would start splitting up and my Pokémon would chase after the one that ran the furthest away.

Terastallizing, TM crafting and picnics are a mixed bag

Jhaan: Speaking of frustrating — Terastallizing. It’s the one-and-done mechanic that Game Freak does with every single Pokémon generation just to differentiate games from each other. What are your thoughts?

Alyse: You said in a message to me that it’s a less fun version of Z-Moves from “Sun” and “Moon” and I absolutely agree. Since Mega Evolutions in “X” and “Y,” there hasn’t been a gimmick of a new generation that has really wowed me. With Terastallizing, you throw a ball to make your Pokémon shiny and give them a glass-hat-thing that is specific to whatever their Tera type is. This can temporarily change their typing and makes moves of that type more powerful. But it feels not as personalized to the individual Pokémon as Mega Evolutions or Z-Moves.

Jhaan: Agree! I sort of appreciated their usage in the gym battles, because every single time a gym leader would get to their final Pokémon, I was always surprised by who it was. But then, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, “Oh, well since Terastallizing sometimes changes your Pokémon type, this Pokémon must be transforming into the same type as the rest of the gym’s Pokémon.” So that kind of took away from the surprise.

Alyse: And also, since [the glass-hat-thing] for each Tera type always looks the same regardless of the Pokémon, it just seems kind of lazy design-wise.

Jhaan: Yeah, exactly. I mean, Terastallizing does lead to an improved multiplayer raid battle system. The overall flow of Tera Raids are way better than the previous gen’s Max Raids, because players input their commands all at the same time instead of waiting for player after player. I actually also used the cheer system — which gives your entire team stat boosts and minor heals — a lot, which I wasn’t expecting since you have to select them over your Pokémon actually attacking.

Alyse: Yeah, totally. Another mixed bag is the TM system. It’s cool that you can now craft TMs, but you basically only get access to recipes of TMs that either 1) you’ve already picked up as loot while exploring or 2) your Pokémon already learned through leveling up. And some you have to unlock by completing main story quests.

In general, I just don’t understand why Pokémon needs a crafting system. It seemed extraneous.

Jhaan: There are two issues I see with the TM system. You can only use TMs once in these games, which to be fair, I get why they changed this from the previous few generations. Game Freak is trying to get people to buy into the crafting system. But if you think about it from a design standpoint, the TM crafting is flawed from the get-go, right? Because you’re trying to build a balanced team of six where you have different types of Pokémon that can cover your weaknesses, there are going to be very few instances where you’re going to want to give the same TM move to multiple Pokémon on your team in the first place.

Alyse: Exactly. And again, you can play through the game just fine without crafting TMs. There’s not really an incentive to engage with that system.

Jhaan: Speaking of systems that I didn’t really engage with: the picnic system. We were kind of joking to each other that it’s really funny that the food recipes you find in this game don’t take advantage of the universe that they’re coming from. The recipes are for really mundane things like “ham sandwich,” “pickle sandwich” and “churro.”

Alyse: [laughs] I don’t think I used picnics much. It was one of those things where I could appreciate what the game was going for. The inner kid in me used to imagine mechanics like that while playing the older Pokémon games. But in terms of how it actually played out in “Violet” and “Scarlet,” there’s not really a lot of ways you can interact with your Pokémon while having picnics.

It also just seems very unrelated to any other gameplay. Like, you can clean your Pokémon during picnics, you can pet them, you can kick a ball around, and you can change up how the picnic table looks. So I guess if you just wanted to get cute screenshots in photo mode, that would be cool. But again, never really found them to be necessary. Maybe it’d be more fun in multiplayer?

Jhaan: Not only that, but I found the [food-making] minigame to be extremely boring. It’s just like, stack this ingredient. Now stack this one. Now stack this one.

Alyse: It’s very repetitive.

Jhaan: Doing picnics also can give buffs, such as stat modifiers to your Pokémon during battles, but I think the only two buffs that players might want to engage with in picnics are the egg buffs and the catching certain types of Pokémon buffs, especially with Pokémon that are tougher to catch.

Alyse: To add one last thing about the picnic mechanic, it didn’t feel very Pokémon. The kinds of food you were making — and the way you make them — were not unique to the universe. There are so many fun ways they could have incorporated it, but instead it just felt very … sterile, like this non-Pokémon-related feature tacked on to this game.

Jhaan: I think a big issue with a bunch of these new features is that the item economy in these games needs some serious tweaking. To start, there are way too many field items in this game. Before I got to the second major challenge, my entire bag was stuffed with Poké balls, status healing items, potions, crafting materials and TMs I picked up off the ground. I never felt a strong need or desire to have to shop for anything significant other than the occasional Poké ball here and there. And as a result, I had a surplus of not only Pokédollars — I also had a huge surplus of a second currency that you get in this game, called League Points, which you get by defeating trainers and advancing the story. You have a choice with literally every purchase whether you want to use Pokédollars or League Points. So by the end, you have a surplus of items and currency, and never have to make any real choices with your purchases.

Alyse: Basically all the money that I spent was just on cosmetic items for my avatar.

The three story paths, and their varying degrees of success

Jhaan: There are three major paths that the game sends you on. One is going to be very familiar to fans — it’s the typical eight gym leader path, essentially. Then there’s the second one that involves you battling giant Pokémon called Titan Pokémon. It’s reminiscent of the Totem Pokémon from “Sun” and “Moon.” And then the last one involves you engaging with the villainous team this time around, Team Star.

Alyse: In the Team Star path, you go through five team leaders’ compounds, and you have to beat up a certain number of Pokémon in a certain number of minutes using auto-battling. That got very repetitive; it’s the exact same experience every single time. But when you actually fight the team leaders, they have a lot of personality. I love their designs. I love how their battles are very cinematic.

The gym story path was very fun, but I noticed that the Elite Four was really disappointing. One of my favorite parts about the Elite Four in past games was how the room that you battle each one in is themed to the Pokémon type of their team. But in “Scarlet” and “Violet,” you fight them all in the same stark white room.

In the Titan Pokémon story path, you see the giant Pokémon in the open world and fight them with their superpowered stats. With that storyline though, I saw a lot of technical glitches, and a couple of times, what you were supposed to do to reach the Titan Pokémon wasn’t really communicated. So I was just kind of wandering around sometimes, like, is this supposed to unlock something?

Jhaan: One thing I’ll say kind of right off the bat: I really appreciate how, for the first time ever, Game Freak decided to incorporate every single Pokémon type into some form of a story challenge. That’s really cool.

Alyse: Yeah, that was great. I also found that the whole storyline was compelling, and [each path] is not what you initially think it’s going to be.

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Jhaan: Yeah, there’s a mystery element in the narrative of each of the three of them. The more you complete the challenges within these paths, the more these stories open up, the more the characters reveal what’s actually going on, and the more twists occur that you really don’t expect. Like, in “Sun” and “Moon,” everybody called that the pristine, white-clad scientific Team Aether were the true villains of the game. “Scarlet” and “Violet,” by contrast, is not a predictable story.

Alyse: I think one thing that kind of supports that is that the story is set up like a very typical Pokémon game, but then it becomes very clear that, oh no, this isn’t what it appears to be. So it builds on those preconceptions you have of previous Pokémon games.

Jhaan: Which was very clever! Also, in each story path, there are different tasks that you need to do. In terms of variability, I would probably rank them as: the gyms have the most variability with tasks, the Titans have the second most and the Team Star compounds have the very least by a mile.

Alyse: Yeah, and I would say, narratively, it’s the reverse: the Team Star challenges have the strongest narrative, then probably the Titans and then the gyms.

Jhaan: I think the last thing that I’ll say is that, unlike “Breath of the Wild,” which basically just doesn’t indicate where anything is, these games have a world map that is littered with icons. It’s more like Assassin’s Creed than it is “Breath of the Wild” in that regard, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I appreciated having at least a smidgen of direction with this game, particularly because there are a lot of quests and characters you have to keep track of.

Great sound design, abysmal graphical performance

Jhaan: Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way: I think the music is a bop. Toby Fox’s work in particular [who did the Tera Raid Battle theme] is by far one of the best tracks in this game, and this is now the second Pokémon game he’s composed songs for. So I hope that he becomes a staple in the series going forward.

The sound design of Pokémon has always been a strength of the series; it’s smart that they use the very same menu sounds, Pokémon cries and other odds and ends that were found in the very first games of the series. The sound always does a great job of drumming up nostalgia within players.

Alyse: Also, since this region is loosely based on Spain, there are Latin influences in the music you’re able to hear while you’re just running around the map.

Jhaan: All right, let’s get into the big one now. Graphics. Would you like to begin?

Alyse: The graphics are the elephant in the room. Throughout the game, there were issues with assets clipping into each other, models popping in and out, and huge frame rate drops. I ran into frame rate drops so bad during one of the Titan challenges that I got frustrated and moved on to another challenge instead.

When there’s a lot going on graphically, like when like snow is falling, or if there are a lot of Pokémon on screen, or when you’re surfing, there are frame rate drops. When you enter battle, it seamlessly transitions without a battle screen, but sometimes the camera doesn’t know where to go in that transition (you can adjust the camera during certain battles, however). At one point, I walked up to a trainer, then when the battle started, I was like 10 feet further north than I was when I walked up and talked to him. This game can be very clunky in a way that’s almost painful, because I want to ignore it since the rest of the game is so good. But the issues are a near-constant reminder of how the game struggles technically.

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Jhaan: Yup. Game Freak had graphical issues with their last game, “Pokémon Legends: Arceus,” as well, and while they were developing both games simultaneously, it’s disappointing that no lessons were taken from that game’s development. I can excuse bad graphics once, but how many times can you excuse it in a series before you have to stop giving the developer passes?

The frame rate issue in particular is borderline unacceptable. There are certain cutscenes where there’s just a little over 10 characters on screen, and the frame rate of characters in the background drops to like 8 frames per second. There’s this one scene, in particular, in the classroom where some of the students are kicking their legs under their desks — a really simple, innocuous animation — and it’s going at like 5 frames per second. Keep in mind, we played these games on both TV mode and handheld mode, and these issues happened with both play styles. We also both used relatively new Nintendo Switch models, so it’s not like we need to upgrade.

Alyse: Yeah, it really breaks immersion quite frequently to the point where, like, you’ll be running around on the map, and a group of Pokémon will just pop in front of you out of nowhere. Pop-ins can get so bad that I would just wait for all the Pokémon in an area to populate first.

Jhaan: It’s a shame because there are a lot of nice graphical and animated touches Game Freak uses in these games. There’s hair physics in this game. I was shocked to see that my trainer’s hair wasn’t a plastic mold and was actually bobbing as I walked around. When it rains, your trainer shivers. Some of the textures on clothing are fantastic too, to the point where you can see the thread on shirts and pants. Texturing on some of the Pokémon is great too. Some looked like they had real fuzz on their skin. It’s the first time Game Freak’s put this much effort into textures.

Alyse: The texture on different clothing you can buy is noticeable too. Like you can get leather, and it actually looks like leather.

Jhaan: On the flip side, there are also some textures that are like, wow, there’s zero effort put into this. Like the sandwich bread, for example.

Alyse: It looks like that plastic food you play with as kids.

Jhaan: [laughs] Yes, exactly.

Alyse: As someone who’s been around from day one, it’s heartbreaking in a way. This is a very enjoyable game, and I think my Pokédex is at like 300 something because I was obsessively catching every single Pokémon. But the graphic issues really leave a sour taste in your mouth.

Is Scarlet and Violet worth a purchase?

Alyse: I think this is a really good step forward for the series and I love how much the series has been growing, how they’ve been incorporating more modern features and becoming more accessible for players. I still had a ton of fun playing. Really, the biggest knocks against it would be the repetitiveness of some challenges and the graphical issues.

But as a Pokémon game, it was very, very fun and it embodied a lot of the things that I’ve always loved about the series. It also did what “Legends: Arceus” did well, where it just channels the pure fun of discovery. It just doesn’t ever let you forget that it’s struggling technically, which is upsetting.

Jhaan: Yeah, despite the disappointing aspects, the reality is we both enjoyed this game. The core mechanics and the gameplay loop are satisfying enough to keep you coming back. The Pokémon designs of the ones you can get in the Paldea region are great and varied.

But the pacing and graphical disappointments keep “Scarlet” and “Violet” from being the best open-world games we know the series is capable of producing. One thing that Game Freak really needs to correct before they take another stab at the next major Pokémon game is this graphical stuff, like the frame rate issues and the draw distance and just basic things that you need for players to actively engage with the world you’ve created.

Alyse: One thing Game Freak does have working for it is that people want to play this game. People want open-world Pokémon. Game Freak may be struggling to get there, but it’s been really cool to be able to see it getting closer with each new generation.