Welcome back to the Pokemon love/hate series! We’re covering the newest mainline entry in the franchise today, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. There’s been plenty said about these games already and they’ve quickly become some of the most polarizing entries in the entire franchise, representing a bright future for the series while also being mired in technical issues which would be enough to sink any other game. I’ve got plenty of thoughts on these latest games in the Pokemon franchise so let’s dive in and find out what I love and what I hate…
- Great Pokemon Designs – I’m not one of those “new Pokemon look so bad!” people that come out every time there’s a new generation, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how good this generation has been. During preview season I was unimpressed by a lot of the new Pokemon that were being shown off, but getting to see Pokemon like Grafaiai, Gimmighoul and Fidough up close in battle and in the overworld, I have really warmed up to them. There are also an unusually high number of top-tier Pokemon for me this generation, which run the gamut from cool basic Pokemon like Flittle, flawless evolutionary lines for Fuecoco and Sprigatito, awesome paradox Pokemon and really interesting legendaries. As usual, I’ll have my list of best and worst Pokemon of the generation at the end of this post.
- Lively Open World – My expectations for an open world Pokemon game were very much tempered by Sword and Shield (not to mention Game Freak’s never ending capacity to under-deliver at every opportunity), but I was shocked by just how lively the Paldea region can be and how much personality its Pokemon inhabitants exude. Everywhere you go, Pokemon will react to your presence in interesting ways. Pokemon like Hoppip or Gogoat may walk up to you with curiosity, while Deerling or Stantler may be skittish and flee, Dugtrio and Orthworm will hide from you underground, Cyclizar can often be seen bounding around without a care in the world, and aggressive Pokemon like Tauros or Veluza will actively come after you to initiate battle. It also helps that battles now seamlessly occur on the overworld map instead of in themed arenas as in previous Pokemon games, meaning you can actually see Pokemon continuing to go about their business even then. It’s really cool, immersive to see in action and far more fleshed out than I had expected.
- Overworld Shinies – Shiny hunting is one of my favourite parts of the Pokemon experience, even if my patience for long, full-odds hunts is lacking. This is a big reason why I love exploring in Violet, because I know that at any moment I could come across a shiny Pokemon. This is a pretty simple way to make world traversal much more engaging because I am constantly watching for shinies to appear. As of the time of writing this entry I’m currently up to 3 shinies found at full odds, but I will the shiny charm soon, making this vigilance even more rewarding and will eventually start using herba mystica to up my odds even further.
- Freedom to Choose How to Advance the Story – Pokemon games run on a pretty standard formula, but Scarlet and Violet make the inspired decision to split the now standard “gym battles”, “evil team” and “raids” storylines and make them be able to be tackled at your own pace and discretion. While there is a “recommended” and “incentivized” path, you’ll still be weaving in and out of these plots at will. It also helps that these three main plots all improve as you go, especially the titan plot with Arven. By the second battle I was all-in on his story and it only gets better as you go along and the three plots become unified in the climax of the game. I am not exaggerating when I say that Scarlet and Violet have possibly the best story in Pokemon, up there with Black and White and I’d argue that it definitely eclipses Sun and Moon.
- It’s also worth mentioning that there are also several completely optional side-plots and characters in the academy who you can get to know and help out. Your teachers are a colourful cast and it actually helps the sense that you’re off learning at school in these games (completely with mid-term and final exams!).
- First Pokemon Game to Feel Like a AAA Experience – Pokemon was very much designed as a handheld, social experience and really excelled at establishing this formula for itself for a long time. However, one of my issues with Sword and Shield was that it felt like it was a half-measure, attempting to take the Pokemon series into a console-based future but with the mindset of a game that was still rooted in 25 years of handheld traditions. For Scarlet and Violet it feels like Game Freak finally stepped back and thought “Okay, how can we leverage the technology we have to make a Pokemon game with a modern, open-world structure?” The result is a game which is leaps and bounds removed from the traditional structure of how you interact with the Pokemon world, while retaining the core RPG mechanics that make the game work. It’s a huge step forward for a franchise which has been accused for decades now of creative stagnation.
- Customization – Character customization has been a big factor of Pokemon games since X and Y and I’m sorry to say that Scarlet and Violet take some baffling steps backwards in this regard. While you can still change your look, hairstyle and most of your clothing, for some reason your main outfit is set between one of four seasonal styles. I have no idea why the hell they would do this, other than “you’re at an academy and therefore need a unified dress code”, even though this is a fantasy game and they could do whatever they wanted to. This game’s player card is also far less interesting and far more limited than Sword and Shield‘s customizable trading card system, to the point where I stopped bothering trying to perfect it early on.
- Graphics – Look, I didn’t care about the stupid N64 trees in Sword and Shield because of the scope of that game and the fact that it looked much better elsewhere. However, the graphics in Scarlet and Violet are notably bad given the game’s much wider scope. You’re meant to get to the top of high vistas, look down and go “Oh wow!”, but instead all I can think is “Wow, those textures sure are muddy” and “Man, this world sure is lacking in foliage and detail”. This would be one thing if the game ran really well, but it does not (which we’ll get to later) which just makes the graphical issues even more pronounced. Now, I certainly think that the graphics are functional and don’t actually impact my enjoyment of the game, hence why I put it in the Mixed section rather than Hate, but it’s worth mentioning since we’ve already seen better looking open-world Switch games for years now.
- Tera Raids – Raids were by far my favourite addition in Gen 8, despite some frustrating network issues that tempered that enjoyment somewhat. While I’m happy that they’re back in Gen 9, their implementation here feels like one step forward and two steps back.
- On the one hand, these move way faster than they did previously. In Dynamax raids it wasn’t uncommon to wait 45 seconds each turn for people to pick their moves, then actually have to watch them all play out before going to the next turn again. Tera Raids, in contrast, occur in real-time and moves all take no more than a second or two to resolve, meaning that the whole process goes far faster. However, it also means that you and your allies need to be focused and acting deliberately, otherwise you may miss your turn or use a heal too early.
- Tera Raids have also improve the cheer system to no longer give random chances of bonuses, instead allowing you to boost attack, defense, or provide a heal up to 3 times per battle. This is incredibly useful and really helps strategizing during these raids.
- On the other hand, raids basically are the endgame, especially 6 star raids. These raids are legitimately hard, especially because the Pokemon will create an energy shield halfway through the battle which reduces damage significantly. Sure, you can terastalize to break this shield easier, but 6 star Pokemon will drain your tera orb during the battle, making it take several turns of attacking fruitlessly and trying not to die to make it work. Meanwhile, if a 6 star Pokemon can buff itself, or has a super-effective move against you, it will spam it every turn and just wipe you out. The result of this is that raids have basically devolved into an extremely limited meta of viable Pokemon who can buff themselves massively, heal themselves/take several hit, and/or provide massive team support, all of which need to be max level and ideally using competitive EVs and IVs. On the one hand, it’s exciting to overcome this, but on the other hand it’s frustrating because even a single weak teammate can make a 6 star raid team worthless. Making all this worse is that if you do manage to win a 6 star raid, you aren’t even guaranteed to get a rare item drop, which is what the entire endgame of Scarlet and Violet revolve around (these rare items are needed to easily get competitive boosts and shinies). Now, to be fair, 5 star raids have a chance of dropping these rare items as well and are significantly easier, but it just increases the grind required to access endgame items even more.
- Add onto this that, somehow, the online infrastructure of Scarlet and Violet for raids may actually be worse than Sword and Shield (which was worse than Gen 7, which was worse than Gen 6…). At least in Gen 8 I could do a surprise trade or player card swap to cause the raid list to refresh regularly, but in Gen 9 you only get a grand total of 8 random raids at a time that everyone in the world can get into at the same time and these can only be refreshed every ~30 seconds, meaning that you have like a second to try to get into a raid before none are going to be available. There’s also a random raid option, but that’s a band-aid on a bullet wound when you want to get into specific raids. Why they couldn’t just implement a server browser with some basic filters is beyond me.
- Performance is Shit – Without a doubt, the main talking point about Scarlet and Violet at launch has been the game’s notoriously awful performance, innumerable bugs and poor programming. Fun story: literally the first thing I did in this game was move the right analog stick to get a better look at my character’s room, which caused the camera to clip into a black void. I wasn’t even trying to break the game either, but it set the tone for the experience to follow. Your camera will constantly clip out of the world, I’ve had characters go invisible, Pokemon disappear or slide out of frame during a battle, menu screens and icons that freeze in place and refuse to go away, etc. The performance woes are the real problem though, with the frame rate regularly dipping below 20fps in and around city areas. It’s real bad and can make the game headache-inducing, although saving and resetting your game will often alleviate some of the performance issues. Still, it’s an unacceptable state to launch a game in and clearly was due to The Pokemon Company’s mandated game release schedule.
- No Level Scaling – The biggest issue with Scarlet and Violet‘s ambitions of being open world and letting you chart your own path is that Pokemon and trainers’ levels are all set from the start. That means that you can go into an area, be massively under-levelled and grind to beat that area, but if you do then several other areas of the game will be a boring chore because they will all be hopelessly under-levelled. You can somewhat counter this by following recommended progression guides, but if you spend any time exploring and filling your Pokedex off of the main path then you’re pretty easily going to find yourself over-levelled in no time at all.
- The Map is Pretty Empty – While the Pokemon make the world interesting and alive, the actual design of the Paldea region is really unengaging. In previous, more tightly-designed Pokemon games there were all sorts of secrets and cool things to find hidden away in the world, but in Scarlet and Violet you will mainly find basic items, or TMs if you’re lucky. The main reward for exploration are stakes which can be used to free legendary beasts, which is admittedly pretty cool. However, the cities are where the game really falls flat. Previous Pokemon games would always have hidden shops, people who wanted to trade, people who could tell you things about your Pokemon, or even just flavourful lore dumps. In Scarlet and Violet, towns are basically worthless. Towns will basically just have food shops which are arbitrarily spread out over a half dozen locations through the town with different menus, item shops (which get spread out between two locations, plus Pokemon Centers themselves) and, if you’re lucky, clothing shops (which are also spread out between 1-2 types of clothing per shop). Very rarely will you come across people wanting to trade or do anything interesting, so you’ll basically just enter to do the gym challenge and then leave quickly (again, the shit performance in cities doesn’t help either). It’s a real shame, considering that places like Goldenrod, Celadon and Lumiose City had so much going on in them and are so memorable to this day, I can’t imagine Paldea’s cities doing the same.
- Still No Voice Acting – This would probably be my big caveat to the point about Gen 9 feeling like AAA Pokemon, because these games still, somehow don’t have any kind of voice acting. I get that it’s probably a localization issue, compounded with the time and money that it would take that TPC are too cheap to invest in, but goddamn, voice acting would add so much to this game’s story and characters. It’s just one more embarrassing mark against this series that takes some major steps forward but then shoots itself in the foot with moves that feel super goddamn lazy.
- Missions Can Be Dull – While I do like the storylines in this game, some of the actions that you have to do to complete them can be really dull. The worst offender in this regard is Team Star bases. There are five Team Star bases spread across the world map, they all play out the same way and they’re all easy and boring. All you have to do is use the auto-battle mechanic to make 3 of your Pokemon beat the crap out of 3 opposing Pokemon. Rinse and repeat until you defeat 30 Pokemon and then you’ll have to fight a boss. And if this doesn’t sound easy enough, you get an extremely generous 10 minutes to complete this and unlimited opportunities to heal. I don’t know how you could struggle to complete these missions unless you’re massively under-levelled and using a full team with poor type matchups. Gym challenges can also be pretty boring. Most of these involve doing some sort of chore before you’re allowed to fight the boss and they make me yearn for the days when I just had to fight 2-5 trainers before the leader which would act like a mini-tutorial for that gym’s theme.
- Slow Battle Pacing – If there’s one major caveat to Pokemon battles occurring in the overworld now, it’s that it has slowed the pace of battles to a crawl not seen since Gen 4. Battles often have long delays between actions, especially if a Pokemon gets swapped out of faints, where you may wait like 5+ seconds before you’re able to make a decision on how to proceed. Thankfully most move animations have been sped up to compensate for this somewhat, but this is definitely the most sluggish battles have felt in several generations.
- Let’s Go Feature – Pokemon following you on the overworld has always been a fan-favourite feature in these games, so the idea of having your companions come out whenever you want and even battling for fetching items for you automatically seems enticing. Well… as with most things in this game, the implementation really lets it down. This all comes down to the fact that the tether for this ability is extremely short and is based on your Pokemon’s actual movement speed. This means that if you try to navigate the world at a normal pace on the back of your riding Pokemon, you will almost immediately get too far away from your companion and cause them to head back into their pokeball. This is especially frustrating for the Pokemon who evolve by following you around for a certain number of steps, forcing you to either travel the world at a regular pace, or slow your movement to a crawl so you can have a Pokemon follow you. Suffice to say, I barely use this feature now, which is a damn shame.
Scarlet and Violet have been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I love seeing Pokemon living in the open world, constantly keeping an eye out for shinies and struggling through competitive and raid battles, but the performance and design issues are undeniable and unforgiveable and I’m often finding myself yearning for the tighter, focused design of Gens 2, 4 and 5. I hope that Game Freak will actually do something to improve this game and win back some community trust, but given the history of this franchise I’m not holding my breath.
Best Pokemon of Gen 9: Ceruledge, the entire Sprigatito line, Iron Valiant, Miraidon, Koraidon, Roaring Moon, Klawf, Flittle
Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 9: Frigibax, Palafin (the base form is super lazy and the Hero form is an abomination), Sandy Shocks, Dudunsparce (25 years for this… Dunsparce is already the joke, you don’t say the same joke again and expect it to be funny), Gholdengo