Over the years, Pokemon’s formula has remained as consistent as Dynasty Warriors. Diamond, Black, X, Sun, and so forth generations featured the same core experience as Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow. Recently, Pokemon has started to shift away from experimental spin-offs and traditional mainline titles, with Pokemon Scarlet and Violet feeling like a massive step towards something different. With an open world to explore, elements of Pokemon Legends: Arceus to implement, along with lessons from Sword and Shield, Pokemon Scarlet, and Violet, have piqued many players’ curiosity. However, given the new changes, different directions, and shifts in concept, is Pokemon Scarlet and Violet a breath of fresh air, or is it proof that sometimes you don’t change the formula?
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet start with players creating their characters. Players are given a decent arrangement of options, enough to make their character feel unique. Following that, you’ll need to complete some tasks before heading to the school and a couple of functions there before starting your journey.
A Brief Look at the Customization Options
Once you’ve completed everything you want to do in the school, the narrative will branch into three distinctly different storylines. These include Victory Road, Starfall Street, and Path of Legends. As their names suggest, these are not unique storylines as much as the usual gym battle, evil organization, and legend/HM presented differently. As a result, they ultimately end up in the same place.
Despite having different paths and the ability to play in whatever order you want, mainstay Pokemon mechanics enforce a general order. Even though you could fight the most decisive gym leader first, followed by going down the list, gym badges still dictate how well Pokemon follow your orders. The big thing stopping most players from breaking a general order is beating a level 50 range gym with Pokemon that won’t listen to you; passed level 20 is almost impossible without a sizable time investment and understanding of matchups. I fully expect long term, there will be YouTube or Twitch runs that feature players crazy enough to attempt this, though, for the average person, you’ll probably progress however you want you to hit a wall.
In addition to Victory Road essentially being required to play Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, you’ll also need to do some of the Path of Legends storyline. Instead of fighting powerful trainers, or groups, there are unique Pokemon you need to battle to obtain herbs to heal Koraidon/Miraidon to restore some of their abilities. These include swimming, high jumping, and climbing, which are required to obtain certain items, reach specific locations, or capture a wide variety of Pokemon. Anyone looking to reach the final area must complete all three, so regardless of how you approach them, there is no avoiding them without missing part of the core capture/battle loop.
Thankfully, each of these elements features enough changes to feel somewhat different. Gym battles attempt to replace the typical gauntlet of trainers with a wide variety of mini-games… that often result in fighting a gauntlet of trainers. Some handle it better than others. You’ll need to defeat several trainers to obtain clues to earn the password to fight the gym leader or play a straightforward version of Where’s Waldo, opting out of battles for more engaging mini-games. Starfall Street’s organization is nowhere near the same level as Team Rocket, which focuses more on the characters than the evil the group wants to commit. Path of Legends will be the most interesting for most, as it features giant Pokemon with unique elements compared to their non-titan counterparts that can later be captured.
The last narrative change comes in the form of your rival. Simply put, Nemona is not the usual Blue/Gary Oak archetype we’ve come to expect. In some ways, this is a positive, though in others, a negative. As much as I applaud Pokemon Scarlet and Violet for showing rivals can be supportive, Nemona is not particularly well written.
The Bitterest of Rivals
Nemona often feels like an out-of-touch fangirl than a legitimate threat. If she isn’t gushing about the player character’s accomplishments, she is itching to have another battle. Given her other change is picking the Pokemon weak to your starter, she isn’t hard to beat. Despite barely putting up a fight, the narrative often reminds you she is the superior trainer. There is so much time devoted to telling, don’t show that it completely misses the mark. I often wondered how Nemona beat the gym leader over, wondering if I could do well against her. But, before you can worry about becoming a champion, you need to battle, capture, and train your Pokemon to meet this task.
While Pokemon Scarlet and Violet feature a fair amount of handholding, some are offloaded to optional school activities. Unlike the three story arcs, these are optional, and the school can be completely ignored for the vast majority of the game with no downsides. For those who struggle with the basics, need a refresher course, or want to read the official explanation, certain classes will help players understand who they should use and why.
Look! A wild Dragonite
Another welcome change is how the overworld looks and feels. Trainers no longer automatically engage, and the layout is far more open than in previous titles, with no preset locations to battle Pokemon. The last one is huge, as you don’t need to fight 100 random Pokemon to get that one extremely rare spawn. Simply looking around should reveal it, though you might need to clear some Pokemon to get it to spawn. There are also some fun tricks, like tiny Pokemon will often be overlooked, resulting in an unexpected battle, and Dittos are disguised as commonly seen Pokemon in the area; I’ve seen a few other Pokemon use a similar trick, with several other gimmicks that keep things fresh.
As lovely as this change is, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are not set up to capitalize on it. Like previous titles, areas/gyms have a predetermined level range that forces players to engage/level until they can overcome the challenge. This felt much more natural when you had to defeat multiple trainers and random Pokemon attacks than in the current version. You can do whatever you want, as long as that includes engaging some Pokemon/trainers. Another arguably unintended downside is potentially making certain areas pointless.
Instead of previous adventures where the path forward was utterly linear, players are supposed to move between the left and right sides to converge in the middle. Anyone who doesn’t immediately shift sides will face an increasingly complex array of battles. These are perfect if you’re looking for a challenge, but in doing so, you risk out-leveling the skipped areas. If you’re like me, this resulted in fighting a level 17 gym with level 34 Pokemon. Needless to say, I felt like I was bullying the gym leader over being remotely challenged. The Starfall Street fights help by offering additional challenging foes, though it’s a shame that it’s easy to accidentally level yourself out of a challenge.
Even though some grinding will be required to overcome various challenges, the auto-battle system is quite nice. Instead of constantly loading pointless fights, players can summon their starting Pokemon to the overworld to fight the different Pokemon roaming around. These fights award less experience than fighting the Pokemon usually, with the benefit of being faster and not using PP. This is best done with Pokemon you’re confident will win, as they can also lose health/struggle in the overworld. Multiple reports indicate that a summoned Pokemon will not attack any shiny that spawns. Players still need to know what the shiny looks like, as there don’t appear to be any indicators besides the look, but it’s good to see this potential problem was addressed.
Along with allowing players to explore an area without countless battles, there are many things to find. Pokeballs and sparkly objects containing items or materials to make TMs are scattered around, as are optional battles, raids, well-hidden trainers/Pokemon spawns, and even collectibles required to fight the latest generation of legendary Pokemon. It’s nice to see more things done with the world than having various battles scattered around.
For the things Pokemon Scarlet and Violet do right, or at least differently, there are some pretty sizable downsides. One of the biggest is performance. This comes up with recent titles like Bayonetta 3, and No More Heroes III, with Pokemon Scarlet and Violet having some of the most prominent examples of it. Part of the problem is the desire to make the world feel alive, without the power or performance to accomplish it. Items far in the distance, such as the giant windmill, lack smooth motion. This isn’t one of those complaints where it goes from being soft to slightly less smooth, with it looking much closer to a slideshow. There isn’t much of a sense of motion; moving feels unnatural. Several background characters that walk by have similar issues, especially noticeable around the school.
Some Scenes Look Pretty Good; Whereas Others Do Not
Graphics are also really hit/miss. I included one of the best and worst images I captured on my Switch in handheld mode. The first image is part of the animation when you capture a raid Pokemon. The background might not look fabulous, but my character is clearly defined, with enough to ignore the background at the moment. As for the second image, I was randomly grinding when I noticed a wild Vaporeon. If you’re struggling to see the Pokemon, it’s the blue lizard thing directly above my character. Another visibly rough design is Espathra (upper right of the box saying Fletchlin), which has lost most of its detail at this range. Most Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are somewhere between these two examples; it’s just a shame you can find these issues when only six Pokemon are visible.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet Review Verdict
The easiest way to explain Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is to say this is what I would’ve expected roughly a decade ago. It has many of the changes/improvements players have wanted/requested, though it suffers from issues similar titles encountered and overcame years prior. Instead of feeling like a bold new direction for the franchise, it’s the same formula presented differently. While there is no question that core elements like gym battles, Elite Four, Legendary Pokemon, and more should persist, they should be presented in a way that matches the new presentation. Instead, you have a non-linear game that is meant to be played like a linear game, with three optional stories that are not optional. I still have hope future titles will refine these elements by implementing things like level scaling, but in its current form, you have to play an okay Pokemon game to unlock an average Pokemon game.
[Editor’s Note: Pokemon Scarlet and Violet were reviewed on Nintendo Switch, and a copy was provided for review purposes. All images were captured directly from a Nintendo Switch in portable mode.]