Review: Pokémon Scarlet & Violet

As much as I’ve loved my time with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet this past week, sinking 50 hours into the former, and a further 10 hours into the latter, I can’t help but feel conflicted about my overall experience with the titles. Scarlet and Violet are undoubtedly the future of the Pokémon series, and I’m excited for the potential that future holds, but the newest generation of titles also feel held back by the limitations of Switch hardware, and in my opinion are lesser for having left behind some of the innovations introduced in Pokémon Legends Arceus just nine months ago.

I think Scarlet and Violet are fantastic games, but I also feel like their progress comes with some caveats.

So, let’s start off by talking about what Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are, and are not.

At their core, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are fundamentally traditional mainline Pokémon adventures, set in a truly open world, and adapted to be more in line with many of the conventions established by Legends Arceus.

Scarlet and Violet’s promise of an open world Pokémon game is fully committed to, with a few key exceptions. Once the player’s gone through the game’s first area, and gone through a series of storyline establishing cutscenes at school, the full game map is opened up, and in theory any town on the map can be walked to. There are certain locations which will require unlocking traversal styles to reach, which does somewhat gate a few select locations until later in your adventure, but with the exception of certain water surrounded islands and high peaks, there is usually a footpath that players can walk to, to reach any location they set their eyes on, as early as they want to head there.

There are no NPCs that will tell you to get back on track with the plot, no NPCs gating progression because you’ve done something out of order, and nothing to prevent you messing around with everything beside the plot for hours at a time. There’s a grand scale and scope to environments, with a good density and variety of Pokémon to find and secrets to uncover, helping to ensure that the open world structure feels purposeful, rather than simply there to fill space.

To give an actionable idea of scope, I spent four hours in Pokémon Scarlet, and caught 40 unique species of Pokémon, before heading to the school that opens up the open world properly and starts the three main storylines. There was that much to see and do on essentially the first linear route of the game.

The only thing lacking, which I would have really appreciated, is an option similar to Breath of the Wild’s DLC adventure line, that helps map out where you’ve been in the game during your adventure. This would have really helped with being methodical in exploration, and not missing areas while on my journey.

While there is no defined order that a player is forced to tackle the game’s core objectives, Scarlet and Violet do not feature level scaling, meaning that deliberately setting off for a distant area on the map first will put you face to face with high level creatures, and any creatures that you luckily manage to catch may not obey you if you’ve skipped collecting badges.

The intention is made pretty clear as you adventure, the further up toward the north of the map you head, the stronger the wild Pokemon and trainers you face will become. There is nothing to stop you heading toward those objectives, but the consequences of pushing ahead are clear to understand.

During the bulk of your adventure, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet present players with three main storylines to approach; Tackling the Gym leaders and the Pokémon League, fighting Titan Pokémon for Herba Mystica to make magical sandwiches, and defeating Team Star bases, attempting to take down their overall organisations.

While each of these storylines initially seems narratively basic, and separated from each other, they do eventually come into their own and get pretty interesting, before combining satisfyingly into a wider narrative.

Each of the storylines present in Scarlet and Violet offer a unique narrative and mechanical reward for progress, and understanding what each offers is key to making informed choices about where to prioritise on your journey.

The quest to defeat the Titan Pokémon, giant oversized creatures, and claim the game’s Herba Mystica, is perhaps the most narratively and mechanically significant of the three storylines. While I won’t spoil the narrative surprise of this storyline, which genuinely brought me to tears briefly, the mechanical benefit to this series of missions is unlocking new traversal forms for your game’s chosen box legendary.

If you want Koraidon or Miraidon to be able to sprint, leap, climb, swim, or glide, this storyline is the one to prioritise to unlock those new traversal tools.

While the mechanics involved in this questline are fairly consistent, usually simply involving a battle with a strong Pokémon that possesses an abnormally large health bar, there is some variation involved in how these Titan Pokémon are encountered and tracked down, and the relationships building between yourself, your legendary Pokémon, and NPC trainer Arvin is enough to keep the experience feeling fresh.

While we’re on this topic, I want to state that I absolutely love the way that your Legendary Pokémon, Koraidon or Miraidon, is a tangible part of your adventure, incorporated into the narrative from the start of the game, tied into the story, and made to feel like a character that you’re building a tangible bond with. By the time the game is over, those legendaries honestly felt more like a partner Pokémon to me than my starter did.

Moving on, Operation Starfall, where players battle teams of disaffected teens, offers perhaps the least immediately impactful completion reward, but does offer one of the series more fleshed out and interesting motivations for an antagonist team to date.

Raids on Team Star bases are generally very basic affairs, with the initial section of each base consisting of defeating 30 Pokémon in under ten minutes using the game’s new Let’s Go auto-battle feature.

To explain the feature as clearly as possible, players can press the R button to send a Pokemon from their party out onto the overworld, where it will automatically attack any Pokémon targeted, or nearby. These battles are entirely determined by type advantage and how many levels stronger your Pokémon is than the opponent, meaning that as long as you don’t have a type disadvantage or a level deficit, your Pokémon will likely clear through most auto battles in the game minimally unscathed.

When not taking part in Team Star base encounters, Let’s Go auto-battles are useful for defeating Pokémon, rewarding you with TM crafting items and minimal EXP. They’re also useful for shiny hunting in the post game, where Mass Outbreaks make a return from Legends Arceus, though a little different in their implementation.

Shiny Pokémon do appear shiny on the overworld, but they don’t sparkle visibly or make a sparkling sound when they spawn. Let’s Go won’t knock out a shiny Pokémon, and as such these auto battles can be used to clear through Mass encounters, while also identifying Shiny Pokémon by your team’s refusal to auto battle them.

Returning to the topic of Team Star raids, generally all grunts in these bases will use Pokémon of a single type attribute, meaning that clearing through 30 of their creatures in 10 minutes is very little challenge. Most of the challenge comes from finding 30 to defeat, rather than from actually knocking out the required monsters. It’s inoffensive, but not terribly strategic.

Then, each base ends with a battle with a boss trainer, which is generally where the fun and challenge for this plotline lies. While initial Team Star bases aren’t super challenging, they are all very impressive in the scope and spectacle of their fights, with later bases making clever use of dual type Pokémon who are hard to hit with Pokémon that would typically be strong against the type that the base specialises in.

While this was perhaps the least mechanically satisfying of the storylines, and provided the least immediately useful rewards, I was incredibly personally invested in the story of these teenangers, and their reasons for creating and maintaining Team Star as an organisation. I have a lot of spoiler heavy thoughts about Team Star, and I do plan to write about them in more depth in the coming weeks.

And, finally, let’s talk about the gym challenges, on paper the most traditional part of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s design.

As you travel around Paldea, each gym leader in the region has a unique gimmick to the test required to tackle their gym, that feels uniquely tailored to their personality, and feels like it fleshes out who they are outside of their life as a gym leader.

I want to give a mild spoiler here for one of the early gym leaders, one who has been shown in official trailers, to try and give you a sense of what the variety in these gym challenges feels like. If you want to go in totally unspoiled, skip past the Bold / Italicised portion of the review.

Okay, let’s talk a little bit of spoilers about a single gym leader.

Iono, the electric type Gym leader, is essentially a Twitch streamer. In order to battle her, you have to do a collab on her Twitch channel, and prove that you have enough of a viewership draw to be worth her time. She actively makes reference to the fact that she needs to know that you’re going to be a viewership draw before she will battle you on stream, before then correcting herself and being a bit two faced, and trying to pretend that she “needs to know if you’re passionate” as a cover for the fact that she really just wants, you know, more views.

Players need to complete a series of increasingly challenging “find the NPC tasks”, from the perspective of fixed position CCTV cameras, interspersed with battling her most dedicated Twitch viewer superfans, before battling her live on Stream to win her badge.

This is an example of the level of characterisation seen in the gym challenges in Scarlet and Violet, each mechanically varied, and tied into the personality of the gym leader in their everyday life. These activities prior to battling the gym leaders really help to make them feel like fleshed out characters, and improve their memorability.

Unsurprisingly, the reward for completing gyms is increasing the level of Pokémon who will obey you reliably in battles.

While this does feel a little more like a traditional Pokémon adventure than Legends Arceus did, I do feel like the new formula does work well. Having Operation Starfall, and the Titan battles, sprinkled throughout the adventure provides reliable variation in mechanically, and narratively, how the story progresses. While the gym challenge is pretty straight forward and light on narrative surprises, the other two storylines keep the game focused, and provide emotionally resonant tidbits to keep the game feeling engaging.

The end game narrative, as these stories eventually join together, is some of the most magical and exciting end game content I’ve experienced in a Pokémon story, and laid the groundwork for a world that felt big, and full of mystery, in a way that was genuinely exciting.

I also want to note, before we move on, that the three main NPC companions you’ll be spending your time with in this adventure are all a lot more interesting than the last few generations of player rivals have been. These are not simply characters that you’ll battle, watch them gloat or sulk, then run off. These are characters with their own stories that began before you entered their lives, and who have goals and priorities outside of their journey with the player, which is really refreshing.

However, this feels like a good time to start talking about some of the areas where I feel like Pokémon Scarlet and Violet struggle a little, particularly when in direct comparison to Legends Arceus, which released at the start of this year.

While a lot of the quality of life changes introduced in Arceus are present as options in Scarlet and Violet, such as being able to skip prompts for providing nicknames, sending Pokémon to your box, and learning new moves until later in the pause menu, which do keep the pace of the game fast and minimally interrupted, some aspects of Legends Arceus that I really loved have been removed, or implemented in less polished ways.

In Pokémon Legends Arceus, the Pokédex contained a series of tasks for each species of Pokémon, which could be completed for rewards, such as increased shiny odds for that individual Pokémon. This system of completionist checkboxes has been removed, which I know won’t bother everyone, but for me was one of the most satisfying aspects of Legends Arceus. I’m really sad to see it go, and can only that hope we see it brought back in future titles. It encouraged me to use a lot of species of Pokémon I might not otherwise try out, constantly rotating my team selection, as well as helping point towards specialised moves, and evolution methods for new species.

Additionally, while most of the traversal mechanics of your Ride Legendary function identically to those found in Legends Arceus, one notable downgrade is that, when gliding, your Pokémon will now, after a period of time, start to rapidly descend. You can’t just pick one high point on the map and simply glide forever until you hit the ground, travelling as far horizontally as you like. At a certain point, the game will simply force you toward the ground.

Catching Pokémon without engaging them in battle is also gone, and its absence feels notable. While you can still clear out wild Pokémon quickly using auto battling, it doesn’t feel quite as polished, and makes the world feel a little more transparently like a video game, rather than a living world.

Additionally, while you can manually aim and throw a Pokéball at a wild Pokémon to initiate a battle with a turn of stun, the aiming mechanic is simply worse here than it was in Legends Arceus. There is no aiming reticle present in Scarlet and Violet, and without that aiming reticle it’s often tricky to aim properly at one Pokémon in a group.

As I alluded to at the start of this review, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, even following the game’s day one patch, feels like a game that is screaming out to be ported to slightly more powerful hardware than the current Switch.

Personally, I enjoy the game enough to overlook this in most cases, but the game struggles to hit its 30FPS target, and in many situations drops noticeably below that.

Rain effects, running down hill, and water effects all noticeably impact performance, with “Wild Terra Pokémon on Water” in particular crawling the game’s framerate hilariously low.

Generally the game hovers close to 30FPS, but more than any other game I’ve recently played, this feels like a game that, if we got a Switch Pro revealed in the next year, would be a prime candidate for some kind of performance patch.

Low draw distances, pop in, low texture detail on distant objects, reduced slideshow framerates on background NPCs, and framerate dips are all compromises made to deliver the promise of a truly open world Pokémon game. I think the trade off is worthwhile, but I know for many the level of technical sacrifice required is going to be a much bigger deal than it is for me personally. I can acknowledge the game at times really struggles to achieve its ambitious aims.

Additionally, while I have seen some people assuming from previews of the game that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet have done away with binary gendering of player characters entirely, that isn’t strictly true. While all character customisation options are open to all players, your starting selection of base character model will determine binary gendered pronouns, which cannot be changed once the game has started.

That said, even with those negatives, I still feel that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are largely positive steps forward for the series, particularly for opening up the complexity level, and accessibility, of competitive team composition in the series.

The following thoughts are based on 50 hours with Scarlet, and ten hours with Violet, and may change over time, but are currently how I feel about the competitive structure of these games.

Following on from Sword and Shield’s example, players in Scarlet and Violet can change any stats, on any Pokémon, to make them competitively viable at a later time. Nature mints are back, so are Ability Patches (Now renamed Ability Capsules), and bottle caps, which Pokémon now only need to be level 50 to use. EV improvement items are available right from the start of the game, if you have the cash, and all competitive viability mechanics, including terra types, can be altered after the fact.

So, let’s talk in some depth about Terrastalisation, the new gimmick in Scarlet and Violet.

When you catch a wild Pokémon in Scarlet and Violet, it will have its usual typing, as well as something called a Terratype, which will generally be the same as its primary typing. You can find rare Pokémon, either roaming in the wild or in raid dens, which may have a different terratype, which doesn’t match either of its usual typings.

Once per competitive battle, or in regular gameplay once per visit to the Pokémon centre, one of your Pokémon can terrastalise, transforming either until the end of the battle, until it is withdrawn from battle, or until ir’s knocked out.

When a Pokémon terrastalises, it becomes a monotype Pokémon of its terratype for the purposes of damage dealt to it. If, for example, you took a Mimikyuu, a ghost fairy dual-type, and terrastalised it into a water type, it would no longer be weak to Dark types as a Ghost type, instead being weak to Electric and Grass types as if it were a water type. If you terrastalised into a Ghost type, it would only be a ghost type defensively, not also a fairy type, meaning it would no longer be weak to moves that would usually be effective against fairy types.

In terms of offence, terrastalising a Pokémon doesn’t get rid of any offensive buffs it previously had, only adding in new offensive buffs. If you terrastalised a Mimikyuu into a ghost type, it wouldn’t lose its 1.5x Fairy Same Type Attack Bonus, but its Ghost STAB bonus would increase from 1.5x to 2x. If you terrastalised into a type it previously was not, such as electric type, it would keep 1.5x Stab bonus on ghost moves, and on fairy moves, and also gain 1.5x Stab on Electric moves too.

Terra types can be changed later in the game, by bringing 50 shards of a terra crystal to an NPC in the Normal Gym city, but these resources are tough to come by, meaning that changing to a new Terra type is an investment, and not something you can do regularly on a whim.

Having played a decent amount of the games, I really do like Terrastalising as a competitive mechanic, and think that it has enormous potential. Its ability to switch up your defensive typing without losing current STAB bonuses, as well as the flexibility of increased damage on a wide range of move types really adds an almost overwhelming amount of flexibility to team composition possibilities.

I’m incredibly excited to see what the competitive scene does with Terrastalisation as a mechanic, as I feel like the potential for well timed reads of an opponent, and terrastalisation to counter expected large hits, could be really exciting and unpredictable in high end play.

The only negative that I foresee for competive play in Scarlet and Violet, at the time of writing this review, is that I can’t find an option for players to play the game in Set Mode, where the player doesn’t get a free switch in when a new opposing Pokémon is sent out. It may be that I’ve somehow missed it, or it will exist for competitive but not regular story mode play, but if set mode truly is absent that will be a big negative for the competitive scene.

For those of you interested in shiny hunting, I will have a more in depth article available later this week, but right now here’s what I can tell you.

Picnics replace the daycare for egg breeding. By putting two compatible Pokémon in your party, then starting a picnic, eggs will automatically spawn in your picnic basket, which can be made to happen more quickly by crafting sandwiches in a minigame. The basket can hold up to ten eggs at a time, and eggs collected will automatically go to your boxes. Images showing a shiny egg glowing in the picnic basket earlier this week are fabricated, they’re false. Shiny eggs appear the same as any other eggs when in your basket or box. Also, the masuda method is back, and ditto can be found in the game for breeding purposes.

For non breeding methods of shiny hunting, there is a shiny charm available when you complete your Pokédex, mass outbreaks are back and are visible on the map in the post game. You can clear through mass outbreaks with auto battling, and your Pokémon will shake their head and refuse if told to auto battle a shiny Pokémon.

In the post game, five star raids can provide an item called Herba Mystica as a reward. Using multiple different kinds of these in a sandwich can help raise your shiny odds for 30 minutes, but depending on which sandwich recipe you follow, the type of Pokémon whose shiny odds are boosted will differ. Sandwiches do not increase your shiny odds across the board, as far as I can currently tell.

If autosave is turned off, you can manually save next to a shiny Pokémon, and if you accidentally defeat it or it flees, you can reload your save, and it’ll still be there. You can’t travel large distances away and then travel back, but saving when nearby does work.

Having now finished a first playthrough of Pokémon Scarlet, and having started playing through Violet, I want to make it clear that my overall feelings on the new generation of Pokémon games are very positive, if peppered with caveats. I wish the game ran a little more smoothly, and I miss having little tasks to tick off in my Pokédex, but on first impressions I feel like these new games manage to capture a grand scale of adventure, that truly feels like an open ended story, in a tangible world.

For someone who grew up with the Pokémon series from a young age, and has had an autism special interest hyperfixation with the series from the very earliest years I was playing video games, Scarlet and Violet do feel like they bring to life something magical, the Pokémon world I imagined when I was a child.

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone planning to pick these games up, it would be the following. Don’t rush your way through.

I saw the main credits roll in Scarlet after about 40 hours, but that involved a lot of me sprinting past interesting looking sights, trying to have this review ready to post. I had the most fun with the game when I allowed myself to slow down and explore, taking in sights, and going wherever I saw something interesting. Letting myself get immersed in the journey, rather than trying to see it through as quickly as possible, was when the game felt most magical to me.

Scarlet and Violet are certainly not flawless games, but they are pretty magical experiences. They’re a wonderful step forward for the series, even if there are things dropped from Legends Arceus that I feel like are steps backward. It’s not universally going to replace Legends Arceus as my personal favourite Pokémon game, but it is setting a new benchmark for what this series wants to be, and I am excited for the direction the main series is heading.

Categories: Gaming, Video