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February 2023

Pokémon Scarlet/Pokémon Violet

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: RPG/Action
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: Nov. 18, 2022


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Switch Review - 'Pokémon Scarlet/Pokémon Violet'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 23, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet take an evolutionary step in the Pokémon series, letting trainers can explore an open world where various towns with no borders blend seamlessly into the wilderness.

Buy Pokémon Scarlet

As all such games do, Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet begin in a brand-new region. This time, it is the Spain-inspired Paldea region. Your character has recently moved there and promptly enrolls in the nearby Uva Academy, a school for aspiring Pokémon trainers of all ages. The academy has a rather unusual method of teaching: It sends its students on a region-wide treasure hunt, and their only goal is to find their own personal reason for becoming Pokémon trainers. You set out on an adventure, but of course, there's a lot more to the adventures than meets the eye.

Before you can discuss anything else about Pokémon Scarlet & Violet, you need to address the elephant in the room. These games were very clearly pushed out the door with no time for polish. It isn't unplayable, but it's such an unpolished experience that it negatively impacts the experience. The graphics are unimpressive at the best of times, but despite this, the game's frames per second (fps) is absurdly jerky and inconsistent. When you're about five steps away from the Pokémon, NPC models frequently slip into "low frame" animations that are supposed to be used for long distance. While graphics have never been Pokémon's strongest point, the poor performance is worse than anything else the franchise has put out. Both Sword and Shield and Pokémon Legends: Arceus run much better, despite their flaws.

It's easy to blame this on something like the Switch's aging hardware or the swap to an open-world model. While I'm sure those are contributing factors, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 came out this year and has significantly better visuals with more complex models and busier battle screens; in general, it shows that the Switch can absolutely do much better. This game clearly needed another few months in the oven, but it didn't receive it. Maybe down the line, the developers can patch in improvements. The most glaring problems seem to be fixable, but at this moment, the game is embarrassingly rough.

It's a shame because if it weren't for the roughness, this could be the best Pokémon game in quite some time. There's a ridiculous amount of things that Scarlet & Violet do right, and after spending some time with the game, I was able to focus on the positives instead of the negatives. Those negatives are so severe and central that they're not something you can shrug off, like Shin Megami Tensei V's occasional poor performance.

What does S&V do right? It's the first Pokémon game that can truly be called open world. After a short tutorial segment, you're basically told that you can do whatever you want, and you can genuinely do so. Rather than the standard "follow the plot" setup of the other games, you're given three separate questlines. One is the standard directive to go to different gyms and get badges, and another involves fighting giant Titan Pokémon (who are distinct from Dynamax in … some way). The third involves taking on the delinquent Team Star. You're free to take these on in any way you want. You can do the gyms in any order, fight the Titans in any order, and take on Star's leadership however you'd like.

This makes S&V absolutely welcoming and fun. It's inherently more fun in Pokémon to pick a direction and see what you encounter. Maybe you'll meet a new Pokémon, maybe you'll find a rare item, or maybe you'll take on some trainers. The freedom you're given makes it feel like an adventure — if not for the performance issues.

You're also given a wonderful amount of mobility, sort of like Pokémon Arceus on steroids. The "box Pokémon" of the game serves as your noble steed that you get early in the game. Due to plot reasons, they're too ill to battle, but they can serve as your personal motorcycle — if motorcycles could hop. As you defeat Titans, they'll unlock the ability to swim, glide and even climb mountainsides. Past a certain point, you can go basically anywhere you want.

Difficulty balancing is done by the simple method of default enemy levels increasing as you progress from the Uva Academy. Nearby Pokémon, trainers and gyms are lower levels, but the further you go, the higher the level you'll encounter. However, Pokémon who are above your level are harder to catch, and any newly caught Pokémon won't listen to you in battle unless you have enough gym badges. Most badges increase the level of loyal Pokémon by about five, so it's better to finish a gym if you find yourself often having trouble.

For the most part, this works well. It's still Pokémon and thus not a particularly punishing game, but the freedom means that you can take on harder areas when you want to, rather than when the game feels like it. I went to higher areas to battle Titan Pokémon for mobility options when I was 10-15 levels below them, which made the fights potentially a lot more tense and exciting. Even if Pokémon is easy, you have more freedom than ever to find your own challenges.

The battle system in Pokémon hasn't changed very much, and many of the same familiar tricks are still there. As has become standard, the Dynamax gimmick from last generation has been shelved in favor of the new Terastallizing mechanic. This mechanic can be done with any Pokémon, but it can only be done once per visit to a Pokémon Center. By Terastallizing your Pokémon, it turns into a rather garish crystal version of itself with a giant crystal "hat" atop its head. Each Pokémon has a "Tera" element, and when in its Tera form, it gains a boost to damage of that element.

What makes this interesting is that the Tera element doesn't have to match the Pokémon's original element. While most Pokémon start with a Tera that matches one of their primary types, you can catch special Pokémon with different Tera types; you can even find ways to change them. This adds a whole new layer of potential to building Pokémon. You can throw out a Pikachu, who Terastalizes into a Flying type. This removes its electric weaknesses and gives it a damage bonus as if it were a natural Flying type. Since there are a variety of Tera types, you'll never quite know what attack your opponent will throw out.

I mostly like Terastalizing as a mechanic. It's a lot more flexible and interesting than Dynamax or Z-Moves, and it's not as biased as Mega Evolutions. The benefits it gives are tangible and interesting enough to justify a once-a-battle limitation, and it's flexible enough that I can't imagine they won't heavily shake up the PvP Metagame. I don't like the effect itself, though. The Pokémon turn extremely shiny and gain a (often dumb-looking) hat, so it doesn't feel nearly as cool as the previous super transformations.

S&V has also seen an absurd amount of small but meaningful quality of life changes. You can now instantly swap out a Pokémon's moves outside of battle, rename them, and even breed them to lay eggs while on the field. You don't have to keep venturing off to Move Learners or Daycares. Enemy trainers no longer instantly aggro; instead, you can battle them whenever you like. You can even swap clothes at any time.

One of my favorite changes is the new auto battle system. You can throw out your Pokémon, and it will instantly engage and auto-fight Pokémon in a certain distance. These battles play out instantly and without your input, and as long as your Pokémon isn't at a huge type or level disadvantage, they'll usually win quickly. You won't have to grind out every single Pokémon battle; instead, you can engage in fights only when you want to capture a Pokémon or feel like your pals need the hands-on help. Combine this with the lack of random encounters, and it's never been easier to walk through tall grass in Pokémon.

There are some annoying steps backward, however. The school setting means that you have to wear a uniform, of which there are precious few types. You can customize your character's face, socks, shoes, hats and backpack, but the limited clothing options feel like a huge misstep after the previous games. Maybe this was a concession to the game's performance, but I would've loved more uniform options.

Once again, technical machines (TMs) are now frustratingly single-use, after a good long period when they could be used as often as you like. You have to craft TMs using items dropped by Pokémon. Any time you find or are given a TM, it becomes permanently available to craft, so it isn't a huge frustration, but it feels pointless. I get that the developers wanted to add a reason to battle random Pokémon more (and auto-battle makes it trivial to grind for materials), but the previous system worked just fine, and the new one feels like offering a solution for a problem that it had created.

By and large, Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet are fun. It's telling that I had a lot of fun with them despite the absolutely unforgivable performance problems. The basis for an extremely strong and engaging Pokémon game is here, but it's out in the wild without the extra months of development that it still needed to improve performance issues. If you're willing to forgive some jank for an otherwise great Pokémon experience, then you'll have a great time. Otherwise, it's probably worth skipping until it gets some patches. Even die-hard Pokéfans might have trouble getting past seeing their favorite Pokémon crawling along at five fps.

Score: 7.0/10

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