Since their release last month, I have been grappling with the latest entries in Nintendo’s golden Goose-dra. So far, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet’s strongest impression on the public has been that they are janky and unpolished beyond our wildest dreams.
Despite this, people have mostly been sharing their eldritch glitches in good humour, and many have stated that this is actually the most fun they have had in franchise history, warts and all. It has not led to critical acclaim, yielding review averages of 73 and 72 between Scarlet and Violet respectively, while the user scores appear even more vitriolic; 2.9 and 3.4 as a result of almost 4,000 ratings.
As always, take those latter scores with a grain of salt. AAA titles will always garner a reactionary response rather than a composed one, and when luminaries such as Johnnybravo812 justify a score of 0 with the statement, “There’s no excuse for a switch game to look this bad. This is a billion dollar company making worse looking games then [sic] solo developers”, you’re right to question their integrity.
Whether or not the game is enjoyable is the factor I kept circling back to during my playthrough. Lacking the pressure of having to construct a proper review, I’ve been able to look past the technical drawbacks. These are not representations of the creative vision, merely byproducts of misplaced resources.
So I asked myself, at its very core, do I like the adventure that Paldea offers?
The answer I eventually landed on, was no. To justify this, however, I have to first give credit to the games’ strengths.
The Pokemon gameplay loop itself has been distilled to such a fine art, that the moment-to-moment interactions are sufficiently gratifying. The three major quest lines, between battling gym leaders, infiltrating Team Star bases and confronting gargantuan world bosses, each feel unique enough to justify their inclusion.
Team Star’s system of running around the field to dispatch of minions before confronting the clan leader atop their sentient automobile is easily the weakest of the three, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome and serves as a competent palate cleanser.
Meanwhile, though the Titan Pokemon may just be scaled-back facsimiles of the raid bosses, they are very much worth it to discover Arven’s true motivations. It is by far the finest storytelling we’ve yet seen in a franchise where narrative is typically lacking.
This generation’s gimmick of Terastallizing your Pokemon to change its typing is also a more interesting tactical ploy than the preceding Dynamax/Gigantamax combo. I haven’t ventured onto the competitive scene yet, but I suspect it won’t prove as oppressive as the tiresome kaiju wars that overwhelmed Sword and Shield’s metagame.
Try as I might, I feel as though this is where my praise ends. I might be nitpicking, but the monsters available haven’t won me over, by and large, and handcuffing egg hatching to the picnic feature overcomplicates what has for years become a streamlined system.
My major grievance with Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is that the open world itself is simply bland and lifeless, and traversing its biomes is a chore rather than an experience. Throughout Pokemon history, the routes that separate the destination cities have done the heavy lifting, as far as immersion goes.
Whether you’re fending off Team Rocket grunts at Mt. Moon or winding your way through the twilight maze of Glimwood Tangle, the location has felt purposeful. Sometimes, you’re left gasping for air as your team are on their last legs, with the arrival at the end point’s Pokemon Centre proving a satisfactory conclusion.
Paldea does not have this. From atop your steed, you are left to roam largely flat and open plains, dotted with wandering Pokemon and the occasional trainer who won’t bother you unless you press the issue first.
The attempt at a cave system, dividing Alfornada from the mainland, functions exactly as it does in the outside world. There are some walls that offer a cursory sense of exploration, but that’s it. Dodge the wild Pokemon, challenge a trainer if you’re so inclined, repeat. It is in no way impactful, and I doubt I will remember its presence for long.
The cities themselves don’t fare much better. I’m used to stakes being risen in this series’ townships, with at least a few flagship locations that stand out. For all the in-game hype generated towards Mesagoza, it pales in comparison to the spectacle of Castelia City or Lumiose City.
Winding back the clock a bit, I remember how stunned I was at first that the Game Boy Color’s Pokemon Trading Card Game lacked an overworld, and movement from place to place upon the map was immediate. In hindsight, of course this was the case — you aren’t going to go hunting for wild trading cards in the long grass, after all — but after the initial shock, I barely noticed it.
The design worked, because it was applied with consideration for what would amplify the core experience. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet have completely lost track of this, superficially bloating its scope by dotting its features across the map.
The point of an open world is to feel alive, with little nooks and crannies to discover. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild not only looked better and ran smoother on the same hardware almost six years ago, but it was rich with content. A little village and its denizens to meet, or a monster stronghold to topple. A walk off the beaten path was rewarded with something new, whereas in Paldea, you needn’t bother; especially if you stray too far from where you’re supposed to be, marked with a precipitous uptick in enemy Pokemon levels.
My biggest concern is that, in my opinion, this downward trend has become more apparent with each passing generation. I consider Black and White to be the series’ high point, and after enjoying X and Y, found myself disillusioned with what Alola had to offer. Sword and Shield then claimed that dishonour, and now Scarlet and Violet have snatched the wooden spoon with almost a perverse sense of pride.
Fortunately, history dictates that we will now have a brief cooldown period between mainline titles. The Game Boy Advance excluded, each new Nintendo handheld brought two unique generations to the table, and all going well, between this, Legends of Arceus and the Pearl/Diamond remakes, Game Freak will at last be given a chance to take the foot off the pedal.
What we keep seeing is innovation at the expense of fundamentals, and while Sword and Shield’s cumbersome shortcomings were most present in the competitive facet, Scarlet and Violet have seen fit to sacrifice the main experience, as well. If this is the price of ambition, it might be time to blow the whole thing up, piecing it back together with just the basic elements of what makes a Pokemon game fun.
Until this happens, I will only consider them to be a secondary offering from Nintendo; a necessary evil that ensures my Pokedex always remains 100% complete.