What’s your treasure?
That’s the puzzling question that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet asks its students after a boring but innocent tutorial section. An hour after leaving my mom’s house in a sunny seaside town, I’m suddenly living in a castle, working three internships, and told to find my life’s purpose.
It’s an exciting pivot from the linear path laid in front of you in past Pokémon games, and it fundamentally changes how you approach the experience. By the fourth boss, I knew my usual strategy of battling Pokémon in the grass until my starter was overpowered enough to one-hit KO everything wouldn’t work. Instead, I caught the equivalent of the Alaskan Bull Worm, benched my useless but cute psychic fairy, and spent a small fortune on Super Potions to battle a slightly higher-level opponent.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet gives you more choices than ever before. In exchange, it expects you to adapt to its half-baked open world and mostly optional new features. These latest games aren’t the great leap forward from Pokémon Legends: Arceus that fans were hoping for, but it is a small step.
A whole new world
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet trade one core story for three.
“Victory Road” follows the typical trainer journey of battling eight gyms and qualifying for the Paldea championships. Plucky student council president Nemona is your biggest cheerleader and rival on your path to Champion. “Path of Legends” puts you in charge of helping upperclassman Arven with his personal research project. “Starfall Street” focuses on delinquent students from Team Star, the equivalent of the many crime syndicates featured in past games. You’ll nred to defeat each Team Star leader to uncover their ultimate goal and learn the organization’s history.
Nemona, Arven, and other characters follow the trend of over-the-top personalities in Pokémon games. They also have unique motivations that feel far more realistic than the “bigger than you!” world domination goals of Team Rocket. Scarlet and Violet do a solid job at creating a sense of mystery and intrigue with some of the characters, and there are enough memorable personalities to keep things interesting.
Scarlet and Violet may be the most open-world Pokémon entry to date, but they are still just “passable” in the genre rather than anything special.
Finding your next task is fairly easy, but despite what the game would have you believe, you can’t really progress in whatever order you want. If the fixed levels of enemies in each of the three main story branches are any indication, then they’re meant to be played in tandem rather than one at a time. These built-in limitations break the illusion of choice because it’s difficult (or too easy) to progress unless you consistently drift between the story branches. A more robust level scaling system here could have gone a long way to making the experience more player-driven.
Learning from Legends
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet take many of their open-world cues from Pokémon Legends: Arceus but differ enough that it feels like a further evolution for the franchise. Also, while interesting, the new features here don’t add much value to the overall experience.
Pokémon wander about the wilderness and react differently to the player depending on the species. A little Fidough might offer a confused “?” but an angrier monster will charge right at you. This alone is a welcome change from the classic random encounters of older games.
Catching these wild Pokémon is important, not just for filling out a Pokédex but for gaining a type advantage on the next boss in your itinerary. Scarlet and Violet quickly prove how convenient it is to replace party members because the wild Pokémon power creep is more potent than traditional XP progression. It’s easier to catch a new stronger Pokémon than raise an under-leveled monster you left in a box for a couple of hours. (This is ironic for a franchise so focused on strengthening the bonds between a trainer and their Pokémon.)
That difference does freshen the gameplay, however, pushing players to keep shifting their team composition around rather than stick with six — something I’m glad it took from Arceus. Unfortunately, it also adopted some of its predecessor's issues.
Glitches and fluff
Scarlet and Violet suffer from similar visual glitches that appeared in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, such as character models moving like they came out of a paper animation booklet flipped in slow motion rather than a triple-A game in 2022. The camera occasionally flips at an awkward angle during battle, so you can’t see your Pokémon or the opponent. The sky might look great, but the bland, patchy grass doesn’t. And sometimes, when you emerge out of a shop, the camera will rotate a full 180 degrees, so you wind up marching right back in on accident.
These latest games also show off experimental new systems. There’s the TM Machine, which lets you craft TMs that can teach your Pokémon new moves by cashing in on materials earned from defeating enemies. “Let’s Go” puts your lead Pokémon on autopilot to attack nearby monsters and pick up items. You can also fast-travel between previously visited Pokémon Centers, which is a first for the series that feels like a genuine upgrade. Another quality of life upgrade: Trainer battles are now totally optional rather than forced, so you won’t be constantly interrupted while exploring. Many of these additions, however, feel like filler and decoration.
Creating TMs sounds fun, but more often than not, your Pokémon will learn better moves on their own. So what’s the point? Similarly, the Let’s Go auto-battle seems convenient at first but often ends up with my monsters crawling back with a depleted HP bar in seconds. It’s too bad, especially since it sounded like a way to passively level weaker Pokémon.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet deliver on the promise of an open-world Pokémon game that does away with the franchise’s grind-focused progression. They take a step forward that fans have wanted to see for years — but it’s not quite far enough. If the next mainline entry eliminates or refines some of the superfluous features while also incorporating some much-needed level scaling, then Pokémon will finally become the best it ever was.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet will be released on November 18, 2022 for Nintendo Switch.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.