Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Review
Gosh, what can I say about Pokémon Scarlet and Violet? I’m very much in two minds about this game. On the one hand, as you’ve probably seen in trailers, the performance of the title is very very rough. On the other… it’s probably the best Pokémon game I’ve played in years. Maybe ever.
For some 20-odd years now, mainline Pokémon games have had pretty similar story beats. There’s an evil team causing trouble, there’s a world-ending threat on the horizon, and you, a 10-year-old child, must solve all of these problems, all while finding time to squeeze in a few gym challenges here and there. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are different.
Gone are the global catastrophes and cartoonishly evil end-game bosses, replaced with a story that focuses on what Game Freak does best: characterisation. Scarlet and Violet are packed with character-driven storytelling, with three distinct storylines on offer that all deliver an incredibly strong story to vibe with. I’ll start with the gym challenge story.
See, this is the part of the game that feels the most like a Pokémon game. You’ve been tasked with defeating eight gym leaders, collecting eight badges, and taking on the champion to become a champion in your own right. It’s nothing mind-blowing or surprising, all the right beats are here, but it is elevated by some really lovely characters. Your rival, Nemona, is a neighbour and a friend, but she’s not the friendly, do-nothing rival you’ve come to expect in recent generations.
Nemona is no Hau, no Hop. She’s an accomplished trainer, with a fever for battling, and she’s also already reached champion rank. Yup, your rival is a god-damn champion. It’s a nice turnabout on what’s become a fairly tired trope for the series at this point, and it pays off handsomely in the league storyline. Instead of your rival plodding along, covering the same beats you do, Nemona is off doing her own stuff, only popping in every now and then to cheer you on and test your skills a bit. It’s an incredibly compelling dynamic.
There’s no “oh no I lost a battle and now I’m sad” storyline for Nemona, as we saw with, ahem, other rivals in the past. She’s not trailing in the footsteps of somebody else like Hop and Hau both did with Leon and Hala, respectively. She’s a damn good trainer, and she knows it. So why is she following you around? Because she’s bored. Because she longs for a challenge and right now, nobody’s got the skills to take her down. She wants you to win, to get stronger, to fight back like nobody else has before. She’s a battling prodigy who swept through the region’s strongest trainers without a second thought, and she thinks you’ll be the same.
Despite the gym challenge storyline being the more subdued of the three, it’s hard not to like Nemona. There’s other characters along the way that you’ll meet, and they’re great too, but Nemona is the main draw here. She’s encouraging and hopeful for you, and it genuinely feels like she cares about how well you’re doing. She’s written in such a way that you can’t help but want to get stronger. If it’s not obvious enough yet, I think Nemona is probably the best rival in the series, and her section of the story might not be the most mind-blowing, but it is the most satisfying when you finally get through it all.
Next up on the list is the Titan storyline. I was coming into this expecting it to be a lot less intense than it was. In my mind, there were a bunch of giant, rampaging Pokémon, I probably had to defeat them to prevent people getting hurt, and that would be about the extent of story involvement. Boy was I wrong.
The Titan storyline is focused on a character called Arven, and unfortunately, I can’t actually talk all that much about his specific backstory. Suffice to say though, it’s deeply affecting, and there were parts of the Titan storyline outside of the actual Titan battling that made me sob like a baby. Yup, a Pokémon game of all things had such good writing, such good characterisation, and more importantly, such good restraint, that it made me physically emotional on more than one occasion. A fair warning to anyone jumping into this blind, too: this storyline is laser-focused on making pet-owners feel a lot of very strong emotions.
Now, sure, there is all the stuff about defeating gigantic Pokémon too, and that’s a bit… y’know, whatever, you hit the big Pokémon and win. But it’s those moments of downtime between those fights, where it’s just you and Arven and a couple Pokémon hanging out, chatting about the past, figuring out the future, that’s where Pokémon Scarlet and Violet shines. Like most characters in these games, Arven is a character with great depth. He’s a conflicted character, a polarising character. He’s not perfect, and he never feels same-y, because we see him in such a range of emotional states that he feels real. Well, not quite real exactly, he’s still a character in a game, but he’s an extremely good character in a game that I grew quite fond of throughout its runtime, despite mostly hating at first.
And that brings us to the last of the storylines, the Team Star path. I wasn’t actually sure what to expect with this one — on the surface, it looks like your standard “evil team kinda sucks so go beat them up” story. But… it’s not that, not really. It is a little bit that, but there’s a lot of depth to it all, too. A lot of comedy as well, from an extremely surprising source. I won’t give it away, but when a certain character first appeared on screen, I actually burst out laughing due to the sheer absurdity of it all.
If you’ve played any Pokémon game since Sun and Moon, you’ll know that this whole “evil team” thing rarely works out that way, and with recent games we’ve started to see Game Freak expand on the role these teams take. Scarlet and Violet take the framework laid by Sun and Moon’s Team Skull and run with it, giving us a group of “villains” that are some of the most interesting and complex characters that the series has to offer. I can’t say much more without giving it all away, but I will say that I’m glad there were moments of comedy to break up some of the intense character-driven work done in this storyline.
While these stories are largely separate and segmented from each other, there are moments where it comes together to make it all a very cohesive experience. I can’t go into too much detail on that, for many reasons, but the set-up throughout the game is very much worth the payoff. Your motivations for moving through the story are plenty, and there’s always the mystery of the great Paldean crater looming at the center of the region, waiting to be uncovered, but spending time with some absolutely lovely characters is really at the core of the Scarlet and Violet experience, and it works incredibly well.
So! Now that the story’s out of the way, and we know that I absolutely loved the vast majority of it, let’s talk about the gameplay. Scarlet and Violet are sort of a strange mix between recent games in terms of gameplay — it’s a big step up from Sword and Shield, but also not quite as extreme in its differences as Legends Arceus. Let’s talk about the biggest change though: the open world.
Yup, The Pokémon Company hasn’t been lying to you about what Scarlet and Violet are, this is absolutely a big, connected, open-world game. There’s a couple of very tiny exceptions, like the game’s big hub city, but other than that, you can walk from any place in Paldea to any other place in the region without ever hitting a load screen. It’s not like Legends Arceus, which had a series of different open areas segmented by loading screens, it’s a full fat, “if you can see it you can go to it”, open-world game.
It’s a pretty damn good open world, too. I’ve been a bit harsh on games like Breath of the Wild in the past, primarily because while they have big open worlds, they always feel a little bit empty. I don’t think Scarlet and Violet have that problem. The world is absolutely bustling with Pokémon, all out there living their own lives, doing their own things. They tend to spawn in interesting patterns too, with a lot of variability in what those patterns can bring. You’ll quite often see a Mankey snoozing at the foot of a tree, or a Growlithe fighting off a horde of Skiddo, or a group of baby Hoppips huddled around their mama Skiploom.
There’s plenty to see and do around the region, too. Of course, you can hunt down rare Pokémon, it’s a Pokémon game, but there’s items scattered about to pick up, towers and structures to poke around in, caves to explore. It’s all a lot of fun, and it’s extremely easy to just get lost in the world and spend hours wandering around. At one point, I told myself that tonight was the night I was going to take on the last Titan… and then I spent five hours wandering around, catching wild Tera Pokémon, looking for shiny Pokémon, and just generally seeing what the region had to offer.
Having access to Koraidon, your trusty steed and adorable little dragon lad, so early in the game means that moving around in the region is a heck of a lot of fun. You won’t have access to all of its movement abilities right away, you’ll have to do some story stuff for that, but even just being able to hop on for a ride and zoom around the region right away is a big impetus for exploration. Koraidon plays a pretty big part in some of the story too, as you’d probably expect, and I love him so much. The poor little guy just needs a little bit of love and care.
The game’s progression benefits a lot from the open world, too. You can do any of the game’s gyms, Titan fights, or Team Star battles in whatever order you like. Want to take on the hardest gym first? You can do that. You won’t have a fun time, and your Pokémon will absolutely get thrashed, but if that’s what you want to do, then go for it. You can choose to go down one path at a time, knocking out the gym challenge path in its entirety before ever setting foot in a Team Star base, or you can mix it up a bit. I planned to do the former, taking on a few Titans in a row, but there’s a small caveat that made me default to doing the latter instead and mixing my activities — there’s a level cap, and if your Pokémon hit that cap, they won’t listen to you anymore.
This has been a thing in previous games as well, but tended only to affect traded Pokémon. Here, every Pokémon stops listening if it’s a higher level than the cap. To raise the cap, you need to get gym badges, so if you’re planning on doing one story at a time, it’s in your best interest to do all the gym challenges first. That said, there’s so many fantastic new Pokémon to play with, and doing each of these stories separately rather than mixing them up gives a really interesting incentive to switch up your team with each storyline. Obviously, once you finish the gym storyline, you’ll be sitting on a team of level 60+ Pokémon, which is probably a bit overkill for the entire rest of the other storylines.
Which actually brings me to my next point: there’s no level scaling for the activities in the game. If you rush to the final gym the moment you start your journey, you’ll be facing Pokémon in the 50+ range, and you will get your butt handed to you. I know a lot of people won’t be particularly happy with this, preferring that each important activity in the game scales depending on your Pokémon levels or how many badges you’ve got, but I actually prefer this kind of progression. As fun as it would be to see a Bug gym leader with level 55 Pokémon, having specific level ranges for specific fights means that those on the high end feel appropriately epic, thematically. It’d feel a little weird for me, personally, if I toughed it out to reach the top of an icy mountain to take down the Ice gym leader Grusha, only for him to send out a level 10 Bergmite.
Another benefit of forgoing scaling is that it allows you to make your own challenges. I did this a few times, taking on gyms and Star bases that weren’t the “intended” next challenge in the list. One of these was accidental, because I wasn’t sure what the next challenge was actually supposed to be, but after the rush of that first one and coming up with better strategies to take it down, I started doing it more and more. Sure, it meant that when I went back to the actual intended challenges, they weren’t particularly difficult, but if every challenge was scaled to match my level, those kinds of stories of triumph wouldn’t be possible. Again, it won’t be for everyone, and I accept that some players would’ve much preferred to have proper level scaling, but for me it worked out just fine.
And then we come to the nitty-gritty of the review, a bunch of small things that don’t ultimately mean much in isolation, but contribute overall to the experience — for better or for worse. I like very much that character customisation is not even the slightest bit gender-locked. Every outfit, accessory, and hairstyle is available to whichever body form you pick. That’s great! It means that the form you do pick only affects the pronouns other characters use for you. There’s unfortunately no option for they/them pronouns, however, something that other games have gotten pretty good at, but Pokémon is still a bit lacking in. It’s a small step forwards, at least.
I’m much less a fan of what I would call a series of quality of life regressions, some of which are completely and utterly nonsensical. For example, shiny Pokémon no longer sparkle or make a noise on the overworld, despite their shiny colouration appearing just fine. Why? What purpose does that serve? The system worked fine in Legends Arceus, and for colourblind people like me, it was absolutely crucial. It’s not something that needed to be changed, and I cannot understand the reasoning behind it.
There’s also some weird stuff to do with menus. In a battle, the game no longer remembers the position of your cursor in the move menu between each turn, so if you’re in a long battle and you’re not using the top move in the list, you’ll have to scroll all the way down each turn. Every Pokémon game for like 25 years has remembered the battle cursor position, so it’s absolutely bonkers that this one somehow doesn’t. Healing a Pokémon using items is similarly strange — recent games would let you select an item, say a Potion, and then go down the list one by one without having to reselect the item in between. Or you could pick a lower level item like an Oran Berry and spam it to heal up a Pokémon, to save yourself from using up a more expensive item you’re saving for a big fight.
Instead, you now have to select the item each time, and then select the Pokémon, and then do it all again once the item is used up. There is an option to auto-heal, though it’s only for one Pokémon at a time, so that’s nice, but if half my team is paralysed after a tough fight, I’d really like to be able to go through the list quickly with healing items rather than tediously doing it one by one.
You also can’t move held items between your Pokémon on the main menu. You can add or remove them, but if you want to move an item from one Pokémon to another without it hitting the bag, you’ll have to open up the boxes menu. And there’s no search option in the Poké dex, from what I can tell at least, so you have to scroll through the entire list each time you want to see a specific ‘dex entry. Again, a really strange decision. Another strange decision is the inability to turn off move animations. I actually quite like move animations, but if I’m going to grind up a Pokémon or hunt for a specific Pokémon while I grind, I’d like to be able to turn off some of the longer move animations in battle.
None of these issues are a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, but they don’t make any sense. Why would anyone decide that this was a better way to do things? Some of these removed features have been standard in the games for over twenty years, they were clearly working well for players, so why are they not here? I just don’t understand the reasoning behind excluding objectively worthwhile quality of life options. Small issues, as I said, but they add up to a lot of frustration over time.
And I guess while I’m being negative, it’s probably a good time to talk about performance. It’s bad. Worse than Legends Arceus, about the same as Sword and Shield at that game’s worst. There are pretty constant frame drops in most areas, and it gets even worse when there’s a lot of stuff happening like rain or other effects. A solid 30fps is rare, and that’s pretty unfortunate. It’s by no means unplayable, but it’s not exactly a great look either.
However… I can kind of forgive it, to some degree. I know this makes me sound like a huge apologist, and I promise that’s not what I’m trying to do here, so let me make it clear: the level of performance in this game is not good enough. But, it doesn’t feel like this is the result of extremely poor optimisation or developers being “lazy” as some people seem to throw around a lot. This is a game that’s absolutely gigantic in scope, and it looks amazing visually most of the time. It feels a lot like this is a game that’s just too big in scope for the Switch.
Now, an argument could definitely be made that Game Freak could and probably should have scoped down a bit to fit within the console’s limitations, and I’d generally agree with that. But it is an absolutely incredible game, no two ways about it, warts and all. If you’re susceptible to eye strain and motion sickness due to lower frame rates, this is not the game for you. But if you can generally live with the performance drops, you’ll find a game that easily stands not only above every other Pokémon game in the past, but a lot of other JRPG contemporaries too.
But as I said, so many words ago, this isn’t quite Legends Arceus. You can’t just chuck a ball at a Pokémon in the wild and catch it without a battle. You can, however, use a new feature called Let’s Go mode, which despite the needlessly confusing name, is quite useful. Activating it will let the first Pokémon in your party walk alongside you, and they’ll pick up items and instantly battle random wild Pokémon they come across. It’s a neat little feature for grinding up a Pokémon too, since you can knock out 5-10 Let’s Go mode defeats in the same time it’d take you to finish one or two traditional battles.
There’s also Tera raids, which are a lot of fun and a big step up from Sword and Shield’s raids. Now, granted, I loved the raids in Sword and Shield, but this is just so so much better. Instead of waiting around for each trainer to select their moves, you just use your moves and it happens right away. It’s as if each trainer is in their own battle, fighting at their own pace, but the Pokémon they’re fighting has its HP shared between all of them. It’s very very good.
And wow, somehow I’ve gotten this far without talking about Terastallizing. That’s a pretty neat mechanic too! It allows you to change the type of a Pokémon, once per battle. Or you can double down on its existing type, and make the same-type attack bonus even more powerful. Most random Pokémon you come across will have a Tera type that matches one of their regular types, but there are some rare wild Teras that have different Tera types, and most raids feature a Pokémon with a different Tera type, too. There are a lot of Pokémon that are extremely interesting but, let’s face it, have crummy typing (looking at you, every single Ice Pokémon ever), so this is a great way to get more out of a Pokémon that otherwise would struggle a bit. Or you can amp up an existing good Pokémon to absurd levels. Competitive play is going to be extremely varied and fun, and I can’t wait to check it all out.
Of course, I’d be remiss to talk about a new Pokémon game without talking about the new Pokémon in it. I can’t particularly talk in-depth about most of them, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could, because part of the charm of a new Pokémon game is discovering new Pokémon for yourself. Having said that, this is easily one of my favourite generations for Pokémon designs, with almost every single Pokémon an absolute banger. There’s one or two misses, for me, but most of them are absolutely great. And there’s a lot of cool stuff going on with existing Pokémon too, that I’ll also leave you to discover for yourself. Trust me, you’re probably gonna love it.
Oh and another thing, just to throw one last negative into the pile before we finish up, there’s a few bugs in the game as it stands. Things were definitely improved by the day one patch, but there’s still a couple of lingering issues that will undoubtedly need to be fixed in future updates. Most of them are extremely tiny things, which won’t really affect the experience at all, but one kept popping up for me that was a bit annoying. In Tera raids, sometimes if you’re the first Pokémon to hit the raid Pokémon, it won’t show the damage you dealt to the Pokémon on the big health bar at the top of the screen. You definitely did do damage, and you can see it when you select a target for a move, but the big health bar will remain weirdly bugged for the rest of the raid. It’ll go down on subsequent hits, but then it’ll look like the Pokémon is at half health when it faints. It’s weird!
There’s probably so much more that I could talk about, like the whole picnic thing that lets you eat foods that boost the likelihood of some things happening, or the way that Star bases work, or the incredible minigames that come with gym challenges. But honestly, there’s so much going on in Scarlet and Violet, and it’s really at its best when it’s discovered, rather than told to you. I’ve also written almost 4000 words at this point and my wrists are aching, so let’s finish up.
There’s no doubt that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are the best in the series. The open world is fantastic, the story is incredible, and the game looks amazing, even if the performance is very rocky. There are problems, and quality of life issues, but for every negative there’s a dozen more positives that blew me away every step of the way. It will be divisive, but for me, it’s almost everything I want from a Pokémon game.
+ Open world is absolutely incredible
+ Touching, thoughtful storytelling
+ Every new Pokemon is great
- The performance is quite bad
- Heaps of weird QoL regressions
- A few bugs left to be quashed