Pokemon Scarlet And Violet Review: "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"

Pokemon Scarlet And Violet Review: "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"
Images via Nintendo

Written by 

Dave McAdam

Published 

28th Nov 2022 18:05

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the latest products released by the Pokemon Company, which may or may not be true, chances are a Pokemon Squishmallow has been released in the days since. These games represent the ninth generation of the mainline series, a tradition dating back to the original Pokemon Red and Blue. In the interim 26 years, Pokemon has become one of the biggest media properties on the planet, a fact that does little to explain the state in which Pokemon Scarlet and Violet have been released to the world.

Generation Nine, Game One Hundred And Twenty-Two

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Pokemon games have always had a fairly quick turnaround time, with each generation of main titles hitting store shelves three to four years after the previous. There have been myriad spinoffs, remasters and remakes, to the point that the total number of Pokemon video games is well over a hundred. So why is it that after all this time, with a clockwork consistency of releases, it feels like Pokemon might have just hit a major speed bump?

For almost any other franchise, the number of new games that Pokemon releases would be cause for concern. It wasn't that long ago that many bemoaned the yearly release of Assassin's Creed games, a paltry number by Pokemon standards. For example, we had a major Pokemon release in Pokemon Legends: Arceus in just January of this year, and here we are 11 months later with a brand new generation of mainline Pokemon games that, at the time of Arceus' release, hadn't even been announced.

Since its inception, Pokemon has been almost exclusively a handheld series. Many home console games were made over the years, but the main series never left the smaller screen. Thanks to the Switch, Pokemon was effectively forced to fully embrace the home console. The first new generation tasked with this was Pokemon Sword and Shield, which made many big steps forward for the franchise. The groundwork was in place and plain to see, Pokemon was moving towards bigger, more open worlds. Pokemon Legends Arceus continued this trend, giving players multiple large, open areas to explore.

For Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, the term "open-world" has become the focal point. This is a truly new generation of Pokemon games, the Paldea region is freely explorable and players can go in any direction they want. The ninth generation is the biggest, most ambitious undertaking in the history of the series, yet somehow, in many ways, it feels like an anachronistic, poorly-optimised mess.

...Two Steps Back

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Word of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet's poor performance has met just about every set of ears on the planet at this point, so it hardly seems worth it to fixate. Simply put, I played the game and it was buggy, glitchy, and very, very framey. The camera consistently clips through the world, and there are regular visual glitches that appear like your screen is broken. The frame rate was consistently below twenty, only really improving in remote areas of the map where not a lot was happening. these are not isolated incidents, I have yet to hear from anyone else who hasn't been having a similar experience with these games.

Worse still are the choppy animations. Seeing characters in the distance with the framerate of a flip book is one thing, but when you have to get within ten feet of them for the animation to smooth out at all, something is seriously wrong. There is a lot to like about the look of the game. Visiting the sweet little town of Artazon for the first time is a potentially wonderful moment, undercut by the windmill in the middle of the town turning at four frames per second, and the mountains in the background textured like they came straight from the Nintendo 64.

That brings us to the heart of the problem; you can clearly see an amazing Pokemon game in there, but it is buried under technical issues. Some endeavouring folks have already cracked and modded the game on PC to make it run at 60 frames per second, and that game looks amazing. However, it is not the job of the fans to finish developing the game.

No Good Reason Why

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To say Pokemon brings in a lot of money for the Pokemon Company and its parent companies is like saying the tide brings in a lot of sand. Pokemon is the definition of a multi-media juggernaut, the games may be its origin but it has long since felt like they are the most important piece of the pie. That seems ludicrous considering how Pokemon games are consistently top sellers, but in terms of revenue, they are eclipsed by the merchandise sales and bring in comparable money to the trading cards.

The point I am getting at, is that Nintendo, Creatures, Game Freak, and the Pokemon Company do not lack the financial resources to make great Pokemon games. In terms of talent, we have seen many amazing Pokemon games over the years, and it is not like Nintendo has been slacking in their other games. The only resource remaining, the only one that seems likely to be the cause of the issues, is time.

This is purely speculative, but it stands to reason to suggest that Pokemon games getting bigger and better, being built for more powerful hardware and attempting to reach technical standards they simply never had to before, and doing so in the same time frame that they made games for the GameBoy through to the 3DS, would seem unrealistic. Games are taking longer and longer to make, particularly big-budget triple-A games. Pokemon is a huge franchise with massive expectations, how those expectations can be met in such a short time is a mystery. Harder still, not only is Game Freak trying to make bigger and better Pokemon games, but they are making more of them at once.

This would seem to account for how we can get two Pokemon games in one year, both play quite similarly, but one is performing much worse than the other. Arceus was by no means a perfect game, but of the things that both Arceus and Scarlet and Violet do, Arceus did them so much better. I had to go back to it to confirm, but that game definitely runs and plays much better than the new-generation games. By comparison, Arceus feels like the real leap forward of the two.

The whole situation screams of mismanagement and overworked developers, and it begs the question. Do we need new Pokemon games quite so quickly? There has not been a calendar year without some significant Pokemon video game or expansion since 2015, and it feels like Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are symptoms of the issue. The talent is there, but the time is not.

For All Their Faults

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That really is the biggest shame about these games, just how good they really are. The review scores for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet do not seem to reflect the broken and buggy games that they are, but that just goes to show how much the good parts shine through. There is no better move to make for the Pokemon franchise than to go open-world. For years, the concept of a Pokemon game on a more powerful machine has been so often wished for by fans. A game where you can freely explore and see Pokemon walking around the world. This wish is granted by Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, but it turns out to be a monkey's paw rather than a genie's lamp.

Beyond the general framework of being an open-world Pokemon game, Scarlet and Violet have plenty more great additions. Breaking the main story into three quests is a wonderful idea, and reaffirms the "go where you want" nature of the game. You can take on the traditional gym and Pokemon League system, you can seek out and defeat giant boss-style Pokemon called Titans, and you can take on an antagonistic group of rebellious youths called Team Star.

All these things that you might expect to do in previous games, but the open nature of how you approach them completely changes the game. You are not forced in any one direction, the open world is your teacher on where to go. The game shares similarities to Elden Ring in that, you can feasibly go anywhere, but you will encounter tougher enemies by travelling too far too early. It is open-world level design at its purest, and it is done very effectively in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

The last few generations of Pokemon games have each had some kind of battle gimmick, like Mega Evolutions in Pokemon X and Y, or Dynamax in Pokemon Sword and Shield. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are no different, introducing a new concept called Terastalization. Each Pokemon has a Tera Type, a type which the Pokemon adopts when it is Terastalized in battle. While in this form, any moves the Pokemon uses of its Tera Type do massively increased damage.

What is particularly interesting about this is that Tera Types do not necessarily correspond to the base type of the Pokemon. Most fire-type Pokemon you encounter will likely have a fire Tera Type, but that isn't always the case. As such, many Pokemon can take on Tera Types beyond their basic typing, allowing them to use different attacks and do so much more effectively. Why this is so interesting is that, unlike the previously mentioned features, Terastalizing plays around with the concept of Pokemon types, leading to some potentially very powerful combinations. While none of these "gimmicks" have stuck around for longer than a single game, Terastalization feels like the first that just might.

Another great step in the right direction is the inclusion of up to four-player co-op. You can play Pokemon Scarlet and Violet with friends for almost the entirety of the game. The only way you can directly team up is in Tera Raid Battles, this game's version of the Gigantamax Raid Battles from Pokemon Sword and Shield. These are boss fights where four players (or NPCs when playing offline) take on one powerful Terastailized Pokemon together. These battles can be a great source of powerful Pokemon with unusual Tera Types, the higher tiers of which make a big part of the endgame challenge.

Outside of Tera Raid Battles, you and your friends can explore Paldea together. The gameplay benefits of doing so are minimal, but the freedom with which you have to play together is wonderful. Playing Pokemon with a friend, being physically present in each other's games, feels like a fitting evolution to hanging out with your friend as a kid, playing Pokemon together on your Game Boys.

One technical aspect of the games that I find no fault with is the audio. Every aspect of the game sounds fantastic, the ambient sounds of nature, the calls of the wild Pokemon, it's all great stuff. I particularly love the commitment to the classic calls of some of the older Pokemon, it sounds a bit jarring when a Growlithe comes at you with its bit-crushed growl, but it makes for a lovely bit of nostalgia.

Pokemon games are well known for their iconic music, but no Pokemon game in recent years comes close to how good the music is here. There are some extremely catchy melodies, ones that are likely to stick in your ear and the back of your mind for years to come. It comes as little surprise then to learn that Undertale developer and, more specifically, composer, Toby Fox worked on the music for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet.

A new generation means new Pokemon, something that has been an issue for many of the more recent generations. You can only make so many Pokemon before you end up retreading much of the same ground, which has led to many of the recent games scaling back the number of new Pokemon introduced. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet seem to have reached a nice new balance with adding Pokemon.

The focus is less on the number of new Pokemon, and more on making the new monsters matter. From the early game, you meet new Pokemon like Lechonk and Fidough, which are adorable new additions. Then there are more impactful new monsters like Cetitan or Charcadet. As well as the brand new designs, you get new forms that reimagine existing Pokemon. Wiglett is a water-type form of Diglett, and Toedscool is a ground/grass-type variation of Tentacool. Then you have the strange new Paradox Pokemon, which we shall not spoil here as they are involved in the endgame, but suffice it to say, they are very cool.

It's Still Pokemon

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To sum up Pokemon Scarlet and Violet as a whole, you could say they are what you get if you take the exact kind of game you expect from Pokemon, add great new features like an open world and multiplayer, but throw in the caveat of very poor performance. Strip away those things, and the core of these games is precisely what it has always been, and that foundation is still solid. You could explain away the poor performance by suggesting you can get used to it, but you could use the same rationality for getting punched in the arm. Just because you don't feel the pain after a while, doesn't make the punching okay.

Not only is the core of what makes Pokemon great still in there, but you can see what will make Pokemon great in the future shining through. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet should have been a huge step towards that bright future, and that misstep is maybe the biggest letdown about them. There is still so much to love about these games, evidenced by the fact that they are the fastest-selling Pokemon (and Nintendo) games of all time, but they are not above criticism.

It is clear that changes need to be made, these games are an undoubted success but they are likely to give pause to many fans before jumping in to buy the next game. For the future of the Pokemon series, the wasted potential of these games needs to be a bump in the road, not the beginning of a downward spiral. Many games have launched in nowhere near as bad a state as Pokemon Scarlet and Violet and have been rightly lambasted for it, Pokemon should be no different.

3.5/5

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

Dave McAdam
About the author
Dave McAdam
Dave is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon, after several years of freelancing across the industry. He covers a wide range of games, with particular focus on shooters like Destiny 2, RPGs like Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, and fighting games like Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 8.
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