It was the best of games, it was the worst of games. It was the age of GameCube graphics landscapes, it was the age of beautiful HD character models. It was the epoch of 20 frames per second, it was the epoch of dragon motorcycles. It was the season of falling through the map, it was the season of having access to all attacks at any time. It was the spring of well designed crafting systems, it was the winter of not being able to go in any buildings.
Pokemon has been a constant part of my life since I received a GameBoy Color and Pokemon Blue for Christmas when I was just three years old. It was my first video game ever, and has stayed close to my heart ever since. As I grew up, I played every Pokemon game, most of them on release, so I’m about as deep of a lifelong fan as you could be. That is precisely why, just minutes in, I can see that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is going to be the toughest title I’ve written about in my three-plus years of reviewing games. As always, this review will reflect my own experience with the game. Please note that with a game as buggy, glitched out, and unfinished as this, that your mileage will vary.
Leaving behind the cold foothills and dreary lochs of the UK-inspired Galar, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet takes us to the warm plateaus and sunny seas of a fictionalized Spain known as Paldea. This new region promises brand new cultures, foods, characters, towns, climates, fashions, traditions, and of course new monsters to catch. It does sort of deliver on these promises, but every time it does, it seems to come with a gigantic asterisk.
The visual presentation of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is inescapably bad. There are games out there with good underlying art design held back by poor resolution and performance, such as Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. There are also games with wonderfully detailed graphics and great optimization that lack purposeful design, such as the recent Sonic Frontiers. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet somehow fail both of these conditions and present a conceptually poorly designed world, blocky polygonal textures that would look out of date on the PlayStation 3, towns that look like they were designed in a grade school art project, and starkly empty landscapes – all through the poorly optimized lens of a resolution that simply can’t display it. Excepting the Pokemon and trainer models, which I’ll get to in a moment, this game looks awful. Nearly all of it is a visual affront on the senses – and yet, I cannot stop looking at it.
The NPC and Pokemon models have been highly detailed in HD and look as good as any game can on the Switch. This is actually a contributing factor to my previous comment about it being a visual affront to the senses. The NPC models are highly detailed in an upgraded version of the anime art style that Game Freak settled on in Sword and Shield. Game Freak has also tapped into body diversity in this game in a way I’ve almost never seen. There are legitimately people of every body type, skin color, and facial feature makeup. Although not outright stated, one of the gym leaders is highly hinted at to be a transgender man and one of the Elite Four a lesbian.
When I see the finely detailed fur or scales on a Pokemon standing on what is literally a solid brown square that is intended to be dirt, there is some sort of shock in the disconnect that makes it look so much worse. Side by side, the landscape textures from Pokemon Colosseum, a 2003 GameCube game, are indistinguishable from this newest entry of the largest game franchise in history. Before you go blaming the Switch hardware, take a look at Xenoblade Chronicles 3, another 2022 Switch-exclusive open world JRPG with hundreds of unique monsters with unique animations. With it looking and running that exceptionally well, Pokemon has no excuse. Exhibit 1: this game is nowhere near finished.
After your mom wakes you up in your room for the big day, as is mandated in all JRPGs, you’ll head off to school at the Naranja Academy (or the Uva Academy if you’re playing Violet) for your first year. I have to admit, when I saw the trailer showing that this game would be based around school life, hinting at some slice of life shenanigans and dealing with school bullies and classes, I was unbelievably hyped. Unfortunately, while this stuff is all hinted at in the beginning it plays a pretty minimal role in the game after the intro. Once you leave school, you can return later to “take classes”, which involves a quiz minigame that lands you a few useful prizes after a while. Team Star, our evil team this time, is also kind of focused around the concept of high school bullies while not realizing the full potential of the idea. They talk about bullying a lot, but the story beats that would show the character development associated are just weirdly missing. Exhibit 2: this game is not even close to finished.
You’ll soon get control of the much-memed motorcycle lizard, either Koraidon or Miraidon based on which version you have. I played Scarlet and so was treated to an audience to The Ancient King, Koraidon, less than an hour into the game. Generation IX’s legendary Pokemon are not only the best designs we’ve had in years, they’re the best implementation of legendary Pokemon into the game that the franchise has ever seen. Koraidon represents the past of Paldea, as indicated in its name. It breaks down brilliantly into korai (Japanese for ancient), ride (for obvious reasons), and don (Spanish for Lord). The purple robotic counterpart, Miraidon, is similarly derived from the Japanese word mirai, which means future.
Scarlet and Violet’s story makes good on heavily incorporating the adventures of these two creatures and fairly organically slap your character into the middle of it. Not that it’s a high bar, but this is my favorite story in any of the mainline games in the franchise. In fact, I think the narrative beats and characters as a whole stand up there with the best of the year. The mythical Pokemon has been weakened and lost its legendary power, and cannot be used in battle when you first become partners. You’ll ride your lizard bike over hills, up mountains, in the air across chasms, and through raging rivers, forging a real bond with the cover art legendary that just hasn’t been done before. As we’ve traveled across Paldea completing the three campaigns in the game, I’ve come to care about Koraidon as much as any of the selected members of my party. Sometimes, a genuine smile creeps onto my face as my squad faces off against another Titan in our journey to restore Koraidon to its legendary glory.
I must also sing fervent praises for the characters in Scarlet and Violet, who are the best the series has ever offered. Your rival, Nemona, is a sophomore at the Academy and is the best rival since Gary in the original Red and Blue with no contest (and maybe even better than him). She’s overenthusiastic about Pokemon, literally obsessed with you, follows you around to each city you visit, ambushes you with a battle by busting down a door, and is generally overflowing with personality. Because she is the most recent champion, she becomes infatuated with the idea of you being as strong as her and pushes you there by helping you build connections with the Elite Four and learning about the world of Paldea. I loved each and every interaction with her, and her battles were genuinely challenging. In fact, the final confrontation with her after the Pokemon League is maybe the most challenging and fun battle I’ve had as part of a campaign since Gen IV.
Our other excellent lead is Arven, an upperclassman whose partner Mabostiff (a large dog Pokemon) is dying due to an incurable injury. Pokemon Centers and potions have done nothing to aid him, and in the short time his dog has left, Arven has scouted the region for any kind of cure. He follows an urban legend about a special plant called Herba Mystica that grants Pokemon long lives and huge stature, and theorizes that the five Titans around Paldea must be guarding the plant. You’ll team up to defeat the gargantuan superpowered Pokemon and retrieve the herbs, in hopes that you can heal Mabostiff and save Arven’s best friend.
The whole thing is kind of heartbreaking, especially when Arven’s dark history of neglect and abuse at the hands of his mother surfaces and the story tackles more mature themes than the mainline Pokemon games have ever done. This story of parental neglect and abandonment ties in with the gym leaders, Nemona, Team Star and the Titans for a hefty post-game that’s surprisingly well made. I was on the phone with my best friend as she was finishing Arven’s story in the post-game, and she was sobbing her heart out. I don’t know if Game Freak has some new writers in the office for this generation, but if so they knocked it out of the park.
In addition to the Path of Titans and Path of the Champion campaigns, there’s one last campaign which I feel to easily be the weakest one: Starfall Street. In this story, you’ll join forces with the headmaster of the Academy in a frankly hilarious “how do you do, fellow kids?” disguise to take down this generation’s evil team. Though not my favorite, Team Star is certainly a huge step up from Sword and Shield’s abysmal Team Yell. It consists of a group of bullies that have defected from the Academy and formed what I would probably define as a cult.
There are five Star Bosses in compounds around the map, each with an army of a specific type of Pokemon. You’ll raid each compound by simply walking in and hitting the R button over and over until your Pokemon defeat theirs out of combat. While this is certainly preferable to the tedium of fighting 50 Rocket Grunts, it’s also not really interactive at all. You face off against the Star Boss, who is riding what I think is the car from Mad Max: Fury Road that the guy with the guitar was strapped onto. Fighting the giant car feels stupid, and I found it hard to commiserate with the Star Bosses although there was an honest attempt made. Essentially, each of them were bullied at school and eventually became bullies themselves. After you defeat them, they see the error of their ways. It’s kind of a grade school level theme, but hey, this is a game for children.
The main brilliance of Scarlet & Violet is the layout of the world. There are eight Gym Leaders, five Titans, and five Star Bosses scattered pretty evenly around the huge, multi-biomed map. Longtime fans likely noticed that there are also 18 Pokemon types in the games, and each of these 18 points of interest is focused around one of the types. From your first outset, the map shows the location of all 18 of these places and allows you to set a destination marker that will show on your minimap. Though not typically a fan of minimaps (3D map markers all the way!), this system is extremely conducive to exploration and encourages a rewarding gameplay loop. Put down a marker to where you want to go next, follow the marker, catch new Pokemon and battle new trainers in the new biomes you cross, arrive at the destination, complete the main story quest, and mark the next location. While the landscape is barren, empty, and ugly, finding new Pokemon hanging out in the overworld is always nice.
Much like Pokemon Legends Arceus and Sword and Shield DLC’s The Isle of Armor and the Crown Tundra, Pokemon in Scarlet and Violet exist only in the overworld. Tall grass is a thing of the past! Now you can see exactly what Pokemon are about and whether they’re worth bothering with, and you’ll even see a floating marker indicating if you’ve already caught one. This is pretty much an upgrade in every way, especially when you see some insane spider-person with logs for arms running at you full speed and screeching. On that note, I would say the new Pokemon designs are largely a downgrade from Generation VIII. There are certainly some bangers in here, but for every Bellibolt there are two Orthworms. Overall, I ended up disliking a large chunk of the new designs.
In addition to the convenience factor, it’s just nice to see Pokemon living in their habitats, interacting, moving around in herds, and generally existing. Plus, they’re actually scaled correctly both in the overworld and in battle, between which there is a seamless transition. Say goodbye to the Sword and Shield days when you’d encounter a Wailord the size of an island, get into battle, and it would be two feet tall. Somewhat like Legends Arceus, you aim and throw a Pokeball at wild mons, but in this game it’s just to challenge them to a traditional turn-based battle rather than catch them. I’ve no idea why the much superior catching system from Arceus didn’t make the jump over here. Maybe next time. Another major upgrade is being able to choose to initiate battles with trainers rather than getting caught – this is immensely helpful because the game is not level-scaled. If you are low on health and in a high level area, you’ll be thankful you can skip the trainers on your way to the Pokemon Center.
In a massive open-world RPG like this one, level scaling is certainly not a necessity. The Xenoblade Chronicles games, perhaps the most celebrated open-world JRPGs out there, purposefully do not scale enemies to match your own level. I think it is something that’s lacking in Pokemon, however, because while you can do all of the story objectives in any order, they are all fixed to a level no matter when you do them. I did what was meant to be the fifth gym second, and struggled through a thrilling battle that actually got me whited out. In contrast, the last gym I completed was the fourth gym, and I one-shotted all of Iono’s Pokemon without resistance. Again, while not necessary in all games, I think the lack of level scaling is very felt in Scarlet and Violet. Especially since NPCs in the game talk to you about how the game is level-scaled and it just… isn’t. Add it to the pile of evidence that Game Freak was still two years away from finishing this game.
Crafting has finally made its way into Pokemon, found in both sandwiches and TMs. TMs are now single-use again, but by catching Pokemon of the type of TM you want you’ll gather crafting materials to print a new one at a Pokemon Center. This system is intuitive, smooth, and adds weight to TM usage while encouraging you to just catch more mons. Want to print a copy of Earthquake? Go catch two Diglets. I was less fond of the sandwiches, which you can build during picnics that can be set up in the open world. Your party will sleep, play, and eat while you play one of the dumbest and most poorly animated minigames of all time to make the sandwich. Eating it bestows benefits that are typically so hyper-specific you can ignore this entire part of the game without consequence.
Since Gen VI, each new game has featured a battle gimmick. In Gen VI we got Mega Pokemon, Gen VII was Z-Moves, Gen VIII was Dynamax, and finally in Gen IX we arrive at Terastalization. Each Pokemon has a Tera-type, and it can be Terastalized into that type with boosted stats once per visit to a Pokemon Center. Most Pokemon just Terastalize into their primary type, but rare individuals will have an alternate type and can be caught either in the overworld (they are bright and easy to tell apart) or in Tera raids. Terastalizing is the least intrusive gimmick yet, and you’ll likely only need it for boss battles. So, I don’t mind it. The big crystal hats look stupid, but changing your Pokemon’s type mid-battle is admittedly interesting. I have not had a good time with Tera Raids; besides Nintendo’s usual online problems, they are just flat out slow, tedious, and not fun. The harder ones require human partners, but you’ll be fine skating by with NPC partners for the smaller ones.
It’s hard to say that Scarlet and Violet are lacking personality; they have that in spades with the new characters, thousands of new Pokemon animations, and the story. Perhaps the issue is that while the story beats are fun and characterized, the parts in between them where you travel the world to catch new Pokemon are just that: parts in between. There are little to no landscape features. No buildings between cities. No ruins to explore. Caves are flat brown textures with nothing inside. Even the cities, while colorful, lack any kind of identity. You can’t go in any of the buildings, at all. This may not seem like a dealbreaker to some, but as a lifelong fan one guaranteed feature of every Pokemon game since Gen I is that you can speak to every NPC. For the first time, you simply cannot. Only a few dozen people across all the cities are interactable. Exhibit 143: This game is not even close to finished.
Like Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet boast an excellent soundtrack that certainly is one of the best of the mainline games. I will give partial credit to Undertale composer Toby Fox, who was the lead composer for three songs in Scarlet and Violet and part of Game Freak’s sound team on 26 tracks. The second I heard the Tera Raid Theme begin, I knew exactly who composed it. Fox worked on Sword and Shield as well as a consultant composer, and his tracks are gaining a reputation for being the best of the bunch. I would not be surprised to see him lead the Game Freak sound team on Gen X (assuming he can get Deltarune out by then). Pokemon director Junichi Masuda was one of the founding members of Game Freak, starting as the sole composer and sound engineer for Red and Blue. Fox is probably the best composer we’ve had on the mainline games since Masuda stepped into his director role for Gen IV.
While I’ve seen countless videos showcasing insane glitches and bugs around the internet, my experience with major bugs has been pretty minimal. There has been one hard crash apropos of nothing, which luckily happened seconds after an autosave, but I do know friends who have had a half dozen crashes with lost progress. My largest bug was just two hours into the game. I clipped through a mountain near a waterfall, the screen went black, and I woke up at the Pokemon Center in front of the Elite Four. I do not know how this happened, but maybe it could be a speedrunning trick one day. That said, I experienced constant minor bugs in addition to the frame rate issues. Every 30 seconds, some model would clip through a floor or building, or the camera would be underground or inside a character model, or the controls would lag up to 3 seconds. Every outdoor battle ends with the camera clipped halfway into the ground, which, again, is just a brown rectangle stretched over a mesh with no additional detailing done. Every menu is slow to open, slow to navigate, and slow to receive input. Exhibit 832: this game is not even close to finished.
I cannot easily sum up my thoughts on Pokemon Scarlet and Violet in a single logline. In many ways, I could call Gen IX the best games in the franchise. In many other ways, I could call it one of the poorest games on the Nintendo Switch. I wish I could ignore the myriad of issues in this review, because my experience with this game was magical. Elden Ring, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, The Nirvana Initiative, Splatoon 3 and a wealth of other masterpiece-level games I played this year do not hold a candle to the fun I had in Paldea.
I love my team. I love Bellibolt, Quaquaval, Wigglytuff, Garchomp, Brambleghast, Clodsire, and Koraidon. When they succeeded, I succeeded. When they failed, I failed. When Nemona would break through a door with unrestrained praise of my abilities I laughed real, heartfelt laughs. When my Gabite finally evolved into Garchomp at the Elite Four just in time to help me win, I felt real, true love in my heart for this digital dragon. When I finally defeated the Champion at 2 AM in one of the toughest Pokemon battles of my life, I found myself dancing around my apartment with my cat in celebration. Perhaps this is the difference. When I defeated Rennala in Elden Ring, I felt relief and satisfaction. All well and good. But Pokemon Scarlet and Violet have, despite the unacceptable state of the game, delivered to me the electric magic of teamwork.
I won’t say to look past the visual and performance issues. You should not accept them as “okay” or “good enough.” But if you can feel the happiness Pokemon Scarlet brought me by playing this game yourself, I’d be a bigger bully than Team Star if I didn’t recommend it to you.
I reviewed Pokemon Scarlet with a code provided by Nintendo.