In the middle of a town square, a fierce Pokémon battle erupts. In the restaurant-filled, foodie’s paradise of Medali city, a young trainer is trying to win the right to face the local gym leader. With a stoic expression, her Hariyama lets loose with a flurry of punches against his hated rival, bringing the foe’s hit points into the red. It’s a dramatic battle, but the young trainer is determined to succeed.
Then, right at the decisive moment, an aimless local wanders through the battle. All the scene's tension is deflated by his curiously warm smile and relaxed demeanor. The ease of his gait and the gentle twinkle in his eyes suggests a man at ease with himself. Perhaps this man – let’s call him Phil – is on his way to buy groceries or maybe just taking a gentle stroll around town.
Transfixed by his steady confidence, I watch Phil walk from one end of the screen to the other, the ongoing pocket monster contest completely forgotten as his gentle ambulation plays out. Phil may be having a nice day, but he has ruined Pokémon.
Building on the open world steps made in Pokémon Sword and Shield and Pokémon Legends Arceus, the world in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is the most ambitious yet. Rife with places to explore and Pokémon to catch, you can take a non-linear approach to its main story, which developer Game Freak has divided into three main quest chains.
Unfortunately, as promising as these changes are in themselves, Game Freak dropped the ball in terms of performance and optimization. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are replete with framerate drops, performance issues, and more than the occasional bug. Texture popping is common, and animation speeds will slow to a crawl in all but the most sparsely populated areas. The game is full of magic, wonder, and adventure. It is also full of Phils.
Travel across the land
Pokémon has always been about adventure, first and foremost. In this respect, Scarlet and Violet capture a fantasy near and dear to the hearts of Pokémon fans old and new, by giving them the freedom to roam the continent of Paldea to their heart’s content. At their best, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet feel like a playground, making a serious commitment to open-world exploration, which pays off in a big way.
The new “let’s go” feature not only allows you to walk alongside your pocket pals in the game world, but also lets you instruct your buddy to automatically battle nearby wild Pokémon, doing all the hard work for you while you look on. It’s a nice way to gain XP, and stands alongside a myriad of other quality-of-life improvements that Scarlet and Violet bring to the table. These improvements include an auto-heal button in the menu as well as a TM machine, which allows you to tailor your squad’s moves whenever you visit a Pokémon Center.
By opening up the world, you can now wander into areas that are too high level for you, adding a sense of mystery and danger. I often dared myself to venture into high-level areas, just to see what was out there. In one particularly foreboding cave, I steered clear of roving ground types in search of a path to a nearby city. I never knew I could find Dugtrio so frightening. The sense of risk added something profound to the Pokémon experience that I didn’t know was missing.
The big change to battles in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is Terastelizing – a new feature allowing you to encase your Pokémon in crystal to alter their type mid-battle. It has the potential to radically shake up battles, letting your change your Pokémons’ type on the fly is a huge deal in a game that’s all about type matchups.
Unfortunately, Scarlet and Violet see the return of the usual grindy one-type-only gym battles where one Pokémon (or even one move) can carry the entire battle for you. As if to salt the wound, Gym Leaders in Scarlet and Violet often use an unorthodox final Pokémon which they proceed to make orthodox by Terastelizing it to the expected type.
There were hints of how Terastelizing could change the game, like when fighting the Elite Four, the toughest trainers in Paldea, and the opposing Donphan (a ground type Pokémon) threw out a poison attack, wrecking my unsuspecting grass-type. Suffice it to say, my unsuspecting Gogoat doesn’t stand a chance. The challenging mix-up forces me to think on my feet, evoking real Pokémon magic. Though Scarlet and Violet had far more of these dramatic turnabout moments than Sword and Shield, it’s clear that Game Freak is still holding back when it comes to pushing Pokémon’s battle systems to their full potential.
An entomologist’s nightmare
Regrettably, Scarlet and Violet fail to live up to their potential. The fundamentals of a great game are there, but they feel undercooked. The performance problems are very much the Cufant in the room, and with good reason. Framerates are low, animations are choppy and open-world elements sometimes interact clunkily with each other. For every great battle, gorgeous horizon, and wondrous adventure, you will likely find a bug that’ll undermine your experience.
These bugs and deficiencies aren’t enough to ruin the experience outright, but they are difficult to ignore. In battles, the camera might clip through the floor, revealing a mess of polygons underneath. Input delays, though uncommon, can spell calamity in battle if you accidentally select the wrong move.
As was the case with gentle, sweet Phil as he gingerly wandered through a heated contest between two deadly super-monsters, these glitches and performance issues are sometimes as amusing as they are frustrating. However, it seems absurd for Nintendo to sign off on a product this riddled with problems. Though these technical issues aren’t enough to rob the game of the joy and whimsy at its heart, they cast a long shadow over the experience.
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