Before I started playing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, I was skeptical that the game’s creator, Game Freak, would actually allow me to go in any direction I wanted. This has remained a very linear role-playing game series, with a predetermined path of challenges and plot points lined up in neat order, despite the increasingly open nature of recent Pokémon games like Sword, Shield, and Arceus. However, when I went into the Paldea region with my Fuecoco, my disbelief was completely shattered. Game Freak has finally discovered an open-world formula for Pokémon that successfully reinvents how the game is played on the Switch while staying true to the nostalgic childhood vision of exploration, adventure, and collecting cute monsters. It’s the change I’ve been waiting for in almost every way, but the terrible performance that comes with it makes this otherwise exciting design evolution a lot less exciting.
You are given three main story paths to follow, each with many objectives that you can choose to complete in any order, following a fairly lengthy opening sequence and some exposition about attending school to become proficient at Pokémon. Similar to The Legend of Zelda: You can, as far as I can tell, walk out of your school and run straight to the hardest gym to challenge Ganon, similar to opening all four Divine Beasts simultaneously in Breath of the Wild. However, I wouldn’t actually recommend doing that.
Because Pokémon Scarlet and Violet lack level scaling, if you don’t follow the “intended” paths at least a little bit more closely, you’ll be destroyed immediately. However, traversing the vast Paldea map will require a lot of inconvenient zigzagging if you attempt to complete objectives in a precise order of difficulty. I loved Scarlet and Violet so much, but what they actually seem to promote instead was getting gloriously lost. During my journey, I made the mistake of walking into an initially difficult area by accident, but I persevered by employing strategy and care. My adventure’s first half was both extremely challenging and rewarding. I steamrolled several times in a row when I went to work through the areas I had missed before getting back to more level-appropriate challenges.
Despite my reservations about facing a gym full of level 15 Pokémon with a team of level 35 Pokémon, the game’s inconsistent difficulty did not detract from my enjoyment in the least. This is in part because each of Scarlet and Violet’s three-story paths is quite involved and interesting on their own (especially when compared to the strangely cut-down tales of Sword, Shield, and Arceus), but also because it was fun to explore the vast world on its own. With Scarlet and Violet, Game Freak has taken another significant step in the right direction by creating a believable, creature-filled wilderness with a Regional Pokedex that is large enough that I didn’t miss any National Dex Pokemon. I still had a great time hunting for items and using the auto-battle Let’s Go mode to train up some weaker monsters or to barrel through a herd of Mudbray when I reached areas for which I was well over-leveled.
Additionally, Pokémon’s wild animations and behaviors have been enhanced. Psyduck hordes gather to watch you fight, and Klawf dive-bomb you from their perches on cliff faces. Magikarp swims up to the shoreline, only to wash up and flop uselessly on the beach. Scarlet and Violet’s monsters travel convincingly in herds, clustering around a water’s edge, or hiding up trees more akin to real animals, whereas Sword and Shield’s Wild Area occasionally looked more like someone spilled a bag of random Pokémon everywhere. In order to complete this review, it was difficult for me to resist spending hours searching Paldea’s vast “areas,” which are a far more open evolution of the “routes” of previous games.
I’ve learned one important thing from my time with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet thus far that can’t be ignored, and that’s in addition to its incredible shift to a truly open world: They lack structure. In point of fact, I wouldn’t say that these games run well at any point.
Even when there are only a few effects on screen, such as weather or flowing water, the framerate drops painfully low. The models of the characters that are only a few feet away move in and out, sometimes quickly and sometimes at the speed of stop-motion animation. Shadows frequently vanish and reappeared abruptly and illogically, and everything has a strange, shimmering blur to it. I spent the entirety of a Gym Battle with one Pokemon half-buried in the floor as it clipped in and out of walls or floors at odd angles. Sometimes the camera will clip through mountains and show a full view of a video game-like void, ruining cool moments like my Wooper’s evolution. Everything from battles to menus to cutscenes lags constantly. Hard game crashes have befallen two of our guides’ authors. It is among the worst AAA games I have played on the Switch thus far and the worst Pokémon game I have ever played. Yes, this is the first-day patch.
The fact that these issues frequently detract from what would otherwise be Scarlet and Violet’s most brilliant and memorable scenes is the most tragic aspect of the film. It is staggering to have the option to remain on top of a gigantic blanketed mountain at the focal point of a Pokémon district and see a stunning light demonstration of an exercise center somewhere far off one way, a shimmering lake in another, and a transcending red plateau in even another, and realize that I can go to each of the three of those spots without a solitary stacking screen, essentially by taking a jump. For Pokémon fans, a seamless, open Pokémon world that we can explore however we like is a dream come true. For a brief moment, I thought I would be able to ignore all the technical jargon and just enjoy the numerous good design choices I had been waiting for.
But the problems are always there, and they stop almost every moment that was supposed to be amazing, emotional, or fun. For instance, one of the regions with the worst technical infrastructure is the largest and most exquisitely designed city in the Paldea region, where several pivotal scenes are set. Even if you just run around a grassy field for a few minutes, you will still be surprised by Pokémon models appearing and disappearing or by everything suddenly lagging behind. And all of that is offline; what happens to it on launch day when I go online with three friends in these areas that are already slow?
I fervently hope that some early patches will fix this mess and bring it more in line with Arceus or Sword and Shield—I can’t believe I’m saying this—which had technical issues, but they were much easier to overlook in comparison. Game Freak seems to have figured out what kind of open-world design works for the series, and aside from a few quibbles about the precise way certain systems work, Scarlet and Violet is a blast to play. It truly fulfills the Pokémon fantasy while adopting a more up-to-date RPG design. I was enjoying Scarlet and Violet’s fantastic story, characters, monsters, and world even as I cringed as I watched strange NPCs skate down enormous staircases and vanish halfway. I want more games like this for Pokémon, but not games that run like this.
Before finishing my review and giving it a score next week, I am still looking forward to spending a lot more time in Paldea, especially to see how the online multiplayer works once it launches. Rather than the sluggish, muddled, oddly lit Paldea I’ve been chugging through for the past week, I just wish this region was the beautiful, expansive, Pokémon-stuffed Paldea the artists and designers clearly envisioned and tried to present to me.
Catch never-before-seen Pokemon and explore a brand new region created playable with new open-world gameplay in Pokemon Scarlet and Pokemon Violet! Various towns blend seamlessly into the wilderness with no borders. You’ll be able to see the Pokémon of this region in the skies, in the seas, in the forests, on the streets — all over! You’ll be able to experience the true joy of the Pokemon series — battling against wild Pokemon in order to catch them — now with open-world gameplay that invites players to go wherever their sense of adventure leads them. Brand new Pokemon populate this world, and players get to decide on their own new starter partner: will you choose Sprigatito, Fuecoco, or Quality?