You know that meme that circulates once in a while where Homer Simpson is trying to build a BBQ pit? “Yeah, that’s one fine looking barbecue pit…why doesn’t mine look like that?!” If I were ever able to get a hold of the planning documents and storyboards for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet and compare them to the final version, I imagine that’s the type of sentiment I’d express.
To be fair, there are a lot of very good ideas in these new Pokemon games. The openness of the Wild Area from Sword and Shield is now the entire game, and after a brief tutorial and introduction to the academy in which my character is enrolled, I have the freedom to do whatever I wish. There are objectives to complete–16 of them, in fact–but I can choose whichever direction I want to complete them. That feeling is amazing, and one that the franchise has lacked in recent years.
The main issues with Pokemon Scarlet and Violet do not lie with the ambition, they lie solely in the execution. You’ve likely heard a lot about the game’s myriad technical issues, and nothing that’s been said is an exaggeration. There are moments that literally made me scratch my head in bewilderment, showing a lack of quality control unheard of in previous Pokemon games.
One moment in particular stands out: in Artazon, where the Grass-type Gym is located, you must complete a game of hide-and-seek with a group of Sunflora in order to challenge the Gym Leader–an example of the new Gym Test mechanic that admittedly does a good job of making each Gym feel unique. Finding the Sunflora is not difficult, but watching them walk around me at a completely different frame rate is absolutely maddening. The more I find, the more this egregious error sticks out, and it makes me want to skip the Gym altogether.
Moments like this pop up throughout the entire Pokemon Scarlet and Violet adventure. Citizens of the world walking in the distance move at the same frame rate as the Sunflora, immediately drawing my eye and my ire. The camera during a Pokemon battle sometimes angles itself so the ground below the Pokemon’s feet disappears, revealing a strange reflection of the world around me. The loading time between capturing a Pokemon and regaining control of my character is far too long. I could go on, but at this rate it would be beating a dead Horsea.
However, as angry as these problems make me, and I suppose this is the power Pokemon has over me, I cannot put this game down. Exploring each of the three main story paths is rewarding in its own way, from the frenzied battles of Starfall Street to the classic challenges of Victory Road. This world is my Cloyster, allowing me to enjoy it however I wish, and I truly appreciate that.
What makes traveling so easy is my legendary companion, who starts as a mount and eventually gains the ability to glide, swim, and traverse difficult terrain. If I were left to my character’s foot speed to get around I would be far less enthused by the size of Paldea, but thanks to the legendary lad I get to pal around with, traveling is far more enjoyable. I always found it odd that I would get to meet the game’s legendary Pokemon right at the start, but i must admit it was an inspired choice.
My favorite of the three story paths is Path of Legends, which sees me challenging massive Titan Pokemon in order to power up the aforementioned legendary Pokemon I befriended at the beginning of my journey. While the battles themselves are no different than others in the game–save for the Titan Pokemon having a second powered-up stage to their fights–it’s the story told by searching these Titans out that sets it apart for me. Arven’s story has a raw, relatable emotion to it, which aren’t descriptors I’m usually using to describe a story in a Pokemon game, and there are moments I still think about long after I’ve played them. Starfall Street, or the war against Scarlet and Violet’s ne’er-do-wells Team Star, is a close second thanks to the eclectic personalities of each of the team’s members.
Thankfully, no matter which story I play, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet operate very much like previous installments in the franchise, albeit with some modern conveniences. I have a team of six Pokemon I can summon during a battle, while the rest of the Pokemon I catch reside in digital storage. These boxes are now accessible at any time in my journey, which is a huge point in the game’s favor; I would not want to be stranded in an area where I’m underpowered and unable to access my full catalog of catches.
The other beneficial change comes via the Auto-Battle system, which lets me summon the first Pokemon in my party as a companion. Whenever it encounters a wild Pokemon a quick battle ensues, and either the wild Pokemon is knocked out and my team gains experience, or my leader gets tired and comes back to me. Either way, the days of traveling through tall grass, watching the screen flash, and encountering a Pokemon are long gone, replaced with a seamless and efficient system anchored solely by my choices. Granted I can’t catch Pokemon in Auto-Battle mode, but all I have to do is run into a wild Pokemon I see in my travels and a traditional battle begins.
With routine patches and dedicated bug fixes, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet could end up being a transcendent moment in franchise history. The ambition of its branching paths, the size of its open world, and the selection of different Pokemon available are all massive, signaling that Game Freak and The Pokemon Company wanted this to be a flagship moment for the series. Unfortunately, all of that ambition is marred by the technical trials left in its wake, creating some truly infuriating moments during a game where I should be adventuring with a smile on my face. The foundation of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is strong, but there are too many technical shortcomings in the experience to truly call it great.
Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.