Pokémon Sword and Shield marked the end of a formula that’s been working for the franchise since Black and White – with now Scarlet and Violet taking the necessary steps to project the series further; Game Freaks approach in fully open-world design with having it explorable in any facet the player desires is bold and a long time coming. It’s clear that Legends of Arceus served as a foundational step for this new mainline, and it is done with exceptional care – but unfortunately, Nintendo Switch hardware limitation hinders the overall experience, amongst other things, making this new iteration feeling entirely unfinished.

A Bolder, Newer World

I played Scarlet’s version, so I’ll be referring to that one – you start off in the land of Paldea, a Spanish-driven theme location filled with new Pokémon to catch and train. You are a newly enrolled student who happen to be extremely popular almost immediately – so much so that the president of the school personally escorts you there on your first day. The story doesn’t do well in telling the player why, but I suppose this is up for interpretation. Nemona, your rival, is a student that wants to battle every chance she gets – who also happens to be older and already a champion. This is a nice change of narrative pace given those you are rivaled with happens to be destined to get defeated into depression. This time around, Nemona actually holds back to level the playing field, making her enthusiastic approach feel more genuine in the process.

Another narrative approach I happen to find weird, yet cool is that the themed Legendary Pokémon happen to have gotten injured very early on, where you as the player would befriend quickly and use as a means of transportation throughout your journey. Koraidon – a fighting/dragon typing that cannot be used in battle until you progress the story is an odd one – its tails twirl like wheels much like another Pokémon called Cyclizar – which happen to be a common thing to ride. I happen to love the idea of riding dragons, but I find it weird because they look like motorcycles…. odd minds these creators over at Game Freak.

After spending some time learning in school, the story then embarks the player into finding their Treasure – and it doesn’t have to be a literal one. But basically, you’re set out to explore the world of Paldea in a journey to become closer with your Pokémon. There are 3 paths you can take that are each helmed by companions you meet. One path leads towards Victory Road, which is the usual defeat your gym leaders to then earn badges to participate in the Pokémon League, to then become the very best. Another path is to help find the Legendary Titan Pokémon, and the reasons as to why they’re so enormous. The final path is to take down hideouts of a gang called Team Star, by defeating their leaders. You can approach any of these marked questlines in any way you desire, which really pinpoints Game Freaks new direction of game design.

There’s only one problem with this approach – level limitation. When you tackle anything other than gym leaders, you run the risk of over-leveling and having Pokémon disobey you. So, even though the illusion of freedom is there, you’re really stuck on doing the Victory Road questline first before jumping into the rest of the quests. While having level limit tie to badges make sense when trying to limit the player from steamrolling the game, in an open-ended design, it’ll makes the player feel like they’re truly not in control – ultimately dampening the experience.

New and Greatly Improved

Pokémon Scarlet has taken to several gameplay improvements – starting with overall User Interface shifting from screen switch to overlay. That means pressing the menu button would pop up the selections while the game is still running in the background. Things process much faster with this approach, like bringing up the world map as well as the PokeDex is the most seamless Pokémon has ever been. Additionally, there’s been some convenient quality to life improvements such as a single button press to heal your Pokémon; it’ll take from your inventory, but there’s no need to click menu, bag, scroll to your potion, select the Pokémon and then keep pressing to fully heal.

Because Scarlet is open world, changes to the Poke Center and Poke Mart has been streamlined – it’s designed as a one stop shop during your journey, sort of like a gas station. And healing your Pokémon wouldn’t force you to listen to a 15 second song and animation – now it’s pretty much 5 seconds to heal your party. This time around, meeting trainers in the wild wouldn’t force you into battle if they spot you – now it’s optional. But each center stop has a representative that would ask trainers to battle a set amount during a route for a reward – usually something powerful like a Battle Item or a TM.

Speaking of battle, there’s now a new form to master – Terastallizing. Basically, Dynamaxing but with the ability of certain Pokémon changing its type – wild Pokémon can be seen Terastallized which you would have to weaken to capture. You can only use it once per battle and must go to a Poke Center to regenerate. Terastalling is a neat new strategy that can catch an opponent by surprise. One typing can be a Grass type, but if Terastallized, can change to Ghost or Fire – but outside of that, it’s business as usual. I personally don’t find the aesthetics of the new form pleasing as all it does is add some strange crown over the head matching the new type. throughout my journey, only the Psychic gym cause problems for me with this new form.

Exploring the wild for new Pokémon is much more streamlined and faster than ever before. You can run into them or toss your lead Pokémon to initiate battle. There’s also the ability to sneak towards a Pokémon to catch them by surprise, rendering them too startled to attack and making them easier to catch. Weather does play a part ranging from rain, snow and sandstorms – and yes there’s real-time day and night cycle. It is very cool watching the sun screech the sky as the moon takes over. Additionally, you will find Terastallized Raid locations scattered across the plains for a chance to obtain a 5-Star Pokémon – although 5-Star rating is only limited to endgame which means you would have to complete all 3 questline and post questlines to unlock it.

Online has been expanded in meaningful ways – now you can explore the entirety of Paldea with up to 3 other friends – that means be able to watch your friends actually battle, capture and even roam with their Pokémon. Game Freak is finally in a place it needed to be for years, something we deserve as players. The only limitations are that you can’t do the main questline together at the same time, can’t battle wild Pokémon together, can’t battle wild trainers together and you can’t see you friends in the mini map, nor do they have names hovering over them – which will result to losing track on where you guys are.

In your travels you will be able to breed, do picnics to make powerful sandwiches that can lead to the ultimate Shiny farming methods and walk with your Pokémon to allow them to battle for you – yes, you can just one shot a horde of Pokémon to obtain exp and TM materials to craft new TM moves. Oh! There’s crafting! But it’s limited to TMs, which is a neat way to distract players from its abundantly empty world! Unfortunately, the world lacks the magic of wonder because anything that remotely looks like something that would contain some form of puzzle to solve, or ancient lore or hidden elements is absent here. Yeah, sure there’s lots of Pokémon scattered about and sometimes an outbreak of Pokémon would appear for a chance to get a free Shiny, but the purpose of an enormous world is to fill it with side quest not outlined for you, and hidden locations to explore and solve.

Greatly Limited Presentation

Game Freak was never known for their breakthrough graphics engine – but Scarlet is their latest push to innovating the franchise. Their art direction is still focused on their animated style but mixed with texture work that replicate materials very well. It doesn’t have physically based rendering, but it’s nice to see clothing with elements that makes it look closer to cloth or leather, and Pokémon with fur or rough skin that reflects well enough from light – even Gastly’s ghost effects is 3D and this level of work is across the board. Pokémon are animated very well – still limited to repeating movements even with different visual effects. I was surprised to see that there were GPU accelerated particles with certain effects, when you get buffed or debuffed and when you Terastallize a Pokémon you get particles floating about randomly – VFX cherish. In a close setting, the environment has seen some great improvements with contact foliage, decent amount of flora variety – shadow casting does a great job when the sun shifts through the sky, there’s even minor implementation of tessellation to the rocks and certain town groundwork. It feels familiar but greatly improved and I hope Game Freak expands on it moving further.

But, with new technical additions comes great issues and Pokémon Scarlet faces a bunch. Because Nintendo Switch’s hardware are limited and Scarlet’s open world nature is vast, the player will come across frametime dips, low quality textures to the environment, foliage and Pokémon pop-in, draw distance limit, shadows disappearing, camera clipping through the floor and more. It’s apparent that Game Freak bit off more than it can chew, and I like them for it – and we definitely need a Nintendo Switch “Plus” if games of this caliber is going to be held back because of it – but it is clear they needed more time to optimize the game. Let’s hope that future patches would stabilize the frames – all the other issues don’t really bother me, but it’s there and they need work.

Review Score: 7/10

It is clear that Pokémon Scarlet | Violet is at its height right now with meaningful innovative push for the franchise, but it is marred by technical limitations and issues that will hinder its overall experience. Everything you will come to expect from mainline hardcore Pokémon game is there, plus more – just, be mindful that you may get headaches after prolonged gaming sessions.

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