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Pokémon Scarlet and Violet review – I wanna be the very best

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet screenshot

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet – like no one ever was (pic: The Pokémon Company)

Generation IX begins in impressive style, in what is easily the best Pokémon game on the Nintendo Switch – but there are still some issues…

This year’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus will go down as an important milestone in terms of making Pokémon look and play like a game from the 21st century. Coming after the preposterously low-tech Pokémon Sword and Shield it was a definite improvement, but it still had a long, long way to go. So we’re pleased to say that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a much bigger leap forward than we expected.

To be clear, this is far from a technical marvel. Inexplicably, given its popularity and the amount of money they generate, the Pokémon games continue to look like little more than AA indie titles, with an approach to online features that feels firmly rooted in the 1990s. Scarlet and Violet struggle to look as good as Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, a more than five-year-old game originally made for the 10-year-old Wii U, and yet merely getting close remains a major step forward.

Not only was Sword and Shield embarrassing on a technical level but the way it implemented open world elements was simplistic and uninspired. It felt decidedly amateurish, which should be impossible for a mainline entry in one of the biggest entertainment franchises in history, made by a studio with over three decades of experience. That sense of crudeness has not entirely disappeared in Scarlet and Violet, but this is a vastly more competent and ambitious game.

The basics here are the same as ever, albeit with a small twist. Rather than just running away from home to catch pokémon you start the game on your first day at a local academy, that’s a sort of Hogwarts for pokéfans. There are optional lessons to attend, and teachers and pupils to mingle with, but it soon becomes clear that the curriculum is basically just ‘go out and explore and we don’t really care whether you come back or not’. Which is a hell of a school motto.

The usual goal of filling out your pokédex is now just a minor side goal and instead you’re presented with three main quests: to beat all eight gym leaders and complete Victory Road in the normal Pokémon fashion, to defeat five unique ‘titan’ pokémon, and to take down delinquent gang Team Star and their five bosses.

What really shakes things up though is that you can tackle each of these quests in any way you like. There’s no order to any of them and while you’ll find some areas feature a lot of pokémon of a much higher level than yours, and a few are inaccessible until you have more traversal options, it really is entirely up to you where you go and when – with a structural approach that is as clearly influenced by Breath Of The Wild as the look and feel of the open world itself.


The obvious approach is to do whatever’s closest, but we quickly found ourselves wandering all over the map, chasing after rare pokémon rather than following any concrete plan. Like Pokémon Legends, there are no random battles or pokémon hiding in long grass, as all the creatures are out in the open, just going about their business. Catch the game in a good light and it almost looks like an interactive wildlife documentary, as pokémon roam about the plains in herds, all scaled to the right size and in appropriate environments.

It is an illusion though, as in reality they’re just wandering about at random in a very enclosed space, and while this looks surprisingly realistic when it’s a grass area, broken up by hills and bushes, in the flatter, plainer areas, such as deserts, it’s obvious that the world design remains quite basic.

Everything is a step up from Sword and Shield, which looked horribly unnatural, but Scarlet and Violet requires a significant amount of goodwill on the part of the player to seem like a cohesive world. That’s especially true of the weird animation shortcut, where characters have their number of frames of animation drastically cut until they look like some stop motion BBC kids show from the 70s.

The effect is used a lot more prominently than in Sword and Shield and it’s a shame because the graphics for the pokémon have seen quite a noticeable upgrade. The character models are largely the same but there’s much more complex textures in evidence, like fur and scales, while steel pokémon actually look metallic instead of just dull grey.

There are ordinary frame rate drops and camera issues as well, but these are much improved from Pokémon Legends and cause little trouble. What is an issue though is the complete lack of voice acting, which is hugely distracting. If even Zelda can add voices then it’s long past time that Pokémon did, especially given it’s just a question of money – which The Pokémon Company has in abundance.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet screenshot

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet – Terastallizing is Gigantamaxing with a new hat, literally (pic: The Pokémon Company)

If Pokémon does, as we suggest, rely on the goodwill of its players we found it be surprisingly forthcoming, as while the world design is nowhere near Zelda quality there are lots of secrets and unexpected pathways to explore, with almost no fixed camera views or linear sections. Oddly, though, the sacrifice for this is the towns, which are peculiarly generic in terms of their contents. They’re filled with restaurants and clothes shops (even though the customisation options are limited by your school uniform) and yet there are hardly any ordinary buildings you can enter.

That means no barging into people’s homes to examine the contents of their litter bins, which is maybe meant to be realistic but gives each city a very artificial feel – despite all the people milling about and the distinctive art design for each one. Features you’d traditionally need someone’s help with, like the Name Rater or Move Tutor, are now just accessed from your main menu, which is convenient but takes some of the charm away.

Battles work very similarly to Pokémon Legends, in that they start as soon as you touch or throw a pokéball at something. There’s no segue to a separate screen and instead you battle where you stand, even while you select moves in the usual turn-based style. This all works very well and while the game can be long-winded showing you status changes and the like it means that level grinding is now much quicker and generally more enjoyable.

The big new battle gimmick is Terastallizing, which replaces Gigantamaxing but works in a very similar manner. Instead of becoming giant, this time pokémon are transformed into crystal form, so they look like one of those Swarovski crystal animals your nan has in her living room cabinet. The visual effect is relatively nice but what’s more interesting is that some pokémon have a Tera type which can be different than their normal type, which opens up more options if you purposefully go after these rarer creatures.

Our only major issue with the battles is one that’s been present since day one: there is essentially no artificial intelligence for your opponents. It’s still abundantly clear, especially with wild pokémon, that moves are being chosen at random, as opponents endless charge up moves but never attack, repeat moves that have no effect the second time, and never try to match types. We can imagine that fighting a hyper competent computer opponent wouldn’t be that much fun but surely there must be a better solution to just making the choices random.

In addition to normal battles, your lead pokémon can also be sent out at any time in order to roam around and auto battle enemies if it encounters them. This is adapted for the Team Star quest where you lay siege to an encampment by first taking out the guards and then letting your top three pokémon run rampant, auto-battling everything that opposes them. This then ends in a more traditional boss battle which is presented with a lot more panache than typical for the series.

That sense of everything being taking up a notch, in terms of scale, ambition, and presentation is evident throughout and we particularly enjoyed the titan quests, which are used to upgrade your traversal options, from simply moving more quickly to swimming and gliding. This allows for easier access around the open world than was ever possible in Breath Of The Wild and for that reason it’s probably the best one to do first, as it opens up more options for you.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet screenshot

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet – we were playing Scarlet (pic: The Pokémon Company)

Pokémon has always been drowning in underutilised potential, so it’s not hard to point to an infinite number of other things that could be done with it. But apart from that, there are relatively few practical faults with Scarlet and Violet.

We did find the whole business with making sandwiches and having picnics to be peculiar and pointless though. Scarlet and Violet are inspired by Spain and Portugal, which is quite obvious in some of the dialogue and designs, but for some reason the Pokémon equivalent of the Iberian Peninsula is obsessed with submarine sandwiches which add very specific buffs before a battle, none of which we ever felt were necessary.

Perhaps they’ll be more useful in the endgame, which we’ve barely got into yet, but for the majority of the game they just seem like a wasted detail. Everything else fits together pretty well though, given how hard an open world structure is to balance, and while the game’s not difficult by normal standards it certainly requires much more thought and effort than the last several Pokémon games.

Despite what you might imagine from the awful line-up of new starters (we chose Sprigatito but we don’t really like them) most of the new pokémon designs are very good. Nintendo won’t let us talk about most of them pre-launch but there’s a particularly cool one that’s a homage to both Super Mario and Minecraft, plus another that looks like something out of Kamen Rider. And then there’s the wonderful Fidough, who’s a dog made out of doughnuts who has an equally pun-tastic evolution.

Scarlet and Violet is the first time since the series moved to Switch that it’s felt like Game Freak had any ambition to make it more than just a cash cow. There’s a sense of invention and of going beyond the minimum requirement that’s been lacking in the last several releases and it’s great to be excited about Pokémon once again.

All that and we haven’t even mentioned the online features yet… for the simple reason that they weren’t available before launch. There’s an option to turn on ‘Online Mode’ which we assume will allow you to see other players running around like ghosts and take part in raids, as in Sword and Shield. On top of this, though, each Pokémon Center has the option to start a four-player co-op sessions with friends. This seems to require everyone to already know each other though, and share link codes, with no sign of any random matchmaking.

Assuming that works acceptably well (which is not guaranteed given Nintendo’s track record with online) it all adds up to what is easily the best Pokémon game on Switch. It has its faults, and there’s roughly a million other features we’d like to see added, but taken on its own this is a fun, accessible, content-filled adventure that demonstrates better than any recent game why Pokémon has endured so long and why it’s still worth catching ‘em all.



Pokémon Scarlet and Violet review summary

In Short: A significant advancement on Pokémon Sword and Shield and while it’s not hard to see how it could be improved further this is the most ambitious and entertaining Pokémon has been in a long while.

Pros: Good use of open world elements and non-linear progression with three equally interesting main quests. Great new pokémon designs, all the best bits from Pokémon Legends, and four-player co-op.

Cons: Lots of technical issues and essentially no AI. Meal Powers seem largely pointless. Still mountains of untapped potential.

Score: 8/10


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