There exists an alternate timeline in which The Pokémon Company and Game Freak decided to not release Pokemon Scarlet and Violet this year. In this timeline, they decided to give it another few months (or more) of development time, polishing out the jank, smoothing over some of the more egregious technical issues, and then releasing it. In that timeline, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are celebrated as being a glorious return to form for the mainline Pokemon franchise, as among the best games in the long running series, and as among the best games of the year.
This is not that timeline.
See, in our timeline, in this timeline, they decided, for whatever reason that shall perhaps forever remain unknown to us, that after releasing a massive pseudo open world action RPG earlier this year, they would release a second one just ten months later. This one would be their first true open world game, first true drop-in co-op game, a total reinvention for the franchise’s structure and mechanics, while also representing all the challenges that come with a new Pokemon game inherently. In spite of there being absolutely no reason for this game to release this year, given the existence of Legends, they decided to go ahead and release a second massive open world RPG in just ten months. In a span of one year, twelve months, this represents the third mainline Pokemon release. From a team that is fairly small, and also has traditionally struggled with tech.
The results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, because Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are incredibly unpolished, buggy, and just all around janky. The entire experience is beset by technical flaws – pop in, unsteady frame rate, collision detection issues, clipping, flickering, low resolution textures, sparse environmental density, you name it, really. None of these are game breaking issues in and of themselves, they’re the kind of thing you sand and iron out in the final months of development. Which these games clearly did not get.
“Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are incredibly unpolished, buggy, and just all around janky. The entire experience is beset by technical flaws – pop in, unsteady frame rate, collision detection issues, clipping, flickering, low resolution textures, sparse environmental density, you name it, really. None of these are game breaking issues in and of themselves, they’re the kind of thing you sand and iron out in the final months of development. Which these games clearly did not get.”
In the days since these games’ launch, a common refrain has been that these games are utterly unpolished and janky bordering on broken – but underneath that all, they are incredibly well designed, addictive, wildly compelling games that represent some of the best design this storied franchise has delivered. That is all absolutely true. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet represent the best Pokemon games, at least the mainline generation ones (sorry Legends) have been in years, if not literally decades. Everything about them is, on paper, pretty much exactly what people wanted from this franchise – a massive open world that leaves the players to their own devices and lets them make their own stories as they set off across the land to meet all the Pokemon available within. They even go a step further and try several new things that people may have wanted, but never expected – or just flat out never even known they wanted.
Take, for instance, the co-op mode. Seamless four player drop-in and drop-out co-op, and designed to be absolutely frictionless. You and your friends can team up and play together with little to no effort, and once in the same session, you can choose to team up and adventure together, or remain separate and explore on your own, only joining each other when needed. You can be independently completing your campaigns, story missions, getting into fights, catching Pokemon, exploring – with zero issues.
Being able to adventure with friends? This is something that people have wanted from Pokemon for a very long time, and Scarlet and Violet deliver on that promise, and they go above and beyond, and do it exceptionally well, while delivering the first full open world adventure the franchise has had.
Or, take the structure of this game, which is its greatest win, and unnaturally forward thinking for a franchise that has been so reluctant to rock the boat at all until earlier this year. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are completely non-linear. Once you finish the intro, you can literally go anywhere in the game and do anything you want. There are three main campaigns in the game, the traditional “win eight badges and become the champion” one; a “beat the evil team by defeating their various strongholds across the region” one; and a final “chase down these legends known to be hiding across the world” one. All of them are non linear and non sequential. You can absolutely choose to go defeat what would ordinarily have been the final gym badge in a traditional Pokemon game right after the tutorial, and nothing stops you. You can choose to take on the most fearsome legendary “Titan” in the game right after the intro, and the game lets you. You can do whatever you want. The game never stops you.
This kind of non-linear structure and progression is already unusual for any game, let alone an RPG, given that usually, even open world titles maintain at the very least sequential progression if nothing else – for Pokemon to do it across three intermeshing storylines just leads to a level of player agency and authorship over the experience that it is hard to overstate the impact of. This is your adventure. You get to dictate how it goes, no one else. If you feel you are confident enough to outlast the final gym leader in a battle right now, then you will do that, and the game won’t stop you. If you don’t want to deal with the gyms at all, and want to just focus on catching Pokemon right now? The game lets you. If you just want to explore, and not really worry about what to do? The game lets you.
It’s an incredible achievement of game design, and this is one area where Scarlet and Violet are an unmitigated triumph. There are no caveats here – the open world infused non sequential design in this game is incredible, and finally turns this into “your” Pokemon adventure, something the games have been promising us since the start of Pocket Monsters Red and Green all the way back in 1996, but have never truly delivered – except maybe Legends.
“Pokemon Scarlet and Violet represent the best Pokemon games, at least the mainline generation ones (sorry Legends) have been in years, if not literally decades. Everything about them is, on paper, pretty much exactly what people wanted from this franchise – a massive open world that leaves the players to their own devices and lets them make their own stories as they set off across the land to meet all the Pokemon available within. They even go a step further and try several new things that people may have wanted, but never expected – or just flat out never even known they wanted.”
Here’s the best part! Somehow, they accomplish this without compromising on the story and storytelling either. Usually, when games adopt this level of non linearity, the story and storytelling must take a hit. Look at how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has to dilute its prescribed narrative as a tradeoff for giving players that much freedom, or even how the expanded openness of Xenoblade 3 leads to a far less concentrated narrative than either of its predecessors. In Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, there is still a story, and it’s actually one of the best ones in the series. You’re not foregoing the story for the openness, you are getting both. Yes, I know no one really plays Pokemon for the story, but just in case you’re that one who does, guess what? Scarlet and Violet represent one of the series’ strongest steps on that front, with some very memorable characters and cool lore to boot.
The world itself is a really fun one to spend your time exploring too. Yes, it looks ugly as sin (and I know I’ve beaten this horse dead, but it cannot be repeated enough, and I will be coming back to this point shortly), but it is definitely one that is a lot of fun to engage with and explore. This actually does not come down to the design of the world itself, which isn’t bad, but isn’t great either (Game Freak’s traditional weakness at working with 3D spaces is less of an issue here than ever before, but the world design still definitely has room for improvement). What helps Scarlet and Violet here is the exact same thing that helped Pokemon Legends earlier this year, which also didn’t necessarily have an amazingly well designed world, but ended up with an amazing world anyway – Pokemon gets to cheat. Rather than relying on the world itself to induce exploration, it uses Pokemon. So yes, traversing across the massive, massive, massive expanses of Paldea to hunt Pokemon, or chasing that new species, or rare one, across the map, and getting distracted by something else? That is all here, and it instantly elevates the world into being great, and one you can (and will) spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of.
This wouldn’t work if the Pokemon themselves weren’t interesting, but the one thing Pokemon has never failed with is making these eponymous creatures interesting. While Scarlet and Violet don’t flesh their Pokemon out as much as Legends did (where every creature felt like a living and breathing part of its ecosystem), the Pokemon in this game are still a delight, from their design to their behaviour in the wild. Seeing smaller herbivorous Pokemon gather together in herds, only to scatter when they spot a predator running towards them, or seeing a Psyduck sleeping lazily by a river bank, only to wake up when it starts raining, is a delight, and sells the fantasy of these Pokemon as creatures you are encountering and taming. Again, these games don’t do this as well as Legends did – but they also offer nearly double the amount of Pokemon that Legends did (including, very literally, more new Pokemon by orders of magnitude) so it is a trade-off. They sell these creatures well enough for the fantasy to work, at least.
An area where Scarlet and Violet are indisputably a step back from Legends, however, is the flow. Pokemon Legends was a quick game – everything happened seamlessly and in real time. Scarlet and Violet get rid of a lot of the QoL strides that Legends made, unfortunately. For instance, you can no longer run from battles by simply running from battles, it’s locked behind a menu option again. You can’t send out a bunch of Pokemon to go scavenge and scour resources for you (you can only send out one, and even then, what that Pokemon can do feels limited compared to Legends). If you’re battling a Pokemon, others in the vicinity don’t really react like they did in Legends, where they might run off from the combat, or join and start beating you up senseless. Everything definitely feels slower than it did in Legends, because Scarlet and Violet have fallen back on some of the things traditional Pokemon games had that Legends got rid of – for instance, you can’t just select which Pokemon to send out in battle in real-time anymore, it will always be the lead Pokemon.
“An area where Scarlet and Violet are indisputably a step back from Legends, however, is the flow. Pokemon Legends was a quick game – everything happened seamlessly and in real time. Scarlet and Violet get rid of a lot of the QoL strides that Legends made, unfortunately. “
These regressions are undeniably unfortunate, because of how much they contributed to Legends being the great game that it was, but thankfully, some of the more meaningful things Legends did are maintained by these games. For instance, the excellent way that moves worked in Legends returns here – your Pokemon never really “forgets” a move once learned. You can, at any point, go into the menu and change the active load out of the four moves it can use, but any new move learned will be remembered forever. You can also, thankfully, start battles by aiming your Pokeball at a wild Pokemon and sending your Pokemon out to battle it (simply catching it without engaging it in battle is, unfortunately, an option no longer available).
Interestingly enough, Scarlet and Violet include a lot of great new QoL additions of their own too. These are small things, but ones that are appreciated nonetheless. For example, every time you mark a destination on the game’s map, you instantly get oriented to be facing that direction in the world too. NPCs that have something to say or give you (whether battles or items) are clearly highlighted by their dialog boxes. The Pokedex looks, feels, and functions than ever before. You are given a ride Pokemon to traverse the world almost right away. When you buy a new item or get a new TM, you get to deploy it right away (if you want t0) rather than quitting out of the menu and going into the inventory to use it. So it’s a mixed bag here – these games do a lot right on their own when it comes to QoL, and maintain a lot of what Legends did right too. But at the same time, they also give up a lot of what Legends did right when they didn’t have to, and hopefully, future Pokemon games will just unify the improvements these games made with the ones Legends made.
An area where Scarlet and Violet are absolutely not a regression in any shape, way, or form, is the music. This should come as no surprise to pretty much anyone ever – Pokemon has never, not even once, failed at delivering amazing music, and Scarlet and Violet continue that streak with an incredible soundtrack that is as beautiful and amazing as the graphics are ugly (seriously, we’re getting to this soon, I promise). It feels like I say this with every new Pokemon review, which is honestly the ultimate testament to just how well the series has performed on this front, but these could well qualify for having the best music in the series – and when a series has a storied history of amazing music like Pokemon does, that really is saying something.
Two more things these games do great at – content, and the new Pokemon. The latter should come as no big surprise. We are now at over 1,000 Pokemon officially, and generally, the bulk of them are great designs that captivate millions around the world (see also: what I said about how Pokemon can “cheat” with its open world design). This new batch of creatures, which is bigger than any new generation has introduced in a while, continues the streak of excellent, inspired, strong designs, including some that I imagine will go on to become mainstays and favourites of the fanbase.
“Scarlet and Violet have an almost overwhelming amount of things to see and do, and it feels great. Just the main campaign is cumulatively longer than all but perhaps one game in the series – and there’s still stuff left to see and do in the post-game after all that. “
As for the former, that is where I was legitimately surprised. Once upon a time, Pokemon games came loaded with an absurd, obscene amount of content. In the last decade, Legends and the Ultra games excepted, that hasn’t been as true. They still have an unreasonable amount of content – more than most AAA releases – but they don’t meet the bar their own predecessors set. Scarlet and Violet are not like that, they have an almost overwhelming amount of things to see and do, and it feels great. Just the main campaign is cumulatively longer than all but perhaps one game in the series – and there’s still stuff left to see and do in the post-game after all that. This is another area where Scarlet and Violet deliver what players have been asking for for a while.
Okay, now let’s talk about how these games look, because goodness, they look awful. Earlier this year, I said Pokemon Legends is an ugly game, ugly enough that I can see it being a dealbreaker for many, but you know what, I take it back. Next to these, Legends looks… well, okay, not good, but at least coherent. Scarlet and Violet are not good looking games. There is no getting around these, they are ugly. They may be the ugliest major release a first party publisher has put out in a long time. Even with Pokemon’s history of never impressing with the visuals and tech, these games stand out, because they just do not look good. There are times when they sort of threaten to – moments where the art style comes together, and the environmental design and density doesn’t struggle – but by and large, these are ugly games, which I can totally see being an issue for people playing them, because the whole conceit is the world beckoning you on to adventure. If the world itself looks repulsively ugly, the premise sort of falls apart at the first step.
Ugliness or compromised visuals would at least be excusable if there was a visible trade off for the concession. You know, the games look like crap but run very well, or they look like crap but they are consistent in how they look. Something like that. With Scarlet and Violet, you do not get that. They look ugly and run even worse, with constant performance issues (I am actually not sure there is any time these games maintain a steady frame rate for an extended period of time), and the visuals themselves being distracting with constant flickering, pop in, and just no environmental density. The core design of the games is very strong, strong enough that if it does get its hooks in you, you can sort of, not ignore, but not care as much about, the visuals, because the game itself is so much fun and so compelling and so addictive – but with how these games look and run, how many people will get to that point? It’s Pokemon, so I am sure many will – but how many more won’t, who would otherwise have been able to appreciate the best designed mainline Pokemon game in years?
“They look ugly and run even worse, with constant performance issues (I am actually not sure there is any time these games maintain a steady frame rate for an extended period of time), and the visuals themselves being distracting with constant flickering, pop in, and just no environmental density. The core design of the games is very strong, strong enough that if it does get its hooks in you, you can sort of, not ignore, but not care as much about, the visuals, because the game itself is so much fun and so compelling and so addictive – but with how these games look and run, how many people will get to that point?”
And it’s not just how they look, they’re just buggy as all hell. It’s actually surprising a Nintendo published game is this janky and this buggy. None of these bugs and glitches are game breaking – most of them are actually funny in a haha Bethesda game sort of way (and that’s why so many of them went viral on social media). I can’t even call them distracting, necessarily (at least they weren’t that to me). But why are they there? They should not have been there. This game should not have been this janky, this buggy, this unpolished, this unfinished. Because that’s what it feels like. They got the game content complete, and then that last stretch of development, where they actually polish that content? They never did that, and just shipped it as is.
And it is infuriating that the top brass decided to do that, because the designers held up their end of the bargain. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are incredibly well designed games and ridiculously, almost dangerously, addictive to play once they get their hooks into you. They take several long overdue steps forward for the franchise, make good on many promises the series has implicitly made for decades, bring several forward thinking new ideas to the table that they more or less nail on the first go, and even end up as the most well rounded and content packed entries this franchise has seen in over a decade. Everything was in place for a slam dunk, even with how ugly they looked, but why did they release in this state?
If you are able to look past how janky and buggy they are – and I know many, if not most, players will eventually be able to do that – then what awaits here is an incredible adventure that represents some of this franchise’s strongest moments yet. But the fact that that brilliance is buried under a literal mountain of crap is heartbreaking and infuriating. What should have been a victory lap, a triumphant return to form and glory for Pokemon, is therefore another frustrating half step, besot by unforced errors and caveats. If you can get over the general jank, a very great game awaits you. And if you can’t, well, I can’t really blame you. The Pokémon Company and Game Freak need to rethink their release cadence. It is clearly no longer excusable. And it is starting to impact what should be these excellent games, and making them much less than that.
In the here and now? Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are great games that look ugly as sin and almost totally lack polish and optimization. If they ever get polished, they will be as close to an effortless recommendation as this series has ever gotten. Right now? They’re just good games buried under a mountain of caveats – caveats that you must decide for yourself whether or not they are worth putting up with.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.