Pokemon Scarlet and Violet Review: A Fantastic Pokemon Game Let Down by Performance Struggles

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is the most ambitious and forward-thinking Pokemon game yet, but suffers from some frustrating graphics and technical features. The new Pokemon games represent a transition to the franchise's ninth generation of games and the first to truly feature an open world able to be explored however a player wishes. It continues a nearly decade-long evolution for the Pokemon games produced by Game Freak, with each set of games increasingly deviating from the time-worn formula set by the original Pokemon Red and Green games 25 years ago. But while Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is truly a wonder to behold as a Pokemon game, it struggles to meet even the relatively basic graphical standards for a modern video game. 

Set in the Paldea region, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet opens similarly to past Pokemon games with the player meeting a rival character and receiving their partner Pokemon. However, within an hour or two of starting Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, players are unleashed upon Paldea with a unique Ride Pokemon and are able to explore the region at their leisure. There are three unique "storylines" for players to initially explore, with boss encounters and/or Pokemon gyms representing all 18 of the different Pokemon types. While players are repeatedly reminded that this is an open world with no set path, players quickly discover that some areas are safe for low-level Pokemon teams while others are intended to be tackled at higher levels. There is definitely an order that players should take on the various challenges of the Paldea region, but they aren't place on rails like they were in past Pokemon games.

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One of my biggest criticisms of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the first game to play with a more open Pokemon world, is how empty the Hisui region felt compared to other Pokemon games. There was little to do in Pokemon Legends: Arceus outside of the core gameplay loop of sneaking up and either capturing or battling wild Pokemon. While Pokemon Scarlet and Violet's world is still disappointingly missing the kinds of side quests and rabbit holes to explore that other open world games are filled with, this is made up for by a plethora of new Pokemon to find and a host of trainers to battle. I forgot how much I enjoyed the thrill of discovering a new generation of Pokemon and figuring out how to fill each gap in my Pokedex while battling trainers throughout the region.

The new Terastallizing battle gimmick is an interesting twist as well, although it feels surprisingly underutilized in the game. Tera Raids don't inspire the same level of awe as Gigantamax raids did in Pokemon Sword and Shield, and the game's NPC trainers are disappointingly easy when faced with a team of Pokemon at comparable levels. Whitney's Miltank is sorely missed in the Paldea region, as there are very few battles that will test a Pokemon team's mettle. 

The new Pokemon additions may be divisive (every generation of Pokemon seems to be scrutinized and found wanton by fans, only to be appreciated later) but I personally loved how weird and outlandish they were. There is a whimsy and weirdness to this generation of Pokemon that was delightful, and it was honestly a struggle to decide which Pokemon to put into my "final" team. There were very few misses in this generation of Pokemon designs, and I hope that they continue this streak of originality as they add more Pokemon over the next few years. Plus, many of the Pokemon should have a positive impact on the ever-growing Pokemon competitive scene which seems poised to take off and enter the mainstream. I will say that it has never been easier to build a legitimate team of competitive Pokemon even if breeding Pokemon via eggs has been made significantly more tedious.

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There's also a surprising amount of heart found in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet's core storyline. Two of the three game's initial storylines have shockingly poignant moments to them helped along by character models that actually show emotion and personality. It's nice to have characters who display more than two emotions and a player character that shows more personality than a dead-eyed smile as they're faced with tragedy or adversity. More than once was I surprised by how...sad parts of the story were with characters actually reacting to extreme events in the way that people should.

Game Freak has also shown a willingness to make even more quality-of-life improvements that remove the tedium of a Pokemon game. Some players might enjoy the grind of slowly leveling up Pokemon and finding the one NPC who can restore a Pokemon's missing moves, but I loved how the "Let's Go" mode lets Pokemon quickly gain XP while the player traverses large distances and lets players instantly switch out moves without hesitation. The only thing I didn't like about the tweaks to the Pokemon systems is the new "X" menu, which just felt clunky and unintuitive compared to Pokemon Sword and Shield and was missing several key options that were instead placed in shortcut buttons that are easily forgotten about. 

Where the game stumbles and often fails is in the graphics, which are disappointing even for a Pokemon game. To be clear – I don't think many people play a Pokemon game looking to be wowed by seamless graphics or opulent scenery. But there are times that the game struggles to keep up with its ambition. The game slows to a crawl at times when there are multiple Pokemon on the screen (usually when paired with a landscape with water effects) and the game suffers from a disappointing pop-in issue. I didn't mind the pop-in in Pokemon Sword and Shield or Pokemon Legends: Arceus as much, but players can often outpace the pop-ins when riding on their Pokemon, resulting in impromptu encounters when a player literally rams into a Pokemon that appeared a fraction of a second earlier. The Ride Pokemon controls are disappointingly as clunky as they were in Pokemon Legends: Arceus, and there was also a weird persistent glitch in which the Ride Pokemon actually disappeared on the screen, leaving players floating over water or the ground for a few seconds.

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(Photo: Pokemon)

The game also struggled when having Pokemon battles on inclines or near walls or close to any sort of overworld piece of scenery. It almost made me wish for a return to the separate overworld map and encounter screens. It's hard to say whether Pokemon Scarlet and Violet was let down by the technical limitations of the Nintendo Switch or if Game Freak just failed to make a game on par with its peers, but the discourse surrounding Game Freak's inabilities to make a graphically average game will continue for at least a few more years.  Given that I was playing on a year-old Nintendo Switch OLED and had the console docked for most of my playthrough, I feel like the issues lay more at Game Freak's feet than Nintendo's, although I'll let the more programmer and engineer-focused people issue their opinions with more authority.

Compared to other recent open world games, even those released on the Nintendo Switch years ago, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is something of a disappointment especially in the graphics department. But for better or worse, Pokemon games are rarely judged by their immense fanbase against anything that's not a Pokemon game. And as a Pokemon game, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is an absolute joy with a deeper storyline than usual, a ton of fantastically designed Pokemon, and continued quality-of-life improvements that makes for a less tedious Pokemon experience without sacrificing any essential bits. Pokemon fans will love Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, and even casual players or lapsed Pokemon fans will enjoy the allure of "catching 'em all" provided they don't place a premium on graphics. 

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet go on sale on November 18th for the Nintendo Switch. It was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch OLED with a review code provided by the publisher.