If the QA and testing teams were set to Magnitude 10 instead of Magnitude 4, we’d have an all-timer on our hands.
By now, judgment has largely been rendered on Pokemon Scarlet and Violet - either you’re bouncing all over the Paldea region on your motorcycle-like dragon or you’re laughing at the glitch videos getting plastered all over the internet. Still, is there enough in Scarlet and Violet that a “clean” version of the game is worth buying, or is it necessary to hold out for Blessed White and Wonderful Black for a good Pokemon experience?
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet’s story is essentially set up in a three-pronged format. After enrolling in a version dependent academy, selecting your starter, and having a run-in with a possibly legendary Pokemon, you are set loose on the continent of Paldea. There are three stories - “Victory Road”, “Path of Legends”, and “Starfall Street” - that task the trainer with defeating all 18 types of Pokemon either in gym battles, a “titan” Pokemon battle, or in a raid against (the villainous?) Team Star’s bases. Aside from sticking the locations of these fights on your map, that’s all the guidance you’re given, for better or worse. The school setting calling it an “independent study” also adds to this, though there are optional classes that can be taken for explanations of game mechanics and rewards up to and including legendary Pokemon locations and other Pokemon. The three plots do eventually converge upon completing them all, and without spoiling the endgame, it’s certainly worth sticking it out to the end as the Pokemon series hasn’t really gone to these places before. I did a path through the game that wasn’t really optimal and led to a lot of late game grinding: a titan, a base, and two gyms since the split is eight gyms, five titans, and five bases. The lack of level balancing was a bit painful when I had to slaughter Chansey in their numbers for experience, but…
The Switch has seen various stabs at the “open world:” Sword and Shield had their Wild Area and added a couple of smaller zones via DLC, while Legends: Arceus featured unlockable zones of open exploration. Scarlet and Violet’s world is essentially what happens when the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra become the base game; you can explore 95% of the continent as soon as you’re turned loose on the school (or in the case of one NWR staffer, before). This has thrown a curveball into a classic Pokemon mechanic, however. Previously, Pokemon obtained in a trade would tend to disobey commands so you couldn’t borrow a level 100 Garchomp from a friend to wreck a game. Both of the open predecessors (Sword/Shield, Arceus) had a form of level capping whereby a Pokemon could not be caught above a certain level which increased by game progress. Scarlet and Violet combine this; it is possible to catch a Pokemon above your cap, but it’s markedly harder AND it will disobey if it is CAUGHT above the level cap until you get Gym badges. What wasn't clear and was a point of contention for me was that this doesn’t apply to Pokemon that are caught below the cap and leveled up - something to keep in mind if you want to try Professor Oak’s Challenge in the game, I guess.
Scarlet and Violet’s main new mechanics are the Terastal battle modification and the Let’s Go encounter. Terastal, which is unlocked just after being set out from the school, changes a Pokemon’s type until it’s knocked out or the battle ends; this can be used to inflict additional damage with a main type, or for defensive purposes to dodge existing weaknesses. This differs from previous mechanics as it is tied to an item that has to be restored at a Pokemon Center before it can be used again; it’s not spammable in every fight the way prior techs worked, nor is it tied to the game’s “Raid” battles and gym fights. As the type can be changed via collecting enough of an item, it’s got a good balance of being strong and strategically useful but not game breaking. The “Let’s Go” mechanic has the player’s first Pokemon sent out to battle wild Pokemon. It’s essentially an auto battle, and it’s nice that it doesn’t remove special Pokemon from the map, but it’s not really essential outside of one of the story modes and a few new evolutions that require walking a certain distance. A minor mechanical change is that although TMs return to being single-use items, they can be crafted by a combination of Pokemon materials and a currency earned each time a Pokemon is defeated. If we must have a quality set of moves available to teach on demand, at least there’s a reasonable way to make them available.
The Victory Road story path maintains the traditional eight gyms and an Elite 4 that are part of most mainline Pokemon games. Each gym has a challenge that has to be completed and to be blunt, they’re mostly lame minigames. The first two I did - Bug and Grass - can be completed without a single battle, and I do have to wonder why rolling a giant olive into a wall or playing hide-and-seek qualifies me for a match with a gym leader. After playing Simon / Where’s Waldo / Slalom, the gym leaders themselves are a decent challenge even if they are a little obsessed with Terastalizing a Pokemon outside of their type into their trademark type to get one shot. Each gym has three or four Pokemon to battle as well and does a decent job of playing around the type’s weaknesses - until the main Pokemon comes out, of course. Notably, the sixth gym I did had double battles used instead of the standard 1v1 battles; coincidentally, this was the hardest of the bunch.
Path of Legends is one that is easy to stumble into; the titans are big enough that they’re noticeable even with the game’s low draw distance in handheld mode. The fights are modified versions of the Totem battles in the Sun and Moon generation; one of your Pokemon battles the titan alone to get it to a certain health level, whereupon it retreats to a cave where you and another character double-team the titan. The titans unlock new navigation methods for the mount Pokemon: they eventually pick up a dash, swimming abilities, a high jump, a glide, and mountain scaling. (The fact that “Herba Mystica”, the items that are used to unlock the abilities, shares initials with “Hidden Machine,” which was an old navigation tech, is probably intentional.)
Starfall Street requires three wins to clear; a win against a trainer outside the gym which serves as a level check, then the Let’s Go function has to be used with the first three Pokemon on the team to take out 30 Pokemon. I found here that the battles were made harder than they needed to be by fat-fingering; sending out a Pokemon is mapped to R, but recalling is set to ZR by default and I thought I was calling something out when it wasn’t called back yet. After 30 KOs ensues a standard Pokemon battle even if one of the Pokemon has been modified into a freaking CAR, and that’s it. It’s a simple mode, but it does feature a lot of story and really bad disguises.
You can’t swing a dead Litten around the internet without hitting a Scarlet or Violet glitch video now. I had one of the better experiences among those of us who played Pokemon, and even then I still had one soft crash that might have just been an extremely long load, a lot of slowdown, and one incident involving a fight with a Floatzel stuck in a bridge.
The lighting of the game also made me think a Snom I found was shiny when it wasn’t… of course, that didn’t become obvious until I started the battle. I’ve seen reports from other staffers that have had double-digit crash to desktop errors in a week, so there’s definitely something wrong - especially when I checked the “Debug Team” in the credits and they had FIVE PEOPLE listed. Most of my play was based on a downloaded version that went to my SD card by default, so when the “move it to system memory” idea propagated, I tried it and found a minor improvement. Testing a retail copy of Violet also didn’t have issues, but that was played entirely on a Switch Lite. The online play was a big question for me; I had memories of enabling the online in Sword and Shield and dropping down to a framerate of roughly “lol, no.” Even with a full party, it was fine as they don’t drop every NPC onto the map to take up processing time. Some issues came up with Terastal raid battles since everyone’s attacking simultaneously; I had a few raids with moves being used after the enemy’s health hit 0.
As someone who’s a Pokemon collector, I always look forward to seeing what the new Pokemon bring to the table. I ended up with more than a box’s worth of new Pokemon that I wanted to use during the story before finally shifting to one team for the conclusions of the stories; though I did notice a lack of new Ground types outside of Paldean Wooper and what is clearly “what if Tentacool was a Grass/Ground type.” I was ride or die with Sprigatito as a cat fan, and considering their trademark move in their final form never misses AND always gets critical hits, I chose *wisely*. I do have to shake my head at some of the new evolution methods; one Pokemon evolves at random after a certain level, another requires leveling in a multiplayer instance, and then… remember Gimmighoul? It evolves, but only after you find 999 of its unique items - coins - in the environment. The only things that stop this from being Korok Seeds 2: This Time It’s Personal is that they can respawn, you get more than one at a time, and there’s a functional reward. A decent number of new Pokemon are held to the very end of the game; this made for a fun final pre-credits fight when I had to face an entire team where I’d seen only one of them before.
The soundtrack for Scarlet and Violet has a ton of bangers, with special dispensation to Toby Fox who composed a lot of the battle themes. The Team Star battle and gym match battle themes especially stand out. There’s been a lot of fury over the licensing of a tune by Ed Sheeran seemingly at random - I will admit to actually liking “Celestial”, and its use in the game is appropriate given the context of it.
Despite the score, I’m going to spend a stupid amount of time in the world of Paldea. The technical issues with the game will eventually be fixed, and what will be left is a great Pokemon experience. If you’re still on the fence at this point, it’s certainly fair to wait for patches to smooth things out, but at some point I hope everyone can come along for the ride. And based on the opening weekend sales, I might’ve gotten my wish already.