A fantastic Pokemon game let down by performance struggles

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is the most ambitious and forward-thinking Pokemon game to date, but suffers from some frustrating graphical 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 that can be explored however a player chooses. It continues a nearly decade-long evolution for the Pokemon games produced by Game Freak, with each set of games deviating more and more from the well-worn formula of the original pokemon red and green games 25 years ago. But while Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is truly a marvel to behold as a Pokemon game, it struggles to even meet the relatively basic graphics standards for a modern video game.

Located in the Paldea region, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet opens similarly to previous Pokemon games where the player encounters a rival character and receives their partner Pokemon. However, within an hour or two of starting Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, players are set loose on Paldea with a unique Ride Pokemon and can 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 different Pokemon types. While players are repeatedly reminded that this is an open world with no set path, players soon discover that some areas are safe for low-level Pokemon teams, while others are meant to be tackled at higher levels. There’s certainly an order for players to take on the various challenges of the Paldea region, but they’re not placed on rails like in previous Pokemon games.

One of my biggest criticisms of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the first game to be played with a more open pokemon world is how empty the hisui region felt compared to other pokemon games. There was little to do inside Pokemon Legends: Arceus beyond the main gameplay loop of sneaking and capturing or battling wild Pokemon. While Pokemon Scarlet and Violet world still disappointingly lacks the kind of side quests and rabbit holes to explore that other open-world games are full of, making up for this with a plethora of new Pokemon to find and a host of trainers to battle. I forgot how much I enjoyed the excitement of discovering a new generation of Pokemon and figuring out how to fill every hole in my Pokedex while battling trainers across the region.

The new Terastallizing combat gimmick is also an interesting twist, although it feels surprisingly underused in the game. Tera Raids don’t inspire the same level of awe as Gigantamax raids pokemon sword and shield, and the game’s NPC trainers are disappointingly easy when faced with a team of Pokemon at similar levels. Whitney’s Miltank is sorely missed in the Paldea region, as there are very few battles that test a Pokemon team’s mettle.

The new Pokemon additions can be divisive (each generation of Pokemon seems to be scrutinized and willfully found by fans, only to be appreciated later), but personally I loved how weird and bizarre they were. There’s a whimsy and weirdness to this generation of Pokemon that was delightful, and it was honestly a struggle deciding which Pokemon to put on my “final” team. There were very few misses in this generation of Pokemon designs, and I hope they continue this streak of originality as they add more Pokemon in the years to come. Additionally, many of the Pokemon should have a positive impact on the ever-expanding Pokemon competition scene, which seems poised to take off and enter the mainstream. I’ll say it’s never been easier to build a legit team of competitive Pokemon, even if breeding Pokemon via eggs has gotten considerably more tedious.

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It also has a surprising amount of heart Pokemon Scarlet and Violet core storyline. Two of the three game’s first storylines feature shockingly poignant moments aided by character models that actually show emotion and personality. It’s nice to have characters that show more than two emotions and a player character that shows more personality than a deadly smile as they face tragedy or adversity. More than once I was surprised by how… sad parts of the story were with characters actually reacting to extreme events the way people should.

Game Freak has also shown a willingness to make even more quality of life improvements that take the boredom out of a Pokemon game. Some players might enjoy the grind of slowly leveling up Pokemon and finding that one NPC who can restore a Pokemon’s missing moves, but I loved how the “Let’s Go” mode lets Pokemon gain XP quickly while the player travels great distances and allows players to instantly exchange 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 missed several key options instead placed in keyboard shortcuts that are easily forgotten.

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 playing a Pokemon game want to be impressed by seamless graphics or lush landscapes. But there are times when the game struggles to keep up with its ambition. The game slows to a crawl at times when there are multiple Pokemon on screen (usually paired with a water effect landscape) and the game suffers from a disappointing pop-in issue. I didn’t mind the pop-in pokemon sword and shield or Pokemon Legends: Arceus as many, but players can often outrun the pop-ins when riding their Pokemon, resulting in impromptu encounters when a player literally bumps into a Pokemon that appeared a fraction of a second earlier. The Ride Pokemon controls are disappointingly as clunky as they were Pokemon Legends: Arceus, and there was also a weird persistent glitch where the Ride Pokemon actually disappeared on screen, leaving players hovering over the water or the ground for a few seconds.

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(Photo: Pokemon)

The game also struggled with Pokemon battles on ramps or near walls or near some kind of overworld. It almost made me long for a return to the separate world map and encounter screens. It’s hard to say if 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 around Game Freak’s inability to make a graphically average game will continue for at least a few more years. Considering 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 were more on Game Freak’s feet than Nintendo’s, though i the more programmer and engineer oriented i will let people give their opinion with more authority.

Compared to other recent open world games, even those released years ago on Nintendo Switch, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is a disappointment, especially in the graphics department. But for better or for worse, Pokemon games are rarely judged by their massive fan base against something that isn’t a Pokemon game. And like a pokemon game, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet is an absolute delight with a deeper storyline than usual, a ton of fantastically designed Pokemon, and ongoing quality-of-life improvements that make for a less tedious Pokemon experience without sacrificing essential bits. Pokemon fans will love Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and even casual players or lapsed Pokemon fans will enjoy the allure of “catching them all”, provided they don’t place a premium on graphics.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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