If nothing else, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet certainly feel big. I recently played Scarlet for a little over an hour, dropped in by my home village with a team of Pokémon around level 25 – made up entirely of newcomers like Cetaitan, Wiglett, Farigiraf, Armorage and Bellibolt – and given a choice of three tasks. I could take on a gym battle on the Victory Road story path, battle the titan Pokémon Klawf on the Path of Legends, or take on some Team Star grunts and a boss fight in the Starfall Street path. In the space of an hour I managed to do almost none of that, instead getting distracted, lost, allured and slightly baffled by Pokémon’s first properly open world.
I say first properly open world, but there will be some caveats here. Pokémon Legends: Arceus (that was this year!) was sort of open, more of a Monster Hunter-like game of distinct open areas separated off from one another. Scarlet and Violet are open, it seems, like an Elder Scrolls game is open, with the whole main world seemingly accessible to you more or less from the off, but some loading screens separating you from major cities like Mesagoza, which act as their own discrete areas. Wild Pokémon and trainers’ Pokémon don’t level scale with you, so for the most part I was dashing about squashing Lvl.3 Lechonks, and that adds a curiously old-school RPG vibe to a game that is, otherwise, deeply focused on simplicity and ease of access.
Many friction points of old Pokémon games, or even just quirks that might not have added much friction at all, have been sanded down and removed. The Poké Balls that contain items and have dotted the regions of Pokémon since Red and Blue now have little glowing vertical beacons, making them easily visible from far off – and they seem to be everywhere. Experience Candy, a new item from Sword and Shield earned from Max Raid Battles that you could use to level up your Pokémon gradually, seems to be discoverable in those overworld items, making it more readily available than before. Trainer battles are now entirely optional – you walk up to a character and interact with them if you want to battle, with none triggering automatically on ‘eye contact’ like before. Even the Poké Balls you throw to catch Pokémon do their little three-time-rock at twice the speed, seemingly to make blasting through encounter-battle-catch-fests faster – albeit, in the wake of Arceus’ much more fluid, interruption-free process of just lobbing balls in the overworld, it’s not as fast as it could have been.
Some of Arceus’ more radical changes might be missed here. Scarlet and Violet have introduced a new “Let’s Go!” command system that sees you send your party Pokémon off to battle and collect whatever comes up in front of them as you travel, but it feels too passive for my taste. Old school wild encounters had directness, as you chose how to order your party according to which Pokémon you wanted to level up, or carry you through a tricky cave, while Arceus’ new system had intentionality to movement itself, where it was important to sneak up on Pokémon to land critical catches or dodge genuinely dangerous foes. Scarlet and Violet’s is between the two, and while you still have to think about which party member you’re sending out, the result feels a bit like playing Pokémon Go with the Go Plus accessory turned on – more efficient, definitely, but then also detached from the action itself. It may change in the context of the full game, but here found myself avoiding using it altogether.
That’s until I did, eventually, reach the Starfall Street challenge against Team Star and one of their leaders, Mela. This tasks you with defeating 30 grunts in quick succession, but you’re forced to do so by having your Pokémon in Let’s Go mode and essentially running around mashing the one button that commands them to attack. I completed it with about 80 percent of the timer left and came away sincerely hoping no other challenges are like it, although I worry they may well be the norm for that branch of the story. The end was a much more traditional, and much more challenging battle against Mela on top of their Wacky Races spruce caboose automobile to some thoroughly Nintendo punk music, which was a blast – hopefully more of this comes to the fore.
A very quick taste of the Gym challenge sees you collecting Sunflora in a similar run-around-to-the-timer challenge without much more to it, and so the overall hope here is that Game Freak is keeping the more interesting, less passive stuff up its sleeve for the full release. Far more interesting to me was Scarlet and Violet’s world.
The environments are varied – hills, deserts, cliffs, caves, oceans and more came up in that one hour in one small corner of the map. Your Koraidon acts like a combination of all the transportation Pokémon of Arceus (or the Rotom bike of Sword and Shield), letting you run, jump, climb, and glide about the world in real time while the more traditional, fast-travel style flying was unlocked from the off – at least for me – to a large number of places of interest around the map. And there are a large number of places of interest, your map filled with icons which I couldn’t make out in such a short time. Four lighthouses stand in the north, south, east and west edges of the map – I climbed the southern one but found nothing there in this preview – so they may play a role in the story. At Pokémon Centers – outdoor structures that look like petrol stations rather than shops – there are trainers who give out challenges, like beating a certain number of nearby opponents in a set time, while there was a kind of collectible sidequest linked to one new thing that I can’t mention.
The exciting part is the seamlessness of it. I found a cave entrance with no fanfare whatsoever, and was suddenly delving deeper and deeper into its bowels, the cave walls and floors lined with a clearly significant glowing green gem-like substance. It felt massive, albeit fairly simple. There are lots of Pokémon but mostly the same ones milling around, with a few items dotted about but not much by way of intricate environments or branching paths, and no puzzles. Think caves from the Sword and Shield DLC, rather than Pokémon dungeons of old. Still, it led me out to a secluded beach, where I climbed up to one of those lighthouses, soared down across the landscape, and carried on into a rocky desert. Across all of these Pokémon roam, often in little packs huddled around a higher evolution of their species, Wingull waddling about on the beach, Growlithe prowling the rocky chasms. That sense of adventure and freedom, for a Pokémon game, remains a joy.
Scarlet and Violet’s multiplayer elements are also an improvement. You can add up to three players to your game in co-op by standing on a yellow pad at any Pokémon Center and inviting them in, and there’s a surprising amount of independence – after four of us joined into one game and having a quick Koraidon race, we all went our separate ways, taking on story missions and exploring at seemingly unlimited distance without dropping out. Similarly, Raids return here and are a clear improvement on Sword and Shield, largely thanks to the switch to a form of ‘real time’ battling. Everyone plugs in their moves as and when they can, with Speed stats dictating who attacks in what order. Like before, the raid boss Pokémon will have a large health bar you need to whittle down, and periodically kick out a few special abilities like removing stat changes or starting to crystallise, where at least one of you will need to use the new Terastalysing gimmick to dish out a bit more damage before a timer runs out. Also like before, these raids spawn around the world at certain points, and on completion you all get a single chance to throw a ball and catch it – which can fail if you’re unlucky.
There are a few reasons to temper expectations, though. The larger city of Mesagoza was one. It’s enormous, a truly vast walled city with some towering buildings, but of the ones I tried the vast majority of shops, restaurants and other buildings have doors that can’t be entered. A few identical restaurants along a strip could be interacted with, where you’re presented with a static screen of four meals you can buy (these offer you different bonuses for exploration, like affecting the chances for large or small Pokémon to appear, and catching, raid, and item drop modifiers). Other buildings which looked the same couldn’t be entered or interacted with at all, the same going for smaller villages and towns around the map which only had a handful of houses in the first place. After parts of Sword and Shield, especially the deeply disappointing Spikemuth, went this way, it’s a real shame to see that approach be so commonplace in what I saw of Scarlet and Violet so far, especially for a series that’s often been about talking to everyone, poking into hidden corners and rifling through bins for secrets.
Similarly, and maybe most concerning with launch less than a month away, Scarlet and Violet seriously struggled with performance. Some might have noticed brief moments in recent trailers where a windmill moves at a stuttering, stop-motion speed, and Sunflora follow the main trainer with some very choppy motion. This may just be an early build showing its earliness – a Japanese version of one of these trailers seemingly shows some different lighting and noticeably smoother motion for those Sunflora, for instance – but I found Scarlet and Violet to be like this throughout. Menus are slow and noticeably laggy, and animations are hugely choppy, with NPCs moving like flicker book drawings even at very close distance, and town buildings loading in as you walk through their streets. Again, we are pre-launch here and things can of course change, but I’ve played a few Pokémon game previews now, and Scarlet and Violet are without doubt the roughest feeling of those.
That’s a real shame, because there are some exciting changes here. Some classic highlights remain in the charm of NPC dialogue and some wonderful new Pokémon designs. And after so many years, it’s fun to see Game Freak properly experimenting with the main series Pokémon format. Things may well improve by the time launch comes around in mid November. If it doesn’t, let’s hope the studio starts getting the resources it needs to take a smoother leap into modern open world games. After all these years of Pokémon’s unparalleled success, they’ve certainly earned it.