Squandered potential makes for a Paldean mess.
Willem went nuts and made an entire video essay for this editioral, so be sure to give it a watch over on our YouTube-channel!
I’d say that when it comes to faith in the Pokémon series I’ve been on the more positive side over the last decade. I’ve written and made a whole video essay before about how the Pokémon franchise has evolved and how our perception of what a remake should be has shifted since the series inception. When it was revealed that for the 8th generation not all previously available Pokémon would return I didn’t blame The Pokémon Company or Game Freak, but recalled when Black and White took a step in that same direction to let new Pokémon take the spotlight. Pokémon Legends: Arceus was a thrilling step into a new direction and had my hopes high for the following 9th generation of Pokémon. But Scarlet and Violet may have finally broken something in me. Sure, other loud voices had been declaring that Pokémon had lost its touch ever since the shift to full 3D-models, but this time around I personally felt that something had been lost. Whereas others embraced this new approach to Pokémon, I have dreaded most of my 70+ hours of playing these games. Now, on the eve before the first wave of DLC hits and shifts the perception of what Scarlet and Violet are, allow me a moment to look back and examine why I think Scarlet and Violet kind of suck.
I really could just drop in: “performance issues‘ right here and call it a day. I am one who tends to excuse lower framerates, unoptimized performances, and the lack of visual fidelity on Nintendo’s systems. But upon reflection, and especially with almost a year of updates, most of the problems with its core approach can all be boiled down to its frankly abysmal performance. However, as I'm writing this before the release of the DLC, I am quite certain that the optimization of the core game has shifted to its DLC and will be largely left behind. After its release several patches and updates were released that aimed to fix bugs, such as the 1.2.0 patch released in February of 2023. That means that as of right now I feel confident in talking about its faults and how this seeps through into the core of the experience.
See, Pokémon games have always had a sort of weird relationship with their optimization from the very beginning. I definitely do not envy Game Freak, as doing balancing, testing, and animating for hundreds of creatures is a daunting task. But even in Red/Blue, glitches and bugs were almost part of its identity. It fed into the popularization of myths and legends around certain pokémon. Let’s be frank, Missingno would have been a footnote today if it wasn’t such a common occurrence that it was brought up in magazines, websites, and on the schoolyard itself. All down to a simple glitch that was caused by the game just needing to be pushed out the door. Even when the first week of social media on Scarlet and Violet was all of the weird glitches and bugs that players ran into, I didn’t pay it much attention. This is par for the course and obviously the developers are aware of them as well. What is more worrisome is the general state of the game upon release and how it hampers every aspect of its playing experience. Look at the original Pokémon Diamond and Pearl for example. Yes, the story, creatures, and world are possibly some of the best in the series. But its gameplay and performance feels slow and drags on in both the menus, battle animations, and overworld interaction. It is no wonder that Pokémon Platinum is the preferred version to play of that generation. Not only because it feels like a definitive version, it also speeds up a lot of the game and its core features.
Scarlet and Violet feel the worst to play in this regard by a long mile. The vast majority of the game is a drag to play. Using items, selecting moves, and watching the battle unfold takes ages. You would think that with Sword and Shield, or even Pokémon Legends running at a pretty consistent speed, this would be a cakewalk. But going through the motion in both battling, catching, and equipping items to your Pokémon feels like slamming the brakes out of nowhere. You may say: well, use the auto-battle option. But even with that feature you can’t avoid traditional encounters entirely. Traversing around the world you keep running into wild Pokémon, which can sometimes pop up a millisecond before you run into them. It makes every time you fight a trainer, battle a wild Pokémon or even navigate your in-game menus a horrendous ordeal. In particular attack animations which, although they have an increased speed compared to Sword and Shield, are unable to be turned off in the settings for the first time in the series history. It’s all little things when looking at them individually, but together they jam the gears of what should and could be a fairly standard Pokémon adventure.
Speaking of those menus, the worst times are when using the Pokémon boxes and Pokedex itself. Two essential features for not only determining your next objective, but also swapping out party members and movesets. The Pokédex and the boxes actively load while you are using them. Meaning it takes a few seconds when opening a new box or finding an entry in the dex before you can see the Pokémon itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a delay so bad before in a Pokémon game for what should essentially be a checklist or navigational spreadsheet. Let alone missing features such as browsing quickly through the Pokédex or getting a proper indication for the habitat of Pokémon. You could argue that this is part of the design, but not giving the player any navigational tools like markers means you are relying on this badly designed Pokédex. A feature that was the literal focus in the last core game of the series.
So let’s talk about Scarlet and Violet’s odd relation to Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Not only did both games release in the same year, they share a lot of the core identity. Both wanting to enable the player to explore a wide open world with their Pokémon and determining their own route along the way. The games are both about streamlining the management of Pokémon themselves and are much more about the player's expression. But where the Hisui region in Legends feels designed for this open-ended exploration and the learning about the Pokémon, Paldea is a mess to explore. Not only are you always tied to your Miraidon / Koraidon. They are also pitifully slow in most basic actions, even after fully upgrading all their movement capabilities. Now legends suffered from this as well, but legends had a trick up its sleeve with a fragmented overworld. Not only did this probably aid the game to run at a more consistent framerate, but it also made exploration exciting and manageable. It made going back to earlier areas exciting as you unlocked new modes of transport. That could be used for finding new items, spotting Spiritomb pieces and of course, finding new Pokémon that were visible before, but you were unable to approach or capture. Like the flying Magnezone and Togekiss in the sky.
In Paldea the world feels barren. There are distinct regions, but rarely do they feel like they have their own characteristics. Brown Mountain, Rocky Canyon, desert bit and coastline blend together to make the Paldean region feel unappealing. The exploration and size of the world feels meaningless. It feels like there are only ten or so buildings you can enter in all of Paldea, excluding the gyms themselves. Can you tell me anything significant about these places and why people live there or what defines their life outside of being the location for a Pokémon Gym? You never need to meet any NPCs that live in a town, meaning they are little more than a rush to find the Gym Leader. Sure one town has fields of olive gardens and another is filled with fountains, but they functionally lost all meaning of being there. If I say Celadon City, Goldenrod City, Lavaridge Town, Oreburgh City, Nimbasa City, Snowbelle City, Malie City or Motostoke, you can at least let your imagination run wild. But outside of its capital Mesagoza and maybe Cascarrafa and Levencia there are no locations that feel meaningful. Even Area Zero, which is great, does not have any NPC’s running around for its worldbuilding. It has meaning in absence and unique diversity in Pokémon, but frankly that absence of other humans could be felt all throughout the Paldea region.
I really don’t like to keep comparing these games but again, look at Legends. Settlements in the Hisui region show how the people live and also provide quests and grow over time. You are encouraged to meet up with NPCs to get a sense of their lives and the world. There are funny characters that aren’t Gym Leaders and have a role to play, like the general staff of the Galaxy Team who actively engage with the player. Unlike the staff at the Naranja or Uva academy who feel not just secondary but can be missed altogether if you decide to never take any optional classes. This caused my behavior to shift while exploring Paldea. I rarely talked to any trainers in the open world, let alone battle them. The need for that engagement was gone and their rewards, be it experience or money, were not worth the trouble of having to deal with slowdown, the in-game menus, and the terrible performance. One may argue that it is to ‘break with the conventions’ like another long-running franchise did in its open-world outing. But the trainers are still there, they have just been made redundant because avoiding them is by far the most logical option.
And then there’s Game Freak wanting to have both a returning feature and putting a new spin on it with Tera Raid battles. These combine the fantastic Raid Battles from Galar, with the godawful performance of Scarlet and Violet and remove the turn-based mechanics in an online environment. The end result is a complete mess, where half of the time players have no idea what they are doing and you end up waiting to see if your move even made a dent. This is coupled with also having to tackle either unbelievably strong Pokémon that require you to have a very specific approach before you begin the fight or Pokémon that are one-shotted by using a type-effective move. The Crystal Cavern mechanic is interesting, but half the time just finding people to play with and coordinating anything over an online connection where input timing is essential make the game just fall apart. Even after technical improvements post-launch, Tera Raid Battles are still badly explained mechanically and feels more like throwing up roadblocks for the sake of being obstacles instead of making the player feel smart about their choice of Pokémon. What really left me sour is that as of right now, there are new Pokémon like Walking Wake and Iron Leaves locked behind this mechanic. Meaning that you are required to have both Pokémon strong enough to withstand their attack and be able to communicate with other players properly to add these creatures to your collection. Sure, it is more engaging than connecting to the internet and downloading them, but it also feels like the least elegant solution when you have a world that the designers want you to explore. Just to throw an idea out there, they are based on roaming legendaries. So just have them out there roaming around and running away through this big open world. It would’ve complemented the design of the game and perhaps even given some significance to now meaningless locations in Paldea.
At its best moments, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet run just well enough to make you feel like you can freely explore every nook and find new creatures. But almost all the time the brakes are slammed down as you run into a performance hiccup, need to wait while opening a menu, or run into a wild Pokémon. It is a game that unintentionally makes you aware that you are playing a game. Every time I went back to it after finishing, I was instantly reminded of how little fun I have with it, which is a shame because I do think there is a lot to love here on paper. The story, especially Area Zero and Arven's role, is quite engaging. In fact, Area Zero being separate from its main world seems to make a huge difference. I also love most of the new Pokémon in this generation and some refreshing versions with the paradox-mon are a cool approach to reinvent what certain Pokémon are. But this is part of the course for almost any Pokémon game: having ups and downs. I do not like Team Star nor their implementation in the story and also think that some new evolution methods are outright bizarre. The glaring and recurring issue is that the technical problems seep into making me feel down every time I want to give Scarlet and Violet a shot. I have friends who still actively play the game for shiny hunting and team building, and I wish I had more of a desire to join in on that, because I still am truly a fan of the Pokémon games. But even thinking about booting up Scarlet just makes me instantly look for something else to play. I can’t deal with a game that had the blueprint for how it could be done right in front of it, but instead just sank beneath its own weight.
I suspect that with the release of the Hidden Treasures of Area Zero DLC, its focus on two entirely new locations might be much more akin to what Hisui and even Galar were about. I am genuinely hoping that this can be a smaller scale adventure, much like the Isle of Armor and the Crown Tundra in Galar with the Sword and Shield’s Expansion pass, thus mitigating some of the technical issues while providing some much needed character to the Paldea region. In turn, this will probably shift the conversation about S/V for the foreseeable future, discourse that overshadowed how these games tried to run before they could walk, and perhaps contradicted themselves when the smaller separate locations improved on the experience. But that doesn't mean we should skip past the massive road bumps that the core of these games was designed around and that seeped into their design. Much has already been said on the topic of The Pokémon Company and Game Freak’s relentless schedule and them needing to push out new games every two years. Yes, that conversation ties in with my personal gripes with Scarlet and Violet, but I don’t think that my issues with them would all be solved if the developers had another full year to work on the game. The technical issues are a disappointment on top, but the core underneath them is flawed in places that additional development time wouldn’t have been able to fix. Tera Raid Battles, the lack of personality for each of the cities–even though they have been elaborately designed–and the lack of incentives for a player while exploring the world are things that cannot be solved within a year. Without a doubt, better optimization would be a benefit for the entire game, but it wouldn’t have elevated Scarlet and Violet to the top tier of Pokémon mainline games for me. Because in the end, after playing every single Pokémon game, I don’t think I’ve ever had the urge to stop catching them all as much as after Scarlet and Violet. That, above all else, scares me the most.