Is this the evolution the Pokémon franchise needs?
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are promising to be a big shake-up to the series’ formula as the first brand new generation to feature a fully open world map. I had the privilege recently of being one of the first people in the world to get hands-on experience with the game, and was given the opportunity to play roughly an hour of it. I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant going in; the mainline Pokémon games have started to lose me a bit lately, and I haven’t really gotten excited about a new adventure in close to a decade. I can’t say that my worries have been completely dispelled—Scarlet and Violet are not the radical reinvention to the formula that I may have been hoping for—but after playing it for myself, one thing has become clear: this is definitely going to be the best game the series has seen in a long while.
Our demo started early in the game with the prologue already completed, giving us the opportunity to immediately see what the game is like after it gets going. From there we got to choose one of the game’s three main stories to follow: Victory Road, Path of Legends, and Starfall Street. Structurally, I was expecting these stories to be part of a single linear narrative, but they actually unfold in a manner that reminded me most of Grand Theft Auto V—a phrase that I’m sure you’re as surprised to read as I was to write. In Grand Theft Auto V, each of the main protagonists has their own separate linear story, but you can swap between them on the fly based on whatever you feel like accomplishing at the moment, and new missions are unlocked in each story as you progress further through the others. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet work the same way; all three storylines have a main objective on the map at once, and you’re free to wander over to whichever you feel like doing.
I chose first to follow the mission closest to my starting point, which was part of the Path of Legends. In the Path of Legends storyline, you’ll be searching for rare resources guarded by massive Titan Pokémon. This led me to a mountainous desert where I encountered the Stony Cliff Titan, Klawf. This same Titan Pokémon was showcased in the recent online video presentation, and in fact most of the missions we played in the demo can be seen in that stream. I briefly tracked it through the mountain, which led to a boss battle against it. Our Pokémon team was preset and filled with Pokémon that were intentionally over-leveled so that we could quickly progress through missions in the limited time we had, so I didn’t get a good idea of how difficult this fight would really be in the final game. After Klawf was defeated, it ran away, bringing an end to the portion of Path of Legends that we were allowed to play. Since we got to see so little of this storyline in the demo, I still don’t really have a good idea of how it will progress in the full game, and I’m not sure how in depth it will be beyond just fighting giant Pokémon.
Next I decided to follow the Victory Road story, a traditional storyline where you travel to multiple Gyms to defeat their leaders and earn badges. This mission was a bit farther away from where I was, so I took a couple of detours in the open world on the way. I didn’t want to get too distracted since we had been warned that it would be tough to complete all three story missions within the limited time we had, but I was interested in seeing how the open world itself works.
In this respect, Scarlet and Violet are incredibly similar to Legends Arceus, with the environments outside of towns being primarily filled with wild Pokémon and collectible items. Occasionally I would see a shining light off in the distance, and taking a detour out to it would either lead me to a Tera Jewel that would allow me to Terastallize, or a sparkling Wild Tera Pokémon that was already Terastallized—I’ll talk more about Terastilization later. I was a bit disappointed not to find any side quests or other minor storylines I could follow, but it’s possible that I simply didn’t pass by any while rushing to my next main story mission. Since Legends Arceus featured plenty of sidequests, I’d be surprised if there didn’t end up being any in the full version of Scarlet and Violet.
It didn’t take long for me to reach the Grass-type Gym in Artazon. Gyms work the same as they did in Sword and Shield: you must complete a specialized mission before you can challenge the leader. For this Gym, I had to play a game of hide and seek with a group of Sunflora. Like the Gym challenges in Sword and Shield, this was not very difficult, but unlike in Sword and Shield this challenge didn’t take place within the Gym; it utilized the entire town. I liked this challenge a lot since it was a great opportunity to really explore the town and see the sights that I had rushed past in my haste to start the challenge, and I think it served as a great introduction to the town itself. If, in the full game, you explore the town before taking on this challenge, then that would be great, too, since it means you’ll likely already know the layout and be able to find the hiding Sunflora in quick order. We didn’t get to see any other Gym challenges in the demo, but if they all use the town’s geography like this, it’ll go a long way towards making the game’s world feel a bit more fleshed out.
After finding all the Sunflora, I faced off against the Gym Leader Brassius. At this point I have to admit that I actually had not watched the online presentation that covered most of the content in the demo yet when I played it, so I didn’t know that I’d be going face to face with a Terastallized Pokémon. When the game told me that Brassius would be sending out Sudowoodo, I swapped to my Water-type Pokémon to counter, which was promptly stomped into the ground when Sudowoodo Terastallized into a Grass-type.
The process of Terastallization is like a weaker version of Dynamaxing, where the Pokémon in question drastically alters its stats to change its role in battle. (I consider the fact that it’s weaker to be a good thing since Dynamaxing was hilariously overpowered.) I don’t think that Terastallization will mean very much to a casual player; the quick surprise of having to deal with a different type matchup than I expected was funny, but ultimately didn’t change the battle very much since I simply swapped my Fire-type Pokémon back in, and I suppose I should’ve been more suspicious when the Grass Gym Leader sent out a Rock-type Pokémon in a game whose core gimmick is about changing types. That said, I do expect Terastallization to have a drastic impact on competitive play, and it could be a fascinating shake-up to that format which could bring otherwise irrelevant Pokémon into high-level play.
After completing the Gym Battle I decided to heal my Pokémon through the Picnic mechanic, which is a cute diversion where you can hang out with your Pokémon, wash them, and make sandwiches to eat together. The sandwiches you make are assembled by hand with real-world ingredients. The Nintendo rep who was guiding me through the demo caught me a little off guard when she said that the sandwich-making minigame was physics-based, which led into the most memorably stupid experience of the day.
I am not very good at preparing food and do not know what ingredients make a good sandwich, which was something that I started to feel very self-conscious about with representatives from Nintendo and The Pokémon Company watching me play. So I naturally overcompensated by intentionally making the most ridiculously impractical sandwich I could imagine. I stacked up various pieces of meat way too high, and added tomatoes, lettuce, and various other toppings on top. I was quickly forced to face the consequences of my actions as ingredients started to slide off the top of the sandwich, with a particular piece of lettuce acting as a foundation that held its passengers roughly as well as a water slide. I desperately tried to course correct, but the sandwich had turned into a late-stage game of Jenga that was collapsing in on itself at an unsalvageable rate.
The game titled my sandwich “A [Player Name] Original,” which I could not help but imagine being read with the same patronizing tone in which you might call a kindergartener’s watercolor painting “unique.” This whole sequence was very funny to me, and it’s the kind of thing I look forward to seeing a Twitch streamer struggle with in real time.
Having paid for my sins, I set off to the final story mission in the demo, which was part of the Starfall Street storyline where you take on the villainous Team Star. This mission took place within a Team Starfall base, which could only be entered by opening a barred-off gate. Upon entering the base, I was thrown into a challenge where I had ten minutes to defeat thirty Pokémon that were under Team Star’s control. The only way to accomplish this was by using the auto-battle mechanic to send out my team to independently take on different Pokémon so that I could complete multiple battles at a time. This challenge felt remarkably similar in scope to the Gym challenges, though the team base was a much less interesting locale than the town of Artazon.
After completing the challenge, I squared off against the Team Star boss Mela, who fought me with her team of Pokémon as well as the massive Starmobile she was riding on. The Starmobile is a powerful opponent that had to be defeated to win the battle, and I was shocked at just how difficult the battle was. Keep in mind that the Pokémon team we were using was intentionally overpowered to allow us to progress through the demo quickly, and even with that hefty advantage, I still had to think carefully about my strategy once Mela took down half my team. I’ll be very interested to see how tough this fight ends up being when my team is properly balanced for it, since it struck me as unusually hard. If it turns out to be a difficult fight where you’re forced to put some real strategy in to win, then it’d be one of the most interesting things the franchise has done this side of Pokémon Stadium 2’s Gym Leader Castle.
When the demo time ran out, I was connected to the other guests who had been playing the demo at the same time as me in a raid battle against a Tera Pokémon. Raids were introduced in Sword and Shield, and it’s still pretty cool to work together to take down a super powerful Pokémon, but it was definitely the least interesting part of the demo since there weren't a lot of new things to see. Aside from some minor changes like being able to cheer when your Pokémon aren’t knocked out and a rework of the target Pokémon’s health bar, raids are pretty much the same experience as they were in Sword and Shield.
My time with this demo didn’t blow me away—it’s not too surprising to discover that Pokémon is still in fact Pokémon—but it did lift my confidence enough in the game to be interested in buying it. I have a lot of questions that need to be answered before I can say for sure how I feel about this game: will the Gym Challenges all use the overworld’s geography in interesting ways? Will Starfall Street have the depth and difficulty I imagine from the close call it gave me? Is there more to the Path of Legends than just fighting giant Pokémon?
These questions could all be make-or-break for whether this game is a true revitalization of the formula or just the next small step up, and if the answers aren’t what I’m hoping for then this game probably won’t change the minds of anyone like me that’s feeling a bit worn out by the series. But despite these questions, the open world structure will undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air that sets Scarlet and Violet apart from its most recent predecessors. I’m confident in saying that this will likely be the best Pokémon game of the last few generations, but time will tell just how much of a gap there is between first and second place.