Pokémon Scarlet

When I was in highschool, I had to write essays. These essays were graded on a rubric with a certain percentage of points for various categories. One of these categories was what could be considered writing “technical skills.” Things like grammar, sentence construction, and spelling mistakes as a whole contributed to about 20% of the essay’s grade.

As a result, I would never get higher than 80%, because regardless of how good any of my points, ideas, or concepts were, my writing was a complete technical failure.

In that respect, my high school essays have a lot in common with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.

The Worst Performing Switch Game I’ve Ever Seen

Pokémon Violet’s miserable technical performance is omnipresent across the entire game. Miserable pop-in, levels of detail so low that you can see polygons getting added onto character models, poor framerates, and slowdown are present in virtual every area of the game. Almost every object is also subject to animation-frame culling as well.

My personal breaking point for this was the game’s credit sequence. This game is so unbelievably scuffed from a technical level that it fails to smoothly display scrolling text on a screen.

I’m not going to harp on the technical problems of Violet after this paragraph, except for when they become relevant to other portions of the game. Games are made up of multiple components, and worked on by multiple teams.

Some teams did their job very well. Some of these teams may have done the best they could under extreme time pressure. Or maybe they’re just incompetent! I don’t know which one it was. My conclusion is the same.

Despite liking and enjoying Pokémon Violet, the game’s technical issues are so widely spread that I just can’t recommend the game.

Core Mechanics

I did a large writeup on Pokémon as a series a while back. If you’re not familiar with Pokémon games at all, I suggest you read that writeup before the next bit. It included a overview of structure the games follow, along with general coverage of the series’ mechanics, and some suggestions for where a new player could start.

Scarlet and Violet mark the series transition to a full open world from the previous linear routes and narrative path. Instead, the world is shaped like a large donut. Difficulty scales as you travel up either side of the donut, with the game’s finale taking place in the center.

In Legends: Arceus, the battle and catching system was very simple. In Scarlet and Violet, those systems have been rolled back to their more complex previous forms, and are still very good and very compelling. There’s no more tall grass. Instead Pokémon spawn into the world in packs, and running into them will start a battle.

Node-Based Story Structure

The story structure is also fairly different. Because of the game’s open world nature, there’s no single series of events, or path that’s really required. Instead, each story event is sort of a self-contained mini-event. There are three main routes for these events. Two routes have 5 events, and the gym route has 8.

I think these story nodes can be completed in pretty much any order. I’m not sure that’s the case, though, because I did all the ones that gave me travel upgrades first. It certainly didn’t feel like there was a required order to me.

That said, these events don’t dynamically scale. I left what could be considered the 2nd or 3rd gym fight to do last one. There’s something amusing about showing up with a team of level 60 Pokémon for a gym battle against level 25s. But it’s also a little disappointing that the game doesn’t utilize the nonlinear story structure to give different players a different experience based on the order they complete story battles.

Also, before I switch topics, the games story arcs are surprisingly good. From a purely story standpoint, Scarlet might be my favorite Pokémon game. Is it the greatest story ever? No, but it’s memorable and unique.

Thematically Vast, Visually Bland

The Paldea region is one of the areas where the game feels like it’s been held back by the technology. There’s an early moment where a character is supposed to be introducing the stunning majesty of the Paldea region, and we get treated to a set of panning views of… various green-grey plains.

It’s sort of sad-funny that sets the tone for what we’ll see in the rest of the game.

The game has a variety of areas, but outside of Pokémon variety, the areas never felt different. Looking back, I remember dry desserts, a large cave, some icy mountains, ocean-side towns, and a coal mine, but they all felt identical. The only area that left any sort of impact was a large cave that I wandered into under leveled, swiftly got pulped, and then booked it out of.

The Pokémon Cave Experience

I think the biggest issue is that Pokémon games have often been light on visuals. Instead, the tone of the zones was sold by the Pokémon themselves. Caves full of Zubats spring to mind. Lunatone and Solrock in Meteor Falls, or Skarmory in the ash covered zones.

However, because of how Pokémon spawning works, and the fact that it’s possible to ignore pretty much every encounter I didn’t want to fight, most areas ended up feeling empty. I could rush through them, and interact with nothing but story events if I so chose.

Some thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else

Pokémon is a broad franchise, and has its own subtypes of players just like other complicated and broad games. As such, there are some things I can’t comment on. I don’t know how well the game is balanced and plays for multiplayer activities, such as competitive tourneys, or the end-game raids. I also didn’t do much with the breeding post-game/shiny hunting.

Many of the gyms in this game have their own mini-game or side mode associated with them. One of the more standout moments for me was a game mode where you’re supposed to collect Sunflora, and bring them back to a central area. This puzzle was very clearly designed before being tested, because it required collecting such a large number of Sunflora, that they would lag the game, and pop-in if you ran too far ahead of them. The town with this gym challenge also had a windmill that had ridiculous animation culling. Both of these combined to make the whole area incredibly immersion-breaking.

The new Pokémon designs generally felt quite good, as did much of the general world design and writing. The Jiggypuff with sharp teeth that screams and bites you is one of my favorites.

Again, though, it’s things like the carefully crafted in-world advertisements and logos that end up feeling like they’re in sharp contrast to the generally poor technical quality of the rest of the game.

Friendly reminder that the Fairy Pokémon type is based off old-english fairies, and those things were public menaces.

The vengeful fairy with a giant hammer that just beats the shit out of you is also great.

In Conclusion

Pokémon Scarlet is a 7/10, but it gets that score, much like my high school English papers, for a sheer lack of technical polish.

If this was an indie game, I’d excuse a lot of these issues. But this is the largest media franchise in the world. Yes, Scarlet makes makes changes in story, structure, and world, but they’re all hindered by those technical issues.

There have been some rumors that Nintendo/Gamefreak are working on patches to improve performance, but I’m not holding my breath. And I’m not betting on these issues being fixed for the next game either.

Did I have fun? Yes! Would I play it again? Probably. Will I buy the next entry in the franchise? In the immortal words of Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe, “I am a consumer whore.”

Of course I will.

But I don’t recommend you buy it.