For the last 25 years, Pokémon has been slowly but surely drifting away from its classical JRPG roots. Fierce rivals have been replaced by good-natured allies, invisible enemies lurking in the tall grass have been supplanted by specialized animations and even recognizable sprites, and—especially in our world of constant leaks and ceaseless game culture commentary—the very mystery of each new world of Pocket Monsters has quickly been dispelled by a ravenous public.
In its place, we’ve found a fairly rote but reliable system in which you pick a starter and move from town to town and gym to gym, making your mark as a Pokémon trainer, before inevitably rising to the top of that region’s pecking order.
Obviously, there have been some deviations. Pokémon GO, for example, brought these fanciful creatures into the real world, while this year’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus even eschewed the classic battle screen for a livelier and more dynamic combat experience. But these exceptions only seemed to reinforce what we’ve all largely known since the early 2000s and the arrival of Generation 2; Pokémon games are no more or no less than that—Pokémon games. They have their own tropes, their own unspoken rules, and their own predictable pratfalls.
If that’s truly the case, then brand new ninth-generation titles Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet may not be instantly recognizable as Pokémon games. Sure, there are monsters and gyms and battles to be had, but the sum total feels somehow different.
It all starts off simple enough. Your player character is new to the Paldea region, and said youthful avatar has enrolled in the nearby Naranja/Uva Academy. A dedicated Pokémon institute of higher learning is a bit of a variation on a theme, but there are few surprises in this setup alone.
In short order, you befriend older student Nemona and discover the box art legendary, Koraidon/Miraidon, even before your otherworldly educational experience begins in earnest. This helps set up Scarlet and Violet‘s first big departure from the norm, its truly massive scope.
Suffice it to say that the Naranja and Uva Academies aren’t big on rigid structure. Instead, mere moments after entering those hallowed halls, you’re told to get out in the world and find your bliss. This call for a treasure hunt powers the narrative and puts your fate in your own hands as you make your way through a trio of available story paths.
Primarily borderless and lacking in the sort of prescribed “routes” we’ve come to expect from the franchise, Paldea is an enormous continent of interconnected biomes—including all the environments you might expect. Deserts give way to grasslands and hillsides taper down to picturesque beaches, each resplendent with Pokémon goodness.
Dotted throughout are disparate cities, homes to a variety of shops, restaurants (Paldea is obviously heavy on the food culture), and the requisite Pokémon Gyms. Numbering eight in all, these gym challenges represent the most pedestrian path through Scarlet and Violet. However, this isn’t exactly your father’s path to Victory Road.
Rather than honing your skills against underlings as you navigate a gym, you’re instead given a specific task unique to each facility. My first saw me rolling an oblong ball through a field to a goal, while another challenged me with solving a restaurant-related riddle.
While easily the least Pokémon-y of in-game experiences, I also found many of these to be the most innovative. Though seemingly unrelated tasks, they reminded me that the world of Pokémon wasn’t just about adorable fighting monsters, and it was a nice dash of world-building outside the franchise norm.
Unfortunately, this lack of pre-Gym Leader battles also negatively impacted my combat strategy. Without those lower-level trainers to warm up against, I often went into a gym contest with an untested team, which resulted in a much tougher fight than I had bargained for. It turns out, in my case, this is a recipe for lots of knocked-out ‘Mon that really ups my regular potion usage.
Between these urban centers are vast expanses of open land where the Pokémon roam. Here you’ll encounter roving trainers—this time offering optional battles instead of just laying in wait hoping you’ll catch their hungry gaze—as well as wild monsters and lots of helpful items that are… just sort of lying on the ground.
These range from Poké Balls and potions to crafting components. The latter, which can also be acquired during wild battles, can be used to craft TMs at the various bordering Pokémon Stops along the map. These open-air establishments also include Pokémon Shops and Pokémon Centers. While you tend to expect these to be found in a city proper, these decentralized locations are a real boon when you get trounced in a battle and must retreat to heal your party.
Speaking of, challenging new Titan Pokémon in the Path of Legends represents the second option of your Scarlet/Violet journey. This adds a dash of Monster Hunter to the proceedings, as you track and defeat oversized foes. It is also via this path that you gain new transversal abilities for your Koraidon or Miraidon.
This turned out to be a double-edged sword for me. While I struggled with early gym battles, I managed to breeze through my first few Titan encounters. This helped me circumvent the few barriers in the open world of Paldea, and I quickly discovered that I had wandered a bit too far afield. After a few punishing encounters in the wild, I retreated back closer to the Academy, where a student of my skill level wasn’t so outclassed. (If you’ll pardon the pun.)
The third leg of the journey, Starfall Street, leads trainers to defeat Team Star, a group of schoolyard misfits with a weirdly engaging story at its center. You’ll find their strongholds throughout the map, and after challenging the team’s canon fodder—which mostly consists of tossing out your Pokémon and letting them wrack up a sufficient number of wins within a specific time limit—you earn the right to challenge the local boss. Defeat them and they’ll… renounce their evil ways? Yeah, Team Star is nothing if not humble in defeat.
This three-pronged narrative, coupled with the open-world gameplay, really does a lot to differentiate these titles from those of previous generations. It even serves to make the Terastal phenomenon—which is really just another take on the Mega Evolution/Dynamax/Gigantamax mechanic—feel fresh and exciting. Although, to be honest, the sparkly creature designs certainly help out on that front as well.
Multiplayer raid battles, navigating your Rotom phone, and filling up your Pokédex aren’t exactly anything new either, but Scarlet and Violet manage to differentiate them enough to remind you that this is a new kind of adventure. This is especially true with regard to the latter, which now seemingly takes visual inspiration from old-style encyclopedia sets, with a new “book” added for each new entry.
In fact, the only updated feature that failed to really capture my imagination was the picnic and sandwich-making system. Yes, I still love the opportunity to bond with my favorite Pocket Monsters, but crafting sandwiches from various ingredients always felt a little silly. Especially because of the abundance of restaurants around every corner.
With cool mechanics to spare and a big ol’ world to explore, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet succeed on most fronts, but I did find that graphical jank was the one thing that regularly pulled me out of the experience.
Environmental clipping during camera rotation eventually just became an expected phenomenon, but it was even a little harder to ignore than the muddy textures of the ever-present earth and plant life. Weirdly, one of Scarlet/Violet‘s best design decisions also proved to have an unfortunate visual drawback.
There is an admirable sense of scale in this game, both with regard to the gameplay environment and the Pokémon themselves. A Gyarados, for example, is noticeably larger than, say, a Fletchling, making them feel appropriately imposing during battle. Unfortunately, there’s a lingering issue with draw distance and pop-in, so it’s not uncommon to move forward a few feet only to discover that you’re right on top of a veritable herd of these smaller Pokémon that simply wasn’t visible a moment ago.
Still, given the graphical constraints of the Nintendo Switch, I can forgive even this flaw when compared to how much fun I had with the game overall. My only caution would be toward the caregivers of younger Pokémon players as they approach this very different chapter.
It’s very easy to get in over one’s head, and while longtime fans and older gamers will likely relish the excitement, your youngest trainers could potentially find this level of challenge frustrating. That’s certainly not an attempt to dissuade parents from sharing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet with their geeklings. Just be aware that, as in life, the price of freedom is sometimes a compromise of security.
While I can’t exactly categorize any Pokémon title as dangerous, Scarlet and Violet do represent a more Wild West approach to the series, and that’s definitely a departure from the expected. Whether it will appeal to you and yours to the same extent it did to me remains to be seen, but I can assure you that this is yet another Pokémon adventure that is well worth experiencing. Just be careful out there!
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. Team Fuecoco for life!