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If there’s one thing we always hope for with a brand-new Pokémon generation, it’s a sense of childlike wonder. Of course, it’s not always a guarantee, especially with a formula that has been followed consistently for the last 26 years, but we always start a new generation with our fingers crossed that we’ll be charmed out of the gate by the new creatures to collect and a whole new region to explore. And if anything has come close to recapturing the real magic we felt when we discovered our first Pokémon world in Red & Blue, it’s Pokémon Scarlet & Violet‘s vast and open Paldea region. It’s been a while since we’ve felt like a kid stepping out of our Pokémon house and just looking at the world and savouring the taste of adventure. Despite some pretty significant technical stumbles, this introduction to Generation 9 nails that, even if it’s not the new Pokémon revolution that Legends: Arceus felt like.
Scarlet & Violet’s promise of being the main series’ first open-world game isn’t a false one. Every inch of Paldea is ours for the taking, and we’re ready for adventure just like the little kids who booted up their Game Boys for the first time and took their first steps in Kanto. Adventure awaits, and it’s right on our doorstep. Except things don’t start that way.
You’re a kid who has just moved to the Paldea region (sound familiar?), but instead of setting off on a brand new Pokémon journey, you leave home with your new neighbour and friend Nemona to join the Naranja or Uva Academy, a prestigious Pokémon school in the Paldea region. On the way to the Academy, you bump into a mysterious and powerful Pokémon (Koraidon or Miraidon, depending on your version) who protects and accompanies you. And, after meeting the teachers and students at the academy, you’re soon sent on a ‘Treasure Hunt’ to find your own personal treasure out there in Paldea.
It takes a while to get to this ‘treasure hunt’, though; Scarlet & Violet’s opening hours drag, leading up to the big moment of freedom. This feels particularly bizarre after Sword & Shield managed to streamline tutorials a little bit, and with limited traversal abilities at the start, we had to really push through to make it to the Academy. But it’s worth it just for how much the world opens up to you.
Your only goals are to complete three main objectives – beat all of the Gyms, find the Mystica Herbs, and take down Team Star. The location of all of these are marked on your map, and you can do them in whatever order you want. That’s right – no more structured approach; if you want to go to the most northerly region of Paldea first, then you darn well can. The only thing you “need” to do is to beat all three main paths to unlock one final part of the game.
One of the most surprising aspects of Scarlet & Violet is the stories. Each of the three paths has its own narrative that ties into either the characters, the Academy, or Paldea itself, and all knit together into a wholesome package. There are some genuinely tender moments, and many of the characters have personalities that are conveyed well, both through cutscenes and story moments. Your rivals, and other NPCs, are more involved than ever, and this is also a Pokémon game that isn’t afraid to surprise you. There’s certainly nothing spectacular, and it’s still weird that there’s no voice acting, though we want to give special mention to the box art stars Koraidon and Miraidon – they have moments of vulnerability and (if you can believe it) adorableness as they look worried or even nuzzle up to characters. They’re some of the best legendaries in the series ever.
Of the three paths, ‘Victory Road’ will be the most familiar to veteran Pokémon Trainers. Collecting eight gym badges is pretty much the Pokémon rite-of-passage, and it’s mostly the same here, except instead of making your way through a gym puzzle, you’ll need to participate in a Gym Trial before taking on the leader. These can range from rolling an oversized olive around a maze to taking part in a stream and battling Pokémon trainers, and it helps change up the formula a tiny bit, and we found most of them pretty fun.
You can also do the gyms in whatever order you want, meaning that, in some ways, the game’s difficulty is in your hands. If you want your first gym leader to be the one with the level 30 Pokémon, then you can absolutely do that, but with the caveat that you will eventually have to do that level 15 gym, and it’ll be even more of a piece of cake. In a game where the ‘recommended’ order isn’t much of a challenge, it was a nice surprise when we stumbled into a higher-level gym and actually had to put up a bit of a fight to secure victory. The gym fights themselves may lack the stadium-level spectacle of Sword & Shield, but it makes sense, given the variety of tasks you’re taking on.
Scarlet & Violet’s other two routes offer a little bit more variety in terms of your standard Pokémon gameplay. ‘Path of Legends’ sees you take on Titan Pokémon to find the Herba Mystica. Of the three paths, this was the most disappointing to us, and certainly a step down from Legends: Arceus’ Alpha Pokémon battles. All you have to do is find each of the Titan Pokémon, fight them once, chase them, and fight them again. Because all of these are new Pokémon, it feels pretty momentous when you find them, but they go down easily. Fortunately, this route might just have the best story of the three, which had us tearing up at times – the first time we have done so in a Pokémon game since Black & White.
Starfall Street, then, is the biggest change from previous Pokémon games, and it utilises the game’s brand new ‘Let’s Go’ mechanic. With the first three Pokémon in your team, you have to defeat a number of Pokémon within the team’s base in 10 minutes by sending your Pokémon out into the overworld to chip away at the opposing team. It becomes more of a hunt and, if you don’t have a type advantage or a decent Pokémon, it can also be a roll of the dice. The only way you can heal is by using vending machines, and if all three of your Pokémon’s health is reduced to zero, you fail and have to try again. Succeed, and you get to take on the base’s leader, who charges out on the most audacious Pokémon car you’ve ever seen. Essentially, though, all three routes are just different ways of dressing up the series standard of collecting badges and fighting stronger trainers, which is what we’ve been doing in Pokémon for yonks now.
However, we’re glad that you’re not locked into any one of these routes at any time, and you can pick and choose just when to take on what. You might decide to do all of the gyms first or vary it up and jump between the objectives, but it never feels checklist-y in the way some open-world games do. Instead, you’re left to find things by happenstance even with every location and objective marked on the map. We definitely popped a waymarker down so we had a good idea of where we wanted to end up, but we wandered off the beaten path way too many times.
And that’s the biggest joy of Scarlet & Violet – Paldea is your personal Pokémon playground. It’s a huge canvas where you can do whatever you want and go wherever you want. It’s not segmented into separate zones like in Pokémon Legends: Arceus and only one area is gated by story, so you really can just go anywhere... once you have the ability to get there. To get these abilities, you’ll need to upgrade your trusty companion bike Pokémon Koraido/Miraidon, which will happen naturally as you progress through the game. Otherwise, the world is in the palm of your hand, and there are secrets (hidden items, rarer Pokémon, and more) that you also uncover as your living, breathing Pokémon bike gets better.
We were also swept up in Paldea’s gorgeous tunes and rhythms, with Undertale’s Toby Fox taking on even more arrangements and melodies after showing his chops in Sword & Shield’s fantastic Tower battle music. His work is instantly recognisable to fans, from funky, jazzy tunes to electric, fast-paced melodies. There are also multiple variants of the battle themes and overworld music to fit the location or whether you’re riding your mount or not.
There are some fairly varied segments of Paldea that you can dive into every nook and cranny of: a big, sprawling desert; a mountainous tundra; a lake that looks like it can swallow you up; even a bamboo thicket. There’s plenty to explore, then, although that’s not to say it’s perfect. As much as we loved wandering around the open world, there were no real landmarks or spectacles in the region. We were hoping for something significant, like an oversized tree, a crater, or even a unique rock face or carving. Paldea will likely be remembered for its size and scope, but if the bamboo forest is the most memorable location (outside of places we’re not permitted to discuss), then this Spanish-inspired locale loses a bit of its lustre.
And here’s where we need to address what has consistently been the biggest sticking point of Scarlet & Violet up to its release: performance. Some trailers haven’t been the smoothest, to say the least, and our hands-on preview with the game raised questions as to how Paldea would look and run on Switch in the final product.
Having now played the full game with a day one patch applied, we have to say Scarlet & Violet can look and feel rough when you’re exploring the open world. Legends: Arceus had its fair share of issues and an inconsistent frame rate, but there are multiple times when the blurry visuals and low frame rate threatened to rip us out of the experience here. It’s particularly distracting whenever you’re riding Koraidon/Miraidon, speeding off into the distance as the visuals struggle to run at a consistent frame rate, and the scope and beauty of Paldea is lost in a mess of foggy visuals, both docked and in handheld mode. The frame rate of Pokémon and other moving elements in the world reduces the further you move away from them — a common technique used to improve overall refresh rate, but more noticeable here given the relative simplicity of the environment compared to the smaller, bustling worlds in Kirby and the Forgotten Land, for example.
When you’re inside buildings and in battles, the game can look pretty good. You can see streaks of hair in characters, the stitches and threads in your clothes, and even the shiny slippery-ness of Wiglett and the texture of a Mareep’s wool. In battles, characters and Pokémon look relatively crisp and clean for the most part, and they all burst with personality through their stances and interactions – though many battle animations are still incredibly stiff and look like an afterthought. Pokémon models sometimes disappear in thin air, or appear and drop from above you too. There are times Scarlet & Violet almost look like a real step forward visually for Pokémon, but it then loses itself in a mire of pixelated textures and technical issues, especially if it’s raining or snowing.
Game Freak isn’t famous for its performance prowess, and while the frame rate and other issues will certainly irritate some players, for us the developer gets away with it (just) thanks to the things it does get right with the open-world approach and myriad other details here. The game’s wavering performance did nothing to diminish the excitement of discovering all of the new Pokémon that Scarlet & Violet has to offer. As in Legends: Arceus, wild Pokémon appear in the overworld, so you can spot them as they huddle up in grassy fields or dip in one of the ponds. Flying Pokémon swoop down from the sky, while some bugs dangle from trees – other ‘mons will chase after you. Even the act of filling up your Pokédex, which looks like a rack of elaborate Pokémon magazines complete with characterful photos of each Pocket Monster, is a delight. And the thrill of having tiny little Fidough or a monstrous Farigiraf approach you with murderous – or cuddly – intent still doesn’t feel old after Legends: Arceus earlier this year.
Otherwise, battling and catching Pokémon is no different compared to previous mainline games. Fight your Pokémon in turn-based battles, catch them if you want, etc. In addition, trainer battles are now optional, which works because we usually didn’t want to be distracted from just riding around in the wild — you’re able to initiate fights by just talking to the trainers. We’re lamenting the loss of Legends: Arceus’ ability to catch Pokémon by simply throwing Pokéballs at them, but we love the addition of something we touched on earlier: ‘Let’s Go’.
By tapping the ‘R’ button, you can direct the Pokémon at the front of your team to attack wild ‘mons for a short period of time. It’s much snappier than entering a battle and is excellent for when you specifically don’t watch to catch ‘em all over and over. You can start to feel like a bit of a monster for knocking out all of these wild creatures minding their own business, or feel guilty as your Pokémon’s health drops low and they start to feel tired, complete with a pitiful noise that pierces your heart. You can also just send them off to pick up an item when you’re feeling particularly lazy and just want to cruise along on your slick Poké bike. It’s a fabulous mechanic for building up materials to create TMs (more on that in a moment) or levelling weaker Pokémon fast while you soak in the world even more.
There’s so much more to talk about. Paldea’s unique mechanic – Terastalization – might have had us raising our eyebrows before release, and visually it might lack the grandeur of Dynamax Pokémon, but it adds much more strategy to combat than we were expecting for something that just pops a pretty hat on your Pokémon. Terastallizing in battle causes the Pokémon to become that Tera type – so a Pikachu with a Water Tera type will go from being Electric to Water. This also means that if the Pokémon uses a move that matches its Tera type, it’ll be even more powerful. Used in the right situations and with the right Tera types, this can be devilish, and we were shocked by how much we enjoyed being battered in raids by those moves.
Speaking of moves, we were initially worried about the TM Machine — yes, a ‘Technical Machine Machine’, a new crafting mechanic in Scarlet & Violet — and returning to the idea of one-use-only TMs. However, the abundance of materials and the fact you can find TMs lying around in the world meant that TMs never felt like an issue. It’s a little bit annoying that you won’t know what materials you need to create your TM until you own them, every single Pokémon drops them. These machines are at every Pokémon Center in Paldea, too, which are abundant. Basically, it’s rarely something you ever need to grind for – unless you have no idea what you’re after, but then it’s back to the magic of digging around Paldea.
TMs aren’t the only thing you can make, and Pokémon’s culinary step forward from Galar’s curries is sandwiches. You can set up a picnic out in the overworld, interact with your Pokémon (including giving them baths), play ball, and make tasty bocadillos in a cute, if awkward, little minigame. You can follow set recipes or try and make some unique flavours. Depending on the ingredients you use to construct your succulent sub, you’ll get different benefits, such as boosting experience for one type of Pokémon, or increasing the drop rate of items from a particular type, and even Tera raid boosts. There are tons of these to experiment with, so even our wonkiest sandwich felt like it helped us fill our bags and our Pokémon up a little bit.
One part of the game we weren’t able to test prior to launch was multiplayer, although we were able to sample it briefly during our initial preview. You can invite friends to join you in your travels, although how much mileage you get from it will be down to how you choose to use it — beyond the traditional trading and battling of years past, you’re not given a whole lot of guidance. Having said that, if you just want someone to join you for a ride-along, the game doesn’t place any major restrictions on you.
It’s safe to say there’s a lot to take in with Paldea, then. Even if you’re thorough and make it to the end, you’ll still be finding items, trainers, Pokémon, and little vistas throughout the region. It’s familiar and fresh at the same time, and even though its three-path approach doesn’t stray too far from the formula, this feels like a big step in the right direction for Pokémon. After Legends: Arceus and Scarlet & Violet, we think open-world Pokémon should be here to stay.