Pokemon Scarlet & Violet Review

Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more conflicted while writing a review than sitting down to talk about my time with Pokemon Scarlet and Pokemon Violet. On many technical levels, the game isn’t just a mess - it’s demonstrably incomplete. Graphical bugs, hitching and freezing, crashes, and even when the game is firing at all cylinders it struggles to maintain what many would call a basic expectation for smooth performance, all the while sporting a presentation that feels a generation behind what many other open-world RPGs have managed to express on the Nintendo Switch hardware - including 2022’s own Pokemon Legends: Arceus.

By the time this review will have gone live, it will be almost impossible to have not seen examples of the games running poorly, with any number of videos circulating showcasing just how stapled together the experience appears once things start to slip. On my end, I encountered numerous bugs that I’ve yet to even see reproduced elsewhere. Once upon finishing a Tera Raid Battle, myself and my other Union Circle buddies were left waiting for upwards of a minute after failing the battle; somewhere along the line, the entire raid had desynced. A common enough occurrence, but in this case the game arbitrarily decided it needed to sync things up well after the battle had concluded; leaving several of us on a white screen, with only sound effects to let us know that the game itself hadn’t yet entirely locked up.

This is just one example among many, including the numerous times the game began to slow to a crawl, or ultimately crashed. On the map, icons of Pokemon will sometimes appear to denote when a swarm has manifested in some part of Paldea; one time, the icon of one such Pokemon got stuck to my screen, and it was only ultimately a reset that removed it from view. Lag and camera issues were common enough that it was notable whenever the game itself was responsive, and when the camera was not clipping through the level geometry. 

On one hand, I don’t want to excuse these genuine, glaring issues with the game. While I was able to overcome them to end up enjoying my time with the title - to the point where I’d count it among my favorites in the series - quite frankly, it hurts even more that a game that would otherwise be in contention for one of the best RPGs to release this year has shipped in such a grossly compromised state. Yet, I would like to believe that these issues will eventually be patched. Besides - other, more capable hands have been able to break down the myriad issues with the game's technical and graphical presentation better than I ever could. There’s no real point in repeating something that has been incredibly obvious since the game’s release.

So, to save anyone time, I find it impossible to actively recommend Pokemon Scarlet and Violet in their current state. Some, perhaps even many players will be able to ultimately overlook the issues as I did. However, while I would like to go over the many ways that the game succeeds - I want to be clear from the get-go that for all that the titles do right, their release is something that I feel genuinely should not be supported. 

There is no reason that two mainline Pokemon games had to release in the same year; why couldn’t Pokemon Legends: Arceus have taken the holiday slot, when Scarlet & Violet clearly would have benefited from an extra year of development? Even with the (tenuous) excuse that Pokemon is a multimedia franchise, and as such the games have to keep up with the rest of it; the anime has yet to detail anything to do with the new generation, and other aspects of this push have clearly met similar turbulence. Even if those were running on time a delay should have happened, let alone when schedules look to be slipping elsewhere.

When I reviewed Pokemon Sword and Shield back in 2019, I walked away disappointed with their base release due to issues I had with the game’s structure, and I can’t help but feel the monkey’s paw curling that seemingly it was a direct response to those same criticisms that clearly lead to most of these game’s technical deficiencies. What makes the current situation all the more frustrating is that absent of these same issues, there’s an incredibly strong argument that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the best and most engaging games in the franchise’s storied history.

The game’s structure, unlike previous entries - and even separate from January’s Pokemon Legends: Arceus - is a truly open, truly non-linear affair. After a short prologue that gets players acquainted with the Academy, and the premise of the Treasure Hunt, you’re free to tackle any of the 3 stories at your leisure, and even within these stories, you’re given the freedom to complete objectives in the order that you please. Paldea is a genuine open world, unlike Legends Arceus’ smaller biomes; and players are free to explore it at their leisure.

What this means is that routes, caves, towns, and crucially the Pokemon that inhabit every corner of this world will seamlessly mesh from one location to the other without the need of any movie magic to break up the game’s structure and pacing. If you run up to or throw a Pokeball at a wild Pokemon, you’ll throw out your own Pokemon right into the game world, and do battle exactly where you encountered the Pokemon in the wild. Other Pokemon will crowd to watch your battle at the commotion, reacting to how things twist and turn. This is true for trainer battles as well, and it truly can’t be overstated just how much this one simple mechanic does to make the world feel truly alive.

Pokemon will act according to their environments. A Jigglypuff or Hoppip might find themselves swept away by the wind; a Psyduck might appear asleep on its back in a lake or river. A Pineco or Applin might be spotted perched on a tree. Some Pokemon might even take advantage of these behaviors as a gameplay mechanic, to offer a clue when a Ditto or Zorua is not quite what it first appears. In order to find a specific Pokemon, you truly have to consider not just the environments where they might be found, but also these basic interactions that have only ever been showcased in media like the anime prior to now.

Without minimizing the unacceptable performance and visuals of the game, it would be unfair to call Game Freak’s work on Scarlet and Violet anything less than ambitious. Moreover, it is very clearly a direct continuation of the same work that helped enamor me to Sword and Shield’s expansion pass; namely The Crown Tundra. I loved what I had played there, to the point that I was willing to be excited about the series’ future. At the best of times, Game Freak delivers on that promise and then some.

My foremost complaint with Sword and Shield was how restricted I felt; that there were no optional routes, that for all the promise the initial Wild Area showed, it didn’t make up for the lack of exploration to be found elsewhere in the game’s routes. While structure remains with Scarlet and Violet’s different stories, complete with their own rival characters that represent them, unhooking the leash and letting players have the agency to engage with these campaigns at their own leisure was exactly the sort of heel turn I had hoped for but hadn’t dared to expect.

While not to the same extent as with Pokemon Legends: Arceus earlier this year, Path of Legends’ hunt for the Titan Pokemon offers a nice change of pace from the more standard fare of Victory Road’s gym challenge; Starfall Street, while I didn’t find it nearly as engaging as the other two story paths, still offered a heartfelt story that tackled some genuinely serious subject matter - especially for the target audience (ie, kids) who’ll primarily be playing a game like Pokemon, to begin with. Being able to hop in and out of any of these different narratives feels natural, and by the time each of them come together for the finale, I was shocked to find a genuinely great narrative waiting at the finish line.

While from a gameplay aspect I can find things to complain about, these ultimately feel like nitpicks when presented against the massive leap forward that Scarlet and Violet’s structure represents for the franchise. Maybe raiding Team Star bases could have been more engaging. Maybe caves, as winding as they were, could have gone even further. Perhaps a few puzzles in the overworld might have been appreciated. Y-Comm shouldn’t clearly have been the basis for this game’s online infrastructure. But where it mattered for me, as a player? It checked all the boxes. Fantastic and inventive new Pokemon and character designs, an engaging world, and even a surprisingly gripping story.

It’s absolutely a testament to the game's strengths that it managed to leave such a positive impression on me, despite suffering from such severe performance and presentation issues. If you’re a Pokemon fan, and you can overlook these issues that by all accounts you should not have to accept - you’ll likely find the most comprehensive Pokemon game since the Nintendo DS. In a world where this hadn’t been released this year, but rather the next, it wouldn’t even be a contest over what is the best Pokemon game. 

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet at times feel like childhood daydreams of what the Pokemon world could actually be, realized; a direct answer to the days of pretending to catch Pokemon, and setting out on your own Pokemon adventure with your friends. It’s genuinely heartbreaking that such a special game has been tarnished by such grievous technical issues, where otherwise it acts as a realization, a metamorphosis for the series as a whole. If the takeaway from this release is that this sort of ambitious release was broken by Pokemon’s development pipeline, I can only hope this means a change for the future in how that pipeline is handled and not just a reduction of the ambition in question.

These are games that anyone that has ever considered themselves a Pokemon fan deserves to play; but not today, and not in this state. One can only hope that a day will come when that recommendation can come easily; I’d like nothing more than to be able to do so.