Pokemon Scarlet and Violet: The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero Review
I had hopes that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet: The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero might offer the sort of essential improvement that Pokemon Sword and Shield's Expansion Pass contributed to turning those games into some of my favorites in the franchise; a heel turn from my initial thoughts on the games at their original launch. At the same time, however, I must admit that I was worried that the problems that have plagued Pokemon Scarlet and Violet might be considerably harder to fix. Unfortunately, while The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero is probably worth picking up if you're a Pokemon fan who is still playing the games daily - and is an undeniable enhancement to what was originally offered back in 2022 - Game Freak's latest release fails to improve upon what made the games so difficult to recommend in the first place.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet: The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero is a set of expanded content for the original games, comprising two halves of content updates that have been delivered over the past few months - The Teal Mask, which was released in September, and The Indigo Disk. Both updates delivered new and returning Pokemon to the game, new story content and minigames, and most importantly - new regions for players to explore, complete with their own unique locations and secrets to discover. Pokemon Sword and Shield's Expansion Pass delivered a similar style and quantity of content back in 2020, so while individual details might differ between the two offerings, it's probably fair to say that the amount of content added by each is broadly equivalent.
When I reviewed the Sword and Shield Expansion Pass, I praised it for directly addressing many of my - and others' - criticisms of the base game. The new Wild Areas that were added were a significant improvement from the one found in the original release, and the addition of new postgame content helped make up for how lacking things felt at launch. It didn't do anything to really address how poor Sword and Shield's story was, but I was never going to complain about that when it wasn't attempting to be anything substantial to begin with. While Sword and Shield still had its faults, by the time I'd had my fill of the expanded content my feelings on the game as a whole had been upended.
While they might share the same score, in many ways my feelings on Pokemon Scarlet and Violet were antithetical to my impressions of the previous games. At their core, the content of Scarlet and Violet are excellent; the paradigm shift to a truly open world was a success from a gameplay perspective, and the amount of content on offer at launch was more than enough to whet my interest. The story, which I admittedly have never considered to be core to what makes a Pokemon game great, was a pleasant surprise; continuing the trend set by Pokemon Legends: Arceus earlier in the year. However, all of this praise felt for naught in the face of the glaring technical issues plaguing the experience.
I still maintain that Pokemon Scarlet and Violet should not have been released as they did, and Nintendo even came out to apologize for the state of the games at launch. Have things improved in the year since? Yes, but only marginally so. The most glaring of bugs have been patched out, but doing so has been anything but a smooth experience. Performance - such as graphical pop-in, and framerate - hasn't been ironed out to any measurable degree, either. Certain areas of both the base game and the DLCs still bring the performance to a crawl, which has been downright painful to engage with at times.
What The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero has added in terms of content is mostly welcome, regardless. Blueberry Academy, and to a lesser extent Kitakami, are fun additions to the game. The new features added, both major and minor, are worth a shout too; new raids to engage with, new Legendary Pokemon to find scattered across the world, and even the Academy Ace Tournament is upgraded following catching Terapagos. If you're fine with the technical state of the game not having been noticeably improved, there's definitely enough to consider picking up the DLC, especially if you planned to play it alongside your friends. Gaining the ability for Miraidon or Koraidon to fly makes engaging with almost every other aspect of the game all the easier, and again I must stress that this is undeniably a marked improvement to the game overall.
Yet, besides the performance issues - which are absolutely inexcusable now, as they were at launch - I have some qualms with another core aspect of the DLC. Specificallly, the story that revolves around Carmine and Kieran.
There's no way getting around it; the story that The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero tells sucks, and the way that the player is forced into enabling abuse levied against Kieran is harmful. While some might say that since Pokemon is a franchise targeted at children, and the quality of a story may not matter as much, I would counter that the exact type of story that is told throughout this DLC is inherently harmful in how it handles the subject matter. Carmine's actions towards Kieran are terrible. She snaps at him in many scenes in The Teal Mask, forces the player to lie to Kieran's face throughout the story, and then the story ends with you - the player - being forced to quite literally crush his dreams, right to his face.
Her actions in The Indigo Disk aren't much better; as a result of the abuse that both you and her sister inflicted upon him in the prior update, Kieran becomes disillusioned - and obsesses over becoming as strong as possible. He's aggressive to his friends and classmates, and his fellow League members at Blueberry Academy express concern about him; but not once throughout the story does Carmine own up and apologize for her actions, which led to the situation in the first place. Neither is the player given the option to apologize, for that matter; at the end of the day, it is Kieran who apologizes for his actions and nobody else.
I can only speak for my own thoughts on the matter, but considering how the base game handled familial abuse much better with Arven's story; I was shocked at how the game tackled a similar issue with the DLC. Will most players care about this? Probably not, but even if performance had been improved to a noticeable degree, I feel that my overall impressions still would have been soured from this alone.
It's hard for me to feel strongly about whether or not to recommend The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero to players. Chances are, if you already know that you want the DLC, you've been playing it for the last several days. If you haven't already picked it up, and aren't feeling the need to return to Scarlet and Violet, then I don't know if I can recommend setting aside both the time and money to play it. While the Pokemon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass was an easy recommendation, if anything Scarlet and Violet's equivalent has left me even more mixed on the games than ever before.