Pokémon Scarlet and Violet might be too vast for their own good

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, at the very least, have a huge presence. I recently played Scarlet for a little more than an hour, when I was dropped by my home town with a team of Pokémon about level 25 – largely made up of newbies like Cetaitan, Wiglett, Farigiraf, Armorage, and Bellibolt – and given an option of three missions.

Pokémon Scarlet
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet

I could face a gym battle on the Victory Road narrative line, the giant Pokémon Klawf on the Road of Legends, or some Team Star grunts and a boss battle on the Starfall Street path. In one hour, I accomplished practically nothing, instead becoming sidetracked, confused, allured, and little perplexed by Pokémon’s first really open environment.

I say primarily and foremost open world, but there are several exceptions. Pokémon Legends: Arceus (released this year!) was more open, resembling a Monster Hunter-style game with various open regions isolated from one another. Scarlet and Violet seem to be open like an Elder Scrolls game, with the whole main globe appearing to be available to you almost immediately, but occasional loading screens separating you from big towns like Mesagoza, which serve as their own independent zones.

Because wild Pokémon and trainers’ Pokémon do not level scale with you, I was mostly racing about squashing Lvl.3 Lechonks, which provides a bizarrely old-school RPG flavor to a game that is otherwise heavily focused on simplicity and ease of access.

Many classic Pokémon games’ friction spots, or even eccentricities that may not have created any friction at all, have been sanded down and deleted. The Poké Balls that have peppered the Pokémon areas since Red and Blue now have small shining vertical beacons, making them plainly visible from afar – and they seem to be everywhere. Experience Candy, a new item from Sword and Shield acquired from Max Raid Battles that you may use to progressively level up your Pokémon, seems to be discoverable in those overworld objects, making it more accessible than previously.

Trainer bouts are now fully voluntary – if you wish to battle, you go up to a character and engage with them, rather than them activating immediately on ‘eye contact’ like they used to. Even the Poké Balls you throw to catch Pokémon do their little three-time-rock at twice the speed, seemingly to make blasting through encounter-battle-catch-fests faster – albeit, not as fast as it could have been in the wake of Arceus’ much more fluid, interruption-free process of just lobbing balls in the overworld.

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Some of Arceus’ more drastic alterations may be overlooked here. Scarlet and Violet have added a new “Let’s Go!” command system that allows you to send your party Pokémon out to fight and gather whatever pops up in front of them as you journey, but it seems a little too passive for my liking. Arceus’ new system had intentionality to movement itself, where it was important to sneak up on Pokémon to land critical catches or dodge genuinely dangerous foes, whereas old school wild encounters had directness.

As you chose how to order your party based on which Pokémon you wanted to level up, or carry you through a tricky cave, whereas old school wild encounters had directness, as you chose how to order your party based on which Pokémon you wanted to level up, or carry you through a tricky cave Scarlet and Violet’s is somewhere in the middle, and although you still have to think about which party member to send out, the outcome seems a little like playing Pokémon Go with the Go Plus accessory switched on – more efficient, yes, but also disconnected from the action itself. It may alter in the context of the whole game, but I found myself avoiding it entirely here.

That is, until I ultimately made it to the Starfall Street challenge against Team Star and one of its commanders, Mela. This assignment requires you to beat 30 grunts in a row, but you’re forced to do it by putting your Pokémon in Let’s Go mode and simply sprinting about slamming the one button that directs them to attack.

I finished it with approximately 80% of the timeframe remaining and walked away truly hope no further challenges are like that, but I’m afraid they could be the standard for that part of the tale. The fight against Mela on top of their Wacky Races decorated caboose vehicle to some wonderfully Nintendo punk music was a hoot, and hopefully more of this comes to the fore.

A taste of the Gym challenge finds you gathering Sunflora in a similar run-around-to-the-timer task with nothing more to it, so the overarching hope here is that Game Freak is saving the more exciting, less passive things for the complete release. Scarlet and Violet’s universe was much more intriguing to me.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet

Hills, deserts, cliffs, caverns, seas, and other habitats appeared in just one hour in one little area of the map. Your Koraidon functions similarly to all of Arceus’ transportation Pokémon (or the Rotom bike of Sword and Shield), allowing you to run, jump, climb, and glide around the world in real time, while the more traditional, fast-travel style flying was unlocked from the start – at least for me – to a large number of points of interest around the map. And there are several points of interest, your map loaded with symbols that I couldn’t decipher in such a short period.

Four lighthouses exist on the map’s north, south, east, and west boundaries – I climbed the southern one but discovered nothing in this preview – so they might play a part in the plot. Trainers hand given tasks like defeating a particular number of local opponents in a certain period at Pokémon Centers, which seem more like gas stations than stores, and there was a type of collectable sidequest tied to one new item that I can’t discuss.

The seamlessness is what makes it intriguing. Without any fanfare, I discovered a cave entrance and found myself diving further and deeper into its depths, the tunnel walls and floors lined with a plainly substantial shining green gem-like material. It seemed huge, yet being rather easy. There are many Pokémon, but they are basically the same ones roaming about, with a few things strewn around but nothing in the way of complicated surroundings or branching pathways, and no riddles. Consider Sword and Shield DLC caverns rather than traditional Pokémon dungeons.

Nonetheless, it took me to a quiet beach, where I went to one of those lighthouses, flew down over the countryside, and continued into a stony desert. Wingull waddles on the shore, Growlithe prowls the rocky chasms. For a Pokémon game, that feeling of adventure and freedom remains a delight.

The multiplayer components in Scarlet and Violet are also an enhancement. You can add up to three players to your co-op game by standing on a yellow pad at any Pokémon Center and inviting them in, and there’s a surprising amount of independence – after four of us joined into one game and had a quick Koraidon race, we all went our separate ways, taking on story missions and exploring seemingly endless distance without dropping out. Similarly, Raids return and are a significant upgrade over Sword and Shield, owing primarily to the transition to’real time’ combat.

Everyone adds moves as they can, with Speed stats controlling who strikes in what sequence. Like before, the raid boss Pokémon will have a large health bar that you must reduce, as well as periodic special abilities such as removing stat changes or starting to crystallise, where at least one of you will need to use the new Terastalysing gimmick to dish out a bit more damage before a timer runs out. As previously, these raids spawn at various spots across the planet, and upon completion, you all receive a single shot to toss a ball and catch it – which may fail if you’re unfortunate.

However, there are a few reasons to be cautious. Mesagoza, the largest city, was one. It’s massive, a genuinely big walled city with some high towers, but the great majority of stores, restaurants, and other places I attempted had locked doors. A few identical restaurants along a strip can be interacted with, where you’re presented with a static screen of four meals you can buy (these offer you different exploration bonuses, such as affecting the chances of large or small Pokémon appearing, as well as catching, raid, and item drop modifiers).

Other structures that looked the same couldn’t be entered or interacted with at all, and the same was true for smaller villages and towns throughout the map that only had a few homes to begin with. After parts of Sword and Shield, particularly the deeply disappointing Spikemuth, took this approach, it’s a real shame to see it so prevalent in Scarlet and Violet thus far, especially for a series that’s often been about talking to everyone, poking into hidden corners, and rummaging through bins for secrets.

Scarlet and Violet also suffered with performance, which is perhaps most worrying given that the launch is less than a month away. Some viewers may have spotted short instances in previous trailers in which a windmill runs at a stuttering, stop-motion pace and Sunflora follows the main trainer with choppy animation. This might be due to an early build – a Japanese version of one of these videos seems to show some better lighting and considerably smoother animation for the Sunflora, for example – but Scarlet and Violet were like this throughout.

Menus are sluggish and significantly laggy, and animations are choppy, with NPCs moving like flicker book drawings even at close range, and town structures loading in as you walk past them. Again, we’re in pre-launch mode here, so things might change, but I’ve played a few Pokémon game previews now, and Scarlet and Violet are without a doubt the roughest.

That’s a pity, since there are some interesting developments happening here. Some traditional features, like as the pleasure of NPC banter and some fantastic new Pokémon designs, remain. And it’s great to see Game Freak genuinely experimenting with the main series Pokémon format after all these years. Things may have improved by the time the launch date arrives in mid-November. If not, let’s hope the company begins to get the resources it needs to make a more seamless transition into current open world games. They’ve definitely earned it after all these years of unrivaled success for Pokémon.

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