With Pokémon Violet and Scarlet, it feels like Game Freak has come full circle. What the company set out to achieve with the original Red and Blue, way back on the Game Boy, is effectively exactly the same as what the team has looked to do with this game. It’s an incredible success. I haven’t had this much fun with Pokémon in a very long time.
For games that were released on incredibly modest hardware, Pokémon Red and Blue were ambitious projects. They were an attempt to bundle together a coming-of-age and pilgrimage adventure – a bildungsroman – and they were a very traditional attempt at that. Just consider the three key qualities behind the genesis of the bildungsroman, when the protagonist is driven to take up their journey:
- The protagonist is usually from a small town or village, and they journey to a more complex realm, or to a large city.
- The protagonist must separate from their family in order to gain an identity that is separate and distinct.
- The protagonist searches for answers beyond their home.
This is exactly how Pokemon Blue and Red started. The protagonist was from a town of just three buildings, the mother’s single big line is “right, all boys leave home eventually,” and she never follows up with them from there. She doesn’t even ask you to call home. From that parting, you’re then tasked with learning about the world by capturing all the pokémon. It was simple, elegant, and so easy to get into because the context was so familiar. Everyone, from their very formative years, reads bildungsroman literature. It’s one of the key genres in youth literature.
The journey itself needed to be big in scale, because this was a journey of worldly discovery. Despite the limitations of the Game Boy’s hardware, it was indeed massive, with caves, big cities, oceans and islands to explore. “We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world,” Marcel Proust once wrote, in Within a Budding Grove, Part 2. When you think about it, Pokémon Red and Blue really did leave you to find your way around the world on your own terms. Yes, there were hints and tips along the way, but tracking the three legendary birds and Mewtwo was really down to your willingness to explore. Understanding combat strategy was on you, to figure out how to effectively put the teams and moves together. Pokémon, the game, didn’t really explain any of that for you.
These were linear games, but they worked hard to give you an open approach to them. Fast forward a couple of decades, and Pokémon Violet and Scarlet gets right back to that classical bildungsroman approach. After an hour or so introduction, where you enrol in school, have your first couple of fights, and meet the major characters, the school principal tells you to literally get out there in the world and explore it. With little more guidance than that, just like the protagonist of Red and Blue, you’re tasked with figuring it all out for yourself, and forging your own path according to your interests and talents.
From that point, there’s little handholding. You can, in theory, do the gyms in reverse order of what you’re meant to. You’ll find that a slog since your opponents will have much more powerful pokémon, but that’s a mistake that you’re free to make if you so wish. Or you can ignore the gyms and focus on a dozen different objectives. No one is going to tell you where to go or what to do, so it’s really down to your own inquisitive spirit to figure out how you want to experience this world.
This is the pure essence of what Pokémon has always wanted to be, and I found myself lost in the world very quickly. I loved simply exploring because every area had the promise of new Pokémon to catch, new nooks and crannies to explore, and new things to discover. The world is large enough to make the journey through it part of the story, and it’s one you take completely on your own terms. There aren’t even random encounters or rival trainers to deal with if you’re focused elsewhere. You battle Pokémon and trainers only when you want to.
There were some limitations that were disappointing. The various towns and villages that you visit are barely differentiated. There might be some different shops to stop out for food and accessories, but otherwise, they were pretty featureless places to visit. You could say the same about other Pokémon games, of course, but perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by the Yakuza series in terms of what I expect from open world games; I want a range of “down-time” activities to give me a break from the adventuring.
What was really disappointing, however, was something far more trivial. The limitations in costuming are ridiculous for a story of a journey and finding yourself and your place in the world… you’re remarkably not allowed to develop a fashion sense. There are four “school uniform” costumes that you can choose between, but they’re all variations of the shirt and shorts or pants combination. You can customise the hat you wear, your hair, the backpack and gloves, but you’re still forced to dress in these clothes the whole adventure. Let people dress their characters in skirts and other cute things, Game Freak.
Of course, that’s a minor complaint. To hear other people talk about these games, they’re got much bigger issues with it than that, and some are so passionately angry about it that you could be forgiven for thinking it is the worst thing ever made. Writing this review after the launch has given me the benefit of having seen the discourse around it. If there’s one thing the Pokémon faithful love, it’s hating their “favourite” series, and they’ve really gone all out on this one. Of course, their complaints are almost universally pointless once you actually think about the impact that they have on the game. Pokémon Violent and Scarlet do have issues with frame rate and texture pop-in, this is true. Those issues are sometimes (rarely) quite significant. But what is also true is that these things don’t get in the way of the gameplay whatsoever because, as a sedate-paced JRPG with a turn-based combat system, frame rates do not matter.
What does matter is the art direction, and Pokémon Violet and Scarlet are gorgeous. The world is simple, but colourful and warming on the eyes. Every Pokémon that you bump into along the way is playfully designed and modelled, and with 400 of them, the variety is good. Every new region that you visit is bursting with energy with swarms of critters wandering around. There’s the odd moment where there’s clipping or some weird animation, which does momentarily pull you out of the experience, but I’m certain Game Freak will be patching these things, and I’ve certainly played open world games that have launched in a far worse state than this.
In terms of how they play, Pokémon Violet and Scarlet aren’t going to surprise anyone. Indeed, after the relatively experimental approach that Arceus took, it’s nice to have one that gets back to basics. You find a wild pokémon, battle, and try and catch it. You run into a trainer, and you try and defeat them using the team you’ve collected. Combat is purely turn-based and each pokémon in your party can have at most four moves. With so many pokémon to collect, so many moves to use, and an effectively unlimited depth to this system it is a case of not fixing what isn’t broken, because Pokémon really does have the perfect combat system.
There are two modernisations to modern Pokémon that I absolutely cannot stand, however, and it irritates me no end that Game Freak refuses to give us options here. Firstly, in early Pokémon games when a monster levelled up you could see its new statistics. This was useful information when building and then optimising a team. Now, however, you don’t see that stuff. To check out the stats of your pokémon you need to go into the menu and manually look at each one. I understand that to more casual players the monster’s experience level is more than enough data, and if you throw too many numbers at people that don’t regularly play JRPGs they can be overwhelmed, but why not bury the option in the options menu somewhere?
Similarly, I absolutely hate that every Pokémon gets experience points, whether they participated in the battle or not. With older Pokémon games a monster needed to spend at least appear on the battlefield to get experience, and this led to training techniques that I found genuinely enjoyable. Have a low-level pokémon that you want to level up? Have them be the first into battle, and then immediately swap them out for the next one. It meant the second pokémon would need to take a hit, so there were some calculations involved there, and it also meant that when your under-levelled pokémon is finally starting to hold their own, you’ve spent enough time with them in combat, however briefly, that you’ve become familiar with them.
By contrast, with more recent Pokémon games, the critters will often evolve before you’ve even really started to use them. “Training” a new Pokémon simply means burying it in the party and letting it accumulate experience points passively. Again, I understand why Game Freak has done this, because it streamlines the process for a more general audience, but why not give the traditionalists among us the option to turn it off?
Neither of these gripes necessarily mean I didn’t enjoy Pokémon Violet and Scarlet. Not even close. I still loved almost everything about the game. It’s just frustrating that we don’t have the option to switch off some things that really should be optional. I’m doing a replay of Pokémon Black in parallel to this game, and I do find the raising and training side of things more rewarding because it doesn’t have these “new” features.
There are some other, minor issues that quality-of-life updates could fix. For example, when you start playing, the map icons aren’t going to make much sense and you won’t be able to figure out what they mean until you mosey on over to one and see for yourself what it represents. This might have been Game Freak’s way of encouraging players to check everything out, but a simple description would have been appreciated. There’s also a stealth-and-stun system in play for wild pokémon, where you can lock on to them as a “target”, work your way behind them, and throw a pokéball to “stun” them and get a free attack in combat. It’s a fine idea, except the lock-on is clunky and tends to freak out if there is more than one pokémon in range. Which is usually the case.
I’m really stretching for things to criticise though, because overall I have had such a wonderful time with Pokémon Violet and Scarlet. None of the issues that I have with these games are anything but the most mild and forgivable irritations. Meanwhile, the promise of a big but blissfully uncomplicated world, filled with adventure and monsters to collect, brought me right back to what drew me into the whole Pokémon franchise in the first place. Is Scarlet and Violet a technical mess? Sure. Do I care? Not in the slightest. I’m here for the pokémon. Not to count frames.