Pokemon Scarlet Review (Switch)
Release Date: November 19, 2022
File Size: 7.0GB
Developer: GAME FREAK
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Well, this has certainly been a year for Pokemon. Twelve months ago, we were staring in the face of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, two relatively safe, albeit dangerously faithful HD remakes of the Sinnoh region, wondering if this series really had anything to offer a forward-thinking fan or newcomer. The early 2022 follow-up Pokemon Legends Arceus then flipped several of the series’s traditions on their heads, offering action- and stealth-oriented gameplay and a vastly different style of interaction with Pokemon in battle and on the field. Now, we are a few weeks past Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, the latest installments in the series and the first-ever open-world Pokemon titles.
Three vastly different kinds of experiences, two ending a tumultuous generation of disappointment and uncertainty, and these latest games opening the gate to what is now the ninth generation. Did Game Freak manage to surpass expectations with these newest games? As a longtime Pokemon skeptic, I can’t believe I’ve purchased Shining Pearl, Legends Arceus, and now Scarlet, let alone appreciated them individually for their particular, peculiar quirks.
This review is once again a snapshot into the psyche of someone raised on this franchise, but skeptical of its standard of quality, especially as it has transitioned from handhelds to the home console market. Does Pokemon Scarlet offer a new standard of quality from the series, or does it remain firmly rooted in the past? The answer is not as simple and straightforward as one might hope, but Pokemon finally feels like it is moving in the right direction.
Did you know that Pokemon is a series in which you catch little critters and train them via wild encounters and trainer battles with the intent of becoming a champion in your region? It’s true! That’s kind of been the formula for years now. But Pokemon Scarlet adds some more narrative plotlines, called Paths, atop this fairly standard progression, although one might argue how “new” these Paths are. Every prior Pokemon title has had an inept criminal organization working to upset the balance of their respective regions previously- the most egregious of these being a team of fanatics who followed around the object of their obsession the entire game.
How embarrassing. This time, however, Paldea has Team Star spread across its biomes in the Starfall Street Path. They must be defeated using the Let’s Go autobattle system in order to coax out their leader, who offers a more traditional boss-battle structure. These leaders have their own Pokemon type theming, so in reality, you’ll be taking on thirteen different Pokemon types as you traverse the open world. While gym leaders and Team Star bosses don’t scale based on your progression, their highly-specific typings and the overall experience sink required to get into the sixties mean you’re bound to encounter difficulties somewhere.
Luckily, Pokemon has never been more accommodating of players of all sorts. While having mandatory Experience Share is still a baffling design decision, players will need it now more than ever as the variety of Pokemon and their level ranges is suitably vast. You need not worry about random encounters any longer: Pokemon now freely roam the field and can be spotted from a distance, albeit a limited one. You can use the Let’s Go feature using the R Bumper or ZR Trigger to aggressively take on roaming Pokemon or stroll leisurely alongside their master, respectively. This auto-battle feature allows the player to fast-track experience grinding, so long as their Pokemon is within a suitable level range of their opponent. You will have to occasionally heal up your Pokemon as they take damage, but it’s a nice, unobtrusive way to farm experience, especially because battle animations can no longer be switched off to expedite things. An odd choice.
Because wild Pokemon occasionally roam in groups, you can enter a zoomed-in aiming mode and throw your lead Pokemon at a single target, but otherwise, running into Pokemon will trigger a traditional battle. These are user-interface-light, free camera affairs similar to Legends Arceus, but in contrast are the only way to catch a Pokemon properly. A Pokeball menu is set for quick access, but you’ll have all the standard commands here- fighting with your current Pokemon, switching to another, using items to heal, and fleeing if the going gets too tough.
Trainer battles play out the same as usual, though you’ll need to engage them in battles yourself, rather than having to make eye contact with them. While avoiding these battles might seem preferable, completing a specific amount per route will net you nice benefits from Pokemon League representatives stationed at Pokemon Centers. These Pokemon hospitals look like gas stations in Paldea, and you can load up on items and craft TMs using the myriad resources wild Pokemon drop upon defeat.
This gas station design also factors into the odd design of the title Legendaries of these games: Koraidon and Miraidon. This pair of paradoxical Pokemon are vaguely shaped like motorcycles, which updates the functionality of Pokemon’s staple bicycle to the modern era in a variety of ways, mainly tied to the last Path of Legends. In taking on colossal-sized Pokemon, the player can gain access to mobility upgrades for their mount in the form of higher jumping, swimming, gliding, and climbing. It allows the player a much greater range of exploration than previously seen in traditional Pokemon titles, save Legends Arceus.
Hey, at least it isn’t the Rotom Bike. Exploring yields its own rewards, such as finding Raid caves, where you’ll need to take on unique Tera type Pokemon, as well as collecting TMs and consumable and collectable items. There are even mysterious landmarks to uncover, where the player can encounter the Korok-like Gimmighoul and other strange elements worth interacting with. These incentives do wonders for the gameplay loop, which would look a bit light on content once the player has entered the post game, otherwise.
Aesthetics and Narrative
With its consistently high-quality 3D meshes in combination with improved textures, Pokemon maintains a strong visual fidelity in the presentation of its eponymous monsters. The region of Paldea itself is also vibrant, divided into a number of biomes that take on specific color palettes. Towns are also unique in their design and also often feature some landmark or structure integrated within their composition. From up in the air, the landscape can look a bit barren and not all that flattering, especially when you see the repetitive texture work applied to large mountain ranges. The closer to the ground and the more dense the objects on screen, the better the game tends to look- though this can be at the expense of other elements. Even so, there are sections of Paldea that can look quite breathtaking, and many feature unique environmental design to differentiate them from one another.
A major element of the game’s soundtrack is its usage of dynamic composition, which means that not only are the towns seamlessly blended into the natural landscape, but their music smoothly transitions from the exploration themes. The wild battle themes also layer over top exploration, and the result is a lovely and natural progression of music across the landscape. Trainer and Gym battles are the exception to this, but given their interruptive or eventful nature, it seems justified. Before the wonky vocal samples come in, the Gym leader track is pretty great. There seems to have been a determined effort to embrace some of the region’s inspiration into its instrumentation, which does result in a Spanish flourish.
Some exploration themes are a bit too “Pokemon” for their own good, however, and cheerily bounce along in such a way that they grow tiresome during extended play. Cutscene tracks, especially the sentimental Starfall Street theme, are tender and hummable. Despite being promoted as a key composer, Toby Fox’s particular musical styling seems to be largely absent from the game, with a soundtrack that feels more “Pokemon” than any of his original compositions- a welcome change after his uninspiring Little Town Hero OST. His particular compositional flair is used effectively in the late-game, as the areas are meant to feel alien or out of place in the traditional Pokemon world.
Seeing as Pokemon is a series meant to be accessible to children, the narrative that unfolds in Pokemon Scarlet is surprising, to say the least. The traditional Path of Champions is rather straightforward, but things become more complex in the Path of Legends and Starfall Street. The former squarely focuses on a character who has an extremely resentful relationship with his parents and tends to a deeply wounded Pokemon through herbology, while the latter presents a mystery related to bullying that humanizes its villains. Both are saccharine narratives, but they are flawed in their intense focus on text exposition rather than cutscenes. The cinematics in the game are a sore spot, seeing as each Path only receives a single choreographed sequence that rarely lasts a minute. It’s a shame, too, seeing as these add a sense of quality and drama to events that the rest of the game could use.
The final Path, which opens after the first three are completed, takes the key players from each Path prior and allows them to comment on one another and the mystery that binds the entire game and its legendary Pokemon together. It’s arguably the strongest piece of writing that Game Freak has ever put into one of their titles, more self-aware and nuanced than any previous plot, and culminating in character choices and motivations that work even in spite of a heavily scripted final battle. They even have the decency to let longtime fans have their cake and eat it too- but I won’t give away how that works.
You may have heard that these latest Pokemon titles are a technical mess. I’m not going to argue that they aren’t the most polished games on the system, but I also think many of these claims are overstated. Across my fifty hours of playing Pokemon Scarlet, I experienced my fair share of camera clips, and I was trapped in an endless falling glitch for about thirty seconds before the game had the wherewithal to spawn me back at my last Pokemon Center. There were times when my Pro Controller seemed to jitter when navigating the map screen. Much more frequent were framerate drops, which I am usually rather forgiving- or at least, expectant of- as a Switch owner. These issues, in addition to glaring pop-in and drop-out at close ranges, might give some consumers pause.
I don’t think we should be forgiving of Game Freak’s poor optimization, but I would posit that both this game and Pokemon Legends Arceus were released in the same year, when either could have been delayed in order to deliver a more stable and perhaps substantial experience, in time. This is not how The Pokemon Machine works, however, and in a world where a new installment is expected every three years, this game had to be “THE GAME,” which means there is a possibility optimization was overlooked.
What concerns me is that, as a community, we are so willing to decry a development studio- scratch that, studios plural, as one can see from the credits- that has made its first open-world, high definition title ever, because… it has bugs. Glitches. Poor optimization. I seem to recall a certain other open world RPG being lauded and repurchased for years after its initial release despite retaining several of its bugs. Maybe it’s a more complex game than Pokemon Scarlet, that is fair. But for Game Freak to go from the safe and stagnant design of Pokemon Sword and Shield to this strong showing in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet in the span of three years is… frankly, pretty impressive. Yes, it’s not perfect. Games with technical issues are often the hardest for us to critique, because that is a realm that many of us observe from the outside: this is not an interactive element for us to judge, but something embedded in its design. It sucks because we know other games can and have done it better.
Can we forgive Game Freak for these issues? We can hold them to a higher standard, but considering the game has sold like gangbusters already, it may be a moot point. What is respectable, however, is that they took criticism of Pokemon Sword and Shield and created a far more modern, daring follow up in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. It isn’t perfect, and if we didn’t love Pokemon so much, we wouldn’t accept it. But, it is what it is, and unless Game Freak puts out a patch for the game or it becomes more stable via emulation, we are unlikely to see it change. A dedicated portion of the development team is likely already at work on its DLC expansion, so some sort of patch does not seem realistic. (Author’s note: the software update posted on December 1st did in fact make some adjustments to performance, which is a welcome sign of continued efforts to refine the title.)
Impressions and Conclusion
So, as a Pokemon skeptic, and someone who hasn’t loved a game in the series since Pokemon Y back in 2013, I can confidently say that I see promise in the series once again. Many of its quality of life revisions are welcome, and much more substantial post-game content encourages another victory lap around Paldea, in addition to a few more Pokemon to catch. Really, the joy of capturing Pokemon is as palpable as ever. Being able to see the creatures you want to catch and understanding the breadth and range of the creatures across Paldea makes for a much more tangible goal than previous installments. Though the Paldean Pokedex is slightly beneath the halfway point at 400 Pokemon total, it is still a very impressive and substantial number of creatures.
The online features of Pokemon Scarlet were truly what sold me on the title. I wasn’t sure what I would gain in teaming up with friends to explore the region, and in some ways, the Union Rooms make some modifications to the single player experience in order to justify their implementation. You will receive notifications about quickly joining other player’s raiding opportunities, and though you’ll lose access to a portion of raids yourself, you can still gain the valuable League Point currency and pinpoint other player’s raid crystals. The game offers meager forms of player communication and expression that an external voice chat program then solves, but the experience of capturing and training Pokemon for high level raids alongside friends is still enjoyable.
Really, prior to completing the Pokedex and the game proper, exploring the world and sharing information with friends was an experience evocative of Breath of the Wild’s initial release. Since TMs pepper the landscape and unlock crafting options upon collection, they act as important guideposts to share with friends. There are a number of unique Tera Type Pokemon that roam the world and pointing them out can be another valuable piece of information to share.
Tera Type Pokemon themselves are a wonderful gameplay wrinkle that enhances the competitive and cooperative aspects of the game. Though its use is fairly straightforward in-game, with Gym Leaders and important event battles more or less using the Terastelize feature to align a Pokemon with their themed typing or give them an extra offensive boost, finding Pokemon with unique Tera Types across Paldea and in raids reveals their tricky nature. You can’t necessarily bring an Ice type Pokemon to a Raid against a Dragon Tera Type Pokemon, as they might originally be a Fighting or Fire type with plenty of moves designed to take you down.
Since Terastelizing causes a Pokemon to lose whatever dual-typing it might have previously possessed, you have to play a careful game of weighing the benefits and risks of using this power in battle. It’s the smartest modification system Game Freak has developed since… well honestly, Z-Moves weren’t terrible, but they didn’t have the type-altering cool factor that Mega Evolutions possessed. It’s such a good mechanic, I am a bit frustrated to think that we might lose it in favor of some other battle gimmick down the road.
And yes, in terms of story, Pokemon seems far more aware of its inherent goofiness, mixing thick-headed battle enthusiasts with complex, motivated characters and a healthy dose of absurd archetypes. It does feel like a respectable blend of storytelling, with interactive books that hint at lore for the future of Paldea as well as its past, recounted experiences that test reader comprehension, and cutscenes that highlight the player’s progression through each route. Sure, some of its dialogue is a bit simplistic and stereotypical, but there are more than a few heartwarming messages here. I find myself surprised by the places this story is willing to go, even if it doesn’t always stick the landing.
Is Pokemon Scarlet a perfect game? No, I don’t think it’s fair to say that. The issue of silly Gym Challenges that pervaded Pokemon Sword and Shield is still present, but is counterbalanced by some genuinely good puzzle design. The open world is vast and explorable, but it has its fair share of technical and aesthetic issues. The narrative is equal parts good and bad. But it does feel like a grand adventure. It’s an open world that doesn’t need to be massive in order to deliver a proper Pokemon experience, yet it does feel very expansive, even so. It’s a big mess of a game, and I can’t help but be charmed by it. In that sense, if you are willing to look past the technical issues, I think Pokemon Scarlet can offer a very fun and satisfying experience, but that disclaimer still looms large overhead. If a longtime Pokemon skeptic can find joy in this game, then perhaps you can, as well.