Pokémon Scarlet Review Pokémon scarlet feels like the natural conclusion to the development of Pokémon games on the Nintendo Switch.
When I say this, I know that to date we have had no announcement for the next Nintendo console - but it must surely be coming soon? Let’s get the Donphan in the room out of the way first though.
Graphical, Memory issues, Online Issues, Tera Raid Issues, Quality of Life Improvements/downgrades & Postgame
Graphically, Pokémon scarlet is both incredibly beautiful and at the exact same time a complete mess. From a distance Paldea is stunning. Go to the top of a mountain, look out across the landscape, and wait until the sunset and Paldea comes to life with vibrant colours, beautiful scenery and life teeming on every ledge, slope, in every river and nook and cranny. But get close to anything other than the Pokémon in the game and you will find odd textures and incredibly basic design in animation of trees, grass, rocks, water and even buildings, which as a result have left Paldea and most of its Pokémon looking rather poorer than they should.
This is a crying shame as the world of Paldea has been lovingly put together in terms of its map, buildings and more. It has been very well conceptualised, with clear nods to much of Spain, many of the Spanish speaking countries and some of the old Pokémon games (in one town there are tiled murals of old sprites from Pokémon Red and Green, which don’t look too out of place and are a lovely Easter egg of sorts). This bizarre contradiction in terms - where the game is both aesthetically beautiful and mesmerising - provided you don’t look too closely, is a big step back from even Pokémon Sword and Shield and it astonished me to realise there was more varied and better animation in the Crown Tundra’s snow scapes than to be found on Paldeas very plain white slopes that don’t even leave footprints behind.
The biggest issue in the game however is its collision detection between different objects, which is a constant, noticeable detraction from all other aspects of the game. The games engine is at the heart of the issues, both trying to keep all Paldea modelled at once and struggling with the frame rate of multiple creatures on screen, characters, weather, battles…for which the camera is awful, adding to these graphical issues instead of providing a relief from them. These aesthetic issues didn’t detract from the major gameplay in a meaningful way for me, but the constant minor irritation at seeing things like basic collision detection not working - something that even a game as old as Pokémon Coliseum has down to a tee - gives the player the distinct impression of a rushed to release title that was not given the time for the final polish on the crystals that shine so brightly in it.
The fact is, if you go looking for the graphical and collision detection issues, you will find them. They’re everywhere, in every town, landscape and battle. It is immensely frustrating and begs the question why the game was shipped in this form to begin with. A day one patch is normal for games currently, but Pokémon Scarlets first day patch did not address any of its major issues, and one suspects that Game Freak and Nintendo won’t. This is based on a clear understanding that the company’s cycle of development overlaps. Right now, that engine used in Scarlet and Violet is likely already obsolete, with generation 10 being worked on right now, ready for release in approx. three years’ time and probably running either a much-improved version of this engine, or a new one entirely.
Given the similarities between Sword and Shield’s wild areas and the whole of Paldea, there is a clear development forward and we are unlikely to ever go back to a game like the top-down games of old, unless they are remakes. For which, in my opinion, this is where Nintendo and Game Freak should part with the decades long tradition of remaking Pokémon games and leave regions like Unova, Kalos, Alola and Galar firmly in the past. Pokémon Scarlet is so much bigger, more epic, and more fun than any of these regions ever were. Remakes will only rely on either like for like development with minor changes (see BDSP) and these developments detract from the main attraction of Pokémon - new regions to explore and new Pokémon, together with taking away programmers and contractors that could have been working on the main titles instead. Let exacting remakes of old games on new consoles die a death and let games such as Pokémon Legends Arceus and Scarlet/Violet be the new order of the day.
If people really want to play the old games, re-release them as is and have them connectable to Pokémon Home. Otherwise, the issues of Pokémon Scarlet are destined to be repeated. Having another small team working on a mainline title - when Pokémon is a multi-billion-pound franchise - smacks of a refusal to bring in additional help and penny pinching.
Since completing the main game, I have been trying to enjoy the online scene a bit more. I have no issues with the ranked/unranked battling mode, Battle Stadium. It makes the removal of the battle tower more understandable, as you basically get LP and rewards for taking part in both modes, which are single and double battle. To date I have suffered no graphical or memory issues in the battling mode, which is solidly built and really looks the part. I wish there were more choices for where you battle – it is always in the academy stadium.
Then we have terra raids.
Terra raids online are an absolute mess, mostly a waste of time, put together – terribly – and somehow manage to make the in game ones look appealing, which they aren’t.
Timing, graphical issues, moves not hitting, the HP bar for enemies being a waste of time (ignore it completely and just button mash if you can). There seems to be a huge ramp up of “must win at all costs” for 6 and 7 star raids where the Pokemon you are facing can be wiped out by some good strategy and type matchups…but somehow come back from the dead, put up a shield, remove all issues from itself and stop your strategy dead, and also move (twice) in one turn.
By comparison, max raid dens feel less stressful, less irritating, less cheap, and infinitely preferable to having to grind for the Herba Mystica items and anything that might you some quick cash.
My level of cynicism for Terra raids has ramped up because of not being able to join in about 20 terra raids in a row. When this happens, you are left feeling entirely excluded from the game, and unable to go after your favourite Pokemon, or ones that would seriously help out your game. The one which keeps eluding me is the Umbreon terra raid, one I really, really wanted if only for the better IVs the Umbreon would have over the caught one from during the main game.
It's not my internet connection – I cannot be alone in experiencing this – and GF/Nintendo really need to sort this, among other issues, out. Terra raids feel like they seriously lost out on debugging, given the number of very clear issues with frame rate, moves, the terra raid Pokemon ignoring virtually everything thrown at it, and upping the difficulty in ways that seem cheaper and cheaper every single time.
Utterly frustrating, total nonsense.
There are some good quality of life upgrades, such as auto battling, auto-heal on the main menu (which, if it included the use of status potions in combination with general potions, would be perfect), but the mini-map in the bottom corner doesn’t toggle between fixed and spinning, which results in an awkward reading.
Shops are insanely clunky throughout. We now live in a world where we can shop online at our fingertips from anywhere in the world. One good QoL upgrade would be to include a list of shops on a menu within the main menu – once you’ve visited a shopping location, you can save it to your “online shop” menu and then browse that shop’s wares and purchase without having to visit that location again.
In addition, being able to access things like the hyper training “online” within the main game and having it as a subset of a menu would be a much-needed QoL upgrade. Breeding can now be done anywhere, why can’t hyper training?
The core gameplay is an open world adventure where you can, with only minimal hand holding at the start of the game to help you along the way with your starter Pokémon.
I was quite afraid, from the descriptions of the Scarlet and Violet catching mechanics, that it would feel quite old fashioned compared to Pokémon legends Arceus, which I absolutely loved. The biggest surprise to me was that I embraced catching them all by way of battling early on, and it’s not actually made me feel frustrated by the mechanic itself or impatient for it to end.
It feels like a much-refined mechanic of that we’ve always known and being able to initiate battles by way of walking into Pokémon or interacting them with a button press makes the game a much more relaxed affair. Do you want to catch that Pokémon? You can simply walk past it. Pokeballs, like in legends Arceus, can be accessed by way of the X button on the main selection screen ahead of picking a move, and having this in the game is a relief, it makes catching so much less clunky than it used to be.
In Legends Arceus, the catching mechanics of that game exist to create urgency, wild Pokémon are far more likely to attack and cause issues for you (the fainting of the main character and loss of items from the item bag) whereas here catching them all has been perfected to remove the overall slog. Searching for and finding the rarest Pokémon in the game is a joy again.
What I would like to see is a basic adaptation of the Legends Arceus mechanics for any future title. A good compromise can be made here. Being able to throw a Pokeball using the Legends Arceus targeting system could result in an instant capture, but if you don’t capture the Pokémon first time, it can initiate a battle instead. Initiating a battle by way of sending a Pokémon out or running into them can also be done.
This kind of compromise agreement in future games could really cement and refine the series’ raison d’etre and give fans of both excellent 2022 games the choice of gameplay they seek.
I am never afraid to admit when I am wrong, and Scarlet’s catching mechanics by way of battling don’t detract from the game, they enhance it. In future generations, a balance between Legends Arceus and Scarlet and Violet would be welcomed.
Battling makes a return and unfortunately does feel rather more clunky than Legends Arceus. I don’t particularly want the main games to include the swift/strong styles for moves – as good and fun as it was with my playthrough of Arceus – what I want is for GF to change the battle camera back to a fixed camera, ala Legends Arceus, which you can then choose to move around. The shockingly bad camera for battles in Scarlet and Violet is one of the biggest graphical disappointments of the game, with so many issues from disappearing Pokémon to moves and a lot of collision detection issues.
The item bag is remarkably clunky, too, and whilst you really do need a list of items and the ability to scroll through them, I can’t help but feel that Scarlet and Violet made it difficult to favourite your most needed items. In legends Arceus, using the “sort by favourite” option was per pocket whereas in Scarlet and Violet it is the whole bag, which changes every item pocket. It’s frustrating because you might organise one pocket, go to another to find something, change the sort of option and you will have made it different in the original pocket, thus making it difficult to scroll through again. Adapting the Legends Arceus style here will speed up the finding process.
The picnic function, as one of the newest parts of the games overall, is brilliant. Sandwich power really does influence your progression throughout the game and removing the day-care and making your picnic setup a portable day-care to make eggs and hatch them is a genius move. This needs to become a staple of the series.
I am less sold on the legendary Pokémon as a ride Pokémon, although there are unquestionably advantages to having one legendary act as a ride Pokémon for everything you need them to ride for (faster travel, climbing, gliding, etc). The issue is that we are presented with a precedent that can’t really be taken back now. Anything going forward may feel like a big downgrade from Koraidon or Miraidon, given that they do everything required.
However, bravo to GF for “Herba Mystica”, whose effect and acronym is…HM. As in Hidden Machine. As in, surf, rock climb, fly, etc. Big applause there, I didn’t spot this until a few days ago but HMs really were back in the game, just not in the way that we thought. Clever, thoughtful, fun!
In Pokémon legends Arceus, the ride Pokémon Braviary was a superior tool, and allowed for much more fun experiences in gliding around the map. Koraidon and Miraidon don’t quite meet this standard, only gliding for a short period of time before their flight abruptly starts to plummet towards the ground. It is frustrating that the gliding mechanic has been nerfed in such a way, as Paldea really does have a lot of watch towers, mountains and more where gliding really and truly would have been brilliant for just basic exploration and spotting the rarer Pokémon in the game. It is a shame.
Speaking of rarer Pokémon in the game, shiny Pokémon being on the overworld is great, but legends Arceus had a visual cue which showed that a Pokémon was its shiny variant. It is frustrating – particularly for those Pokémon whose shinies are not that dissimilar from their regular form – that such a visual cue is not present in Scarlet and Violet.
The lack of level scaling for the gyms is something that will need to be looked at in future, for sure. The game can feel so open world without direction – but the Pokémon centre staff do help by way of hints and directions, so the game doesn’t leave you entirely on your own. I beat the highest-level gym of the game as my 5th gym by way of wanting to explore the snowy mountain scenery as much as possible.
The elite four make a return, but it’s a one-off gauntlet, and not particularly satisfying, with one of the worst – and I really do mean worst – soundtracks to an elite four gauntlet I have heard to date. The music feels so lethargic and dirgy that you are willing the battle to be over so that you don’t hear that awful, groaning synth that starts each of these battles, repeated over, and over, and over again. This part of the game should have been a gauntlet, to be repeated, and the lack of separate chambers for each elite four member (and a member of the elite four also being a gym leader?) doesn’t sit well, in terms of the obvious passion and work that went into other aspects of the game.
In game Terra Raids are much improved versions of the in game max raid battles in sword and shield, offering some genuinely difficult Pokémon to defeat and a lot of great items to win for your troubles too. I found myself actively searching these out in a way I didn’t in the last generation, where the max raid battles felt far too lengthy. I am particularly pleased that there is no max raid den gauntlet this time around! These feel so much more polished than their online version, and yet are basically the same thing, just lacking an internet connection. It’s been a night and day experience for me and the frustrating thing is you need to ultilise the online terra raids more than the in game ones for the items required for shiny hunting, competitive battling, etc.
Finally, we must discuss the main change of the games’ gimmick, terrastilization. It’s interesting, effectively providing a third potential type that changes the Pokémon from a single or dual typed Pokémon to the single typing of the terra type it is aligned with. This can have some rather pleasing results in online battles, where you can basically set up some of your Pokémon to troll your opponent by way of presenting a type match up that can properly sweep other teams. I have been annihilated by a team utilising a version of Palafin that changed its terra type and literally swept my team.
Terrastalizing is mostly fun, changes the gameplay up, and doesn’t do it in the wholly intrusive way that gigantamaxing, z moves, and mega evolution did over the years, by way of one very simple requirement: any Pokémon can do it. That one move has made the metagame far harder to predict, much more fun to build teams around, and means that no one single Pokémon is left out of being a hero, by way of this mechanic.
One piece of advice though – if you run black sludge on a poison type Pokémon, and you terrastalize it into a different type, you will find your health bar disappearing quickly. I learned this the hard way!
The Five (not three!) Story Paths
The Path of Titans, together with finding the Herba Mystica, is one of the first times I have been completely blindsided by a Pokémon game. You start thinking that the main character of this arc, Arven, is a brat, but by about the second or third Titan, you know something is up and it is revealed that he is trying to heal up his faithful old pup, Mabosstiff, his only companion with his absentee father and mostly absent professor mother. Arven’s storyline with Mabosstiff is truly astounding and I defy anyone to tell me they didn’t shed a tear throughout. As a former dog owner this hit me in the feels so very, very much. Truly a spectacular storyline.
So, what of the two other main story paths? Victory Road is a standard get all the badges, beat your rival and then an elite four and post-game sort of affair, with two very specific criticisms being a lack of signposting, in game, as to a decent route for level scaling. My specific route in the game meant I had beaten the highest levelled gym as my fifth gym badge, leaving the rest of the gyms rather easier to beat. Weirdly, although no level scaling exists for the teams of the gyms, the gym badges do scale their effects based on the number of badges you have, meaning you can get different badges and have different improvements in your catch rate and obey rate that are completely unaffected by what gym you beat. Nemona’s teams, weirdly, do scale in relation to how many badges you get, so she will appear at whatever gym happens to be the one she is programmed to appear, say first or third, at. If they could scale Nemona’s teams, it would have been entirely possible for the gym teams to scale and would have been a huge improvement in the game.
Nemona exists purely as a sparring partner, but she is at least a huge improvement over Sword and Shield's Hop, who was just awful in every way. Nemona is strong willed, her teams scale to each gym you take on, regardless of which gym (which begs the question: if they can scale Nemona's appearances and teams to match yours, why couldn't GF have done this with the Gym leaders too?) and the dialogue is pretty good natured all round.
The final official storyline, Starfall Road, sees you take on different gangs within Team Star, and bring the bullies to justice. Except, they weren't bullies to begin with, but were standing up to the original bullies, who turn out to be some of the other kids at the academy and some staff members. There's a lot to take in and I doubt there is a single person alive who doesn't nod sagely at some of the revelations that pop up as you beat each crew. The auto battles are fun, if a bit short, and the bosses at the end of each stage all do the same thing, with different liveried versions of the Star Mobiles. I could take or leave the star mobile fights, but it was something new and something different, and it was fun, so kudos to GF for not just doing another Team Rocket or Team Aqua, or Team Plasma...or whatever that supposed team was in Sword and Shield.
The academy, for my money, is in fact the fourth storyline of the game and requires a lot of interaction with likeable NPCs - the teachers - and doing all kinds of errands and tests. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this immensely but longed to be able to just roam the corridors, go between classrooms and generally try and explore the school, ala something akin to Hogwarts. There's so much of the game that has great ambition, but ultimately feels a little lacking in the "open world" aspect when you can just quick travel to each classroom or part of the school.
By doing all the academy interactions and tests you can get a gift Pokémon, lots of information on the rest of the game, and clues on the legendary quartet that are scattered around Paldea, together with genuinely learning about some of the game's more complex mechanics, including a full-on maths tutorial that I sadly failed the mid-term on...! Overall, the academy can feel either like a distraction from the core game or a very helpful introduction into the competitive battling aspects, and a tutor for finding legendary Pokémon, and/or a resource for finding out more about the game’s paradox Pokémon secrets.
The fifth genuine storyline in the game revolves around the central theme of the game: time travel. The time travel aspect is a part of Pokémon lore that has existed since Pokémon Gold and Silver, albeit in a way that allowed older Pokémon to go forwards and backwards “in time”. In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet that idea has been taken forward to its logical progression - if we can send Pokémon back in time, and forward in time, what are the issues? What are the outcomes of this decision? As an exercise in ethics, this fifth storyline “The Way Home” is just incredible.
This is Jurassic Park meets Star Trek, meets Indiana Jones, meets Blade Runner. Going into Area Zero, within the crater at the centre of Paldea, reveals a lost world, damaged by crystals literally rising up out of the ground, with abandoned research laboratories spread throughout the many levels, with grasslands, rocky outcrops, waterfalls, caves and more to explore, with possibly the most bizarre combinations of normal Pokémon (Raichu, Girafarig, Farigiraf, Venomoth, Golduck and more) wandering around whilst truly terrifying past and future versions of creatures like Jigglypuff, Volcanora, Donphan and Tyranitar wander around. For me, Scarlet’s Paradox Pokémon appeal more, as I have always had a fondness for archaeology and the ancient, extinct creatures of the real world, but the futuristic Paradox Pokémon are sensational too.
And ultimately there is a heart-breaking storyline tied up in this. The simplest of ideas, taken straight from the original core games, brought forward to the present day. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling - as it unfolds throughout the game you get hints and nods to what your partner legendary is - and overall, the game recognises that your adventure is asking some truly deep questions about the ethics of time travel. There’s also a true masterclass in the complex relationships between parents and children, teachers, and their charges, that element of trust, love, and respect, with overriding themes of overcoming bullying, bereavement, failure, loneliness, age, and many more. The three different main story strands of this game connect in a way that no Pokémon game has ever done. For that, alone, this puts Pokémon Scarlet and Violet at the top of the all-time list.
The father, or a parent, is always conspicuously missing from the main characters life with only one exception thus far in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire where the dad was a gym leader. This means that the main character and Arven connect more deeply as both are missing a parent - by the end of the game, Arven is essentially orphaned, with the question of “the man” and “the woman” mentioned in the scattered notes throughout Area Zero as being very likely the other Professor, who leaves the main professor character…in other words, Arven's parents are both Turo and Sada in both games, and one of each has died and one of each has left him during the course of the story of the two games.
Which means in basic terms that there is still a version of Turo and Sada, alive, in each universe. They just left the other professor when Arven was born. This realisation is both painful, horrifying, and heart rendering. It also makes the player respect the role of Arven in all this that little bit more.
Imagine if in Scarlet, Turo turns up, reactivates the Time Machine, but instead brings future Paradox Pokémon through, and vice versa in Violet for Sada? The aim being to switch off the machine and save Paldea, once more...The possibilities are endless. The DLC must start dropping next year, and we need to find out more about Arven's back story. To do anything less would be not doing justice to one of the Pokémon world's greatest characters. I truly mean that - Arven is an inspiration to us all.
This is the first time I can recall the professors in the Pokémon series being technically the villains of the piece, even if it was unintentional, and not just villains but bad examples of adult characters too. There is so much emotional upheaval with the reveals at the end of the main game that you can be forgiven for feeling emotional exhausted by the time the credits roll. Truly, an amazing storyline and probably one that should be in the main anime (if its rumoured demise doesn't come about).
Area Zero is, with no exaggeration, the most extraordinary and most beautiful new area in Pokémon. This is the games crowning glory, where the main game ends and the post-game begins, and the design of the area matches the strong story telling in taking your breath away.
From the first jump into the clouds below, and the hike down the levels to each more and more decrepit research stations, we are met with waterfalls, ledges, satellite dishes, crystalline structures, caves, prairie lands, rocky outcrops, glittering dust, and an enormous crater that screams Jurassic Park and old man-made structures which give quiet foreboding of disasters past and disasters yet to come.
It was an ethereal experience, going through Area Zero, with the three true companions you’ve built up through the game. As you get closer to the climax, you really get a sense of wonder.
There are little nods to older games too. The diary notes that give increasingly doom ridden exposition - cinnabar lab in Pokémon red and blue. The old decaying structures belying old purposes - Pokémon Coliseum, and there’s more than a nod in the overall design of this area, particularly in the machinery we find as we get closer to the final battle. The Time Machine concept and the capsules used with it are reminiscent of the time capsule from Pokémon Gold and Silver. The machine does function in exactly that described in those old games, bringing old Pokémon forward to the present time and dragging future ones back.
What really stood out for me in Pokémon Scarlet was that the ancient Paradox Pokémon. The designs when seen in the context of Area Zero are perfectly chosen. Running into your first Scream Tail is pretty scary, particularly in the setup of it being mistaken for a Jigglypuff. The mix of older gens of Pokémon that could plausibly be seen in a prehistoric Pokémon world makes sense, with maybe a slight disappointment that currently, there’s no Paldea Paradox Pokémon.
Obvious candidates are Pawmot, Baxcalibur and Palafin, quite frankly. The stand out monster and highlight is Great Tusk, both as a titan and in area zero. The design team nailed the look of an ancient Donphan, and quite frankly I want more like this. The fossil Pokémon have always been set apart from the standard Pokémon: here’s the setup where we could find out what an ancient Pikachu or Raichu looks like (they could have genuinely brought back the Gorochu concept here by way of making Raichu a paradox Pokémon! Missed opportunity?)
The possibilities for the (surely inevitable) DLC are endless. Area Zero could have a sequel. How about an island off the coast of Paldea, where super ancient, or future Pokémon have been gathered to create a new safari zone, but they’ve gone genuinely amok…might make a good film! Get Spielberg involved, I’m sure he’s done something similar…!
Once you’ve caught the paradox Pokémon plus the second, angrier Koraidon, there’s still plenty of Pokémon that can be found to be caught, some of which like Farigiraf mean you don’t need to go through the rigmarole of evolving it from its base form. The usual item and TM drops are here too, with a special mention going to the dragon dance tm I found near Roaring Moon, the ancient Salamence like Pokémon.
There are many unanswered questions, including a suspicion that the “time machine” is in fact the missing 3rd Legendary of the game, that has been hacked about to produce this weird machine that creates Pokémon. If so, this could be a truly dark entry in the series. The description of the Pokemon’s outer shell matches that we see in-game with the time machine, and the crystals that are built up around it match what is described in the entries we find in the different laboratories.
Further, Arven’s post-game storyline where he outlines some of the Scarlet (or Violet) book’s issues add further to the theory that the ancient and future Paradox Pokemon are in fact creations, not time travellers.
The DLC may yet shed some light on all this!
Overall point of view
Having now completed the Pokedex, 400/400 with my 400th entry being Pokemon no.400, Miraidon, I feel comfortable in saying that the overall Pokedex was well thought out, nicely balanced, and a good size for the game. In future DLCs, a further 300 minimum need to be added to make the game feel truly expansive, however. There was an element of some Pokemon seen everywhere, that could have been improved. But the choices and the designs of the new Pokemon make up for this somewhat.
This is truly a phenomenal entry in the Pokémon series, and it is unlikely to be bettered any time soon for the sheer brilliance of its writing, its game design, and its heart. The core gameplay, mechanics and overall look and feel of the games are the best for several generations.
This comes with a caution that GF need to seriously step up their work on the graphical and memory issues. A game of this quality and price deserves to look its most polished, and with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, you feel that there was pressure to deliver without fully fixing all the core issues that would have been known about for some time during development.
Ultimately, I still love the games, and I hope the lessons learned from Scarlet and Violet really do pave the way for more of the same from this game. GF have truly brought the series forward in a positive way overall.
Roll on generation 10 in a few years’ time.