While I motorbiked off three consecutive cliffs in Pokémon Scarlet, I was forced to confront a hard reality about myself: I struggle with change like anyone else. I talk big about wanting innovative gameplay but, in a Pokémon title at least, I wanted the familiar comforts of knowing exactly what to do. I wanted up to be north, and down to be south. None of those things were true in Pokémon Scarlet. While struggling to gain a foothold on the frustratingly ambiguous mountainside—one where safe, snowy pathways can be hard to distinguish from treacherous cliffs—I found myself ambushed by a vicious Ice-type Cetoddle who had snuck up in my blind spot. He boinked me, and a battle for my life began.
I’ve played every Pokémon generation since Red on the Game Boy Color, and the basic formula has mostly remained the same. You navigate a labyrinth world connected by routes, battle monsters in a turn-based system, and run around certain tiles until the RNG spits out a Pokémon for you. In Scarlet and Violet, on the other hand, you’re traversing an open world without any routes, you can see potential opponents from far away, and you choose your battles with careful precision.
Rather than subjecting you to the tyranny of closed exploration, Scarlet wants to give you more freedom than any title that came before it. Most of the game, you’re traveling on a version-exclusive motorbike Pokémon, Koraidon (Scarlet) or Miraidon (Violet). The Pokémon Center and Pokémarts are located in gas stations. The biggest sell is that there’s no set path that you have to follow. You can go to towns in any order and fight villainous bosses whenever you’d like. Unlike some open-world games, the enemies’ levels do not scale with your own. So if you stumble upon a level 40 Medicham while your Pokémon are level 18 like I did…well, I hope you’ve brought Poké Dolls to distract them.
But Scarlet is a lackluster exploration game. I’ve spent several days in the new region of Paldea, and it’s still as strange and unfamiliar to me as the day I left the starter town of Cabo Poco. Most open-world games rely on strong visual landmarks to help the player find their way. Paldea is largely empty, with very few landmarks on the long stretches of wilderness aside from the occasional gas station. While I was looking for the particularly out-of-the-way city of Alformada, I got lost several times. NPC trainers and signage mocked me constantly. Did you get lost too? Didn’t you know this is the wrong way? I thought the cheeky humor was funny at first. But when I compared my adventure to those in previous Pokémon games, I realized that the series’ transition to the newer design sensibilities had come at a cost.
The shift to open-world exploration has sacrificed the specificity of Pokémon world design. Though every region in past games had dozens of grassy routes, each one felt unique. If you showed me a screenshot of one of those older games, there was a strong chance I could identify where it was taken. Meanwhile, I’ve traveled Paldea for dozens of hours, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the surrounding areas of each city.
Confronted with all this nondescript blandness I thought to myself: What a waste. Maybe it’s because I enjoy traveling in real life. Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved the intricacies of figuring out how to navigate a new place. Roads were places where infinite sky met infinite earth, and every single rest stop was a welcome reprieve, every stranger a spot of humanity. Travel is about learning to love what you might not care for in any other circumstances. But the people I met on the road in Paldea were all NPC trainers. Gas station owners had no role other than to reward me for battling all of the nearby opponents. So it felt like I was “collecting” victories from roadside trainers rather than taking a genuine interest in challenging them organically. And oftentimes, I found myself with my nose to the ground. I’d be watching for sparkling items on the floor, or carefully keeping my eyes peeled for any sudden ambushes from the grass. Even if Paldea had been beautiful, the gameplay discouraged me from looking up and taking it all in.
I know that the central conceit of this series is to find and capture your favorite Pokémon. But if a game tries to offer an open-world experience, then I want to be a tourist. Every bland-looking cliff, every forest, and every river felt more like an obstacle rather than a natural wonder. After a decade, I still think fondly of the solemn tranquility of Mount Coronet from Diamond and Pearl. I remember standing on the peak of Mount Silver and feeling that I stood upon the legacy of giants. In comparison, Paldea’s Mt. Glaseado feels like a steep, ordinary hill. There was no glory in conquering its heights, no sense of having challenged myself to explore its snowy depths. In fact, I often found myself there by accident. World design in previous games felt precise and intentional, funneling me through puzzle dungeons. It was intimate and cozy. Pokémon Scarlet took that away and replaced it with a subpar open-world experience.
And then there are the performance issues. Of course, we’ve known about them for a couple of weeks now, and I’d seen them in various tweets and videos. Nothing prepared me, however, for just how hostile the world felt when the camera clipped through an object, or when moving NPCs started stuttering randomly. When I threw a Pokéball, it would often get stuck in midair. While battling an opponent in water, I’d pray that my Pokémon wouldn’t fall into the lake. Although the errors can sometimes be funny, I ended up becoming jaded about the experience over time. I couldn’t trust the camera to follow, or the walls to have proper hitboxes. While I bugged through the floor for the fifth time, I remembered how Kotaku staff had argued about whether or not it mattered that Legends: Arceus looked like ass. Does it matter if Scarlet and Violet have visual glitches, so long as it’s fun? To me, the answer is a resounding yes. I don’t buy Pokémon games for combat. I play them to simulate the feeling of having cute shared experiences with my Pokémon. As I watched the moonlight turn my electric mouse Pawmot into an unnatural shade of gray, I felt that I wasn’t getting the quality Pokémon experience that I was accustomed to.
Scarlet also lacks the grinding of older generations, which may sound good on paper, but in practice meant that I spent less time being mindful about how I trained Pokémon. I understand this is a longstanding pivot in the series that has taken place over several generations. The developers want you to get through the main story as quickly as possible so that you can get to the endgame of raising the toughest monsters for competitive or multiplayer play, or to be able to spend the whole game breeding shiny Pokémon if that’s your thing. But as I watched my entire party level up at the same time, I felt nostalgic for the days when trying to level a Magikarp was a ritual of love and dedication. Yeah, its nonexistent moveset was a source of frustration. And yes, I had to constantly work to make sure my starter Pokémon’s development didn’t outpace that of their siblings. But a reasonable amount of micromanagement was a way for me to invest care into my favorites. Getting a Volcarona felt awesome because you’d raised a Larvesta from birth to level 59.
Now I just catch a wild Gible at level 40 and shove some EXP candies into its mouth. Or I take my Pokémon out of its ball, and let it battle by itself while I make my way toward our next destination. It doesn’t feel like we endured the struggle together. There isn’t a huge opportunity cost in choosing to raise one companion over another, so I could use new Pokémon at any time without guilt. Which may be fine for players who are new to the series, but I can’t help but feel that they’re missing out on what once made raising each Pokémon feel like a unique experience. If I didn’t want to feel the highs and lows of lugging around a Magikarp in the hopes that it would evolve into Gyarados, then I would have simply left them at the daycare (which raises your Pokémon for you). Now Scarlet and Violet continue to feel like daycare all the time. Again, this could have been fine if I found exploration to be more compelling than the actual battles. But I didn’t.
The battles are also simply…fine. You know what to expect: Throw out a Pokémon and watch them battle it out in turn-based combat. Paldea adds a smorgasbord of over a hundred new Pokémon to collect, and the roster seems primarily aimed at countering the Fairy-type, which has been fairly overpowered since it was introduced in X and Y. I found it extremely easy to pick up powerful Steel and Poison-type creatures compared to other games, and my Fairy-type Dachsbun wasn’t simply steamrolling every single Pokémon I met. I habitually build a team out of new Pokémon only available in that specific generation. If you want a Fire or Water type, then you’re better off trying to catch some of the older Pokémon. With the exception of the new Paradox Pokémon, Paldea isn’t trying to give us new powerhouses like Dragapult or Mimikyu—the new creatures have unique type combinations or special ability gimmicks.
Tera types, another new addition to the series, are also not very groundbreaking. Terastallizing is a process in which you change your Pokémon’s type to a single mono type (each of which is unique to that specific Pokémon). So one Pikachu’s Tera Type can be Electric, another could be Grass, and a different one could be Dark. There’s a big catch: You can only Terastallize once per battle, and you can’t do it again until you return to a Pokémon Center. So this ability is really nerfed compared to X and Y’s Mega Evolution or Gigantimaxing in Sword and Shield. You should only use it in a pinch, but this ability is not suited for long travels or engaging with multiple waves of opponents.
Some special trainers like Gym Leaders will Terastallize their Pokémon in battle, but they only do so for the last Pokémon in their party (and always for their specialized type). So this mechanic doesn’t make gyms any more challenging. I am confident that you could ignore Tera types for most of the game and come out with a pretty okay experience. By the time I made it to the endgame, I had mostly forgotten that it existed. They’re pretty, but don’t expect Tera Types to massively alter your experience. I understand that there’s only a certain amount of complexity that the Pokémon meta can take before it can be difficult for newcomers. But I remember when Pokémon started being able to hold items. When they acquired natures and battles had weather conditions. I remember when the developers were experimenting with triple and rotation battles. I wish that Scarlet and Violet had been able to introduce a new system that could significantly change how Pokémon were used in battle, and which new combinations are now competitive. It feels as if the developers are reluctant to significantly disrupt competitive play, and casual players get lackluster gimmicks because of it.
Scarlet and Violet’s story is also not going to blow you away. As usual, it’s just a means of motivating you into traveling the land to battle and collect every Pokémon out there. Allowing players to complete quests in whichever order they chose is unique to the Pokémon games, but it’s not innovative in the wider RPG genre. But Scarlet’s story is nonetheless an improvement over several previous titles because it focuses on the relationships between people, rather than people and their Pokémon. I can’t personally relate to a story about missing a Pokémon for a thousand years. But it was relatable that Team Star, the primary antagonists of Scarlet and Violet, are committing delinquent acts to keep their friend group together. I was heartsick for these kids even though I wanted to shake them and go “Just talk it out with each other!” And though Arven, the professor’s son who has a strained relationship with his parent, was clearly meant to go from “surly rival” to “my best friend,” I enjoyed watching him slowly open up to other characters in the cast. While I’m unsure about several other aspects of the game, I’m glad that the series’ writers no longer have to rely on trainer-Pokémon bonds to tell compelling stories.
I know, I know, I’ve had my fun mocking the visual glitches and performance issues in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. But I really hope that the performance issues don’t ultimately define how we talk about this generation of games. This isn’t just a game that needed more time in production—Paldea is fundamentally not designed to be pleasant to explore. The open-world mechanics might have felt more novel if I hadn’t also fallen off Pokémon Legends: Arceus earlier this year for similar issues with samey world design and unremarkable graphics. Scarlet needed to clear that low bar, and it did not. Maybe by the time the next generation comes along, the series will be able to recapture what makes Pokémon so thrilling in the first place.