James Stephanie Sterling
Pokémon Scarlet/Violet - Performance Anxiety (Review)
Pokémon Scarlet/Violet Released: November 18, 2022 Developer: Game Freak Publisher: Nintendo Systems: Nintendo Switch
If you were to place Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet/Violet in front of somebody unfamiliar with the series, then asked them which was the main series entry and which was the spin-off, I’d say it’s highly likely Arceus would be miscategorized. Not only was Arceus that damn good, Scarlet/Violet is that damn poor in comparison.
It’s not that the game is bad per se. As a mainline Pokémon game it retains the base qualities that have kept this series fun for years. It is, however, a significant step back from a game released just months ago in almost every single way. It’s old fashioned, visually unimpressive, stagnant, and technically appalling.
But y’know… it's still cute.
Arceus felt like a true evolution full of enhancements and streamlining features, improvements the franchise has desperately needed for years. Catching Pokémon was quick and convenient, quality of life improvements were abundant, and the pacing was pleasantly tight. Even minor changes made huge differences, such as the reduction of overly explanatory text boxes. I don’t need to be told I picked up a berry and put the berry in the berry pocket, for Christ’s sake, and Arceus understood that.
While some of the series’ long-standing ponderousness has been minimized in Scarlet/Violet, so much evolution has been walked back, and even things retained from Arceus are implemented in a worse way. It doesn’t help that everything about this game just feels off, like there’s something quietly wrong baked into it. One thing is clear - it’s beyond doubt this is one seriously rushed product. The whole game is woefully undercooked and it's obvious from the outset.
Before we go any further, we have to talk about Scarlet and Violet’s performance issues. Having heard how bad things were before I got my copy of Violet and saw it in motion, I didn’t expect things to be as dreadful as they were described. I anticipated problems but figured they’d been exaggerated via the online community’s trademark hyperbole. Then I played it.
Holy shit though, this thing doesn’t so much run on the Switch as it stumbles pathetically with its pants round its ankles. To say it struggles with maintaining a consistent 30 frames per second is to imply the existence of maintenance to begin with. While some areas are worse than others, framerate drops are so frequent they represent the default state. Scarlet/Violet running smoothly is an exception rather than a rule. I'm utterly stunned by the sorry shitshow on display.
It’s embarrassing how often the entire world slows down to a miserable visual chug. Anybody with a sense of shame would be humiliated by such a release. Lag occurs at every opportunity. NPCs move like the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. Character animations sputter dramatically if they're only mildly in the distance. Draw distance is pitiful, with a silly amount of pop-in. The camera frequently buries itself halfway into the ground when entering a fixed position, characters struggle not to get stuck in what few environmental details there are, and glitches are plentiful. Even at its very best, Scarlet/Violet runs like garbage.
My copy of Pokémon Violet has also crashed on me more than once and I can't say I was ever surprised by it. Of course it crashed.
As a marquee Switch title it makes the system look like total wank, but the sheer volume of performance issues are not the hardware’s fault, not entirely. To lay all blame at the console's feet is to let Pokémon off of a massive hook. Bigger, better looking games ran with fewer issues on the fucking Wii, let alone the Switch. I’m not being sarcastic either.
While some may argue (and have been) that everything can be fixed with an eventual patch, I’m not sure something so thoroughly botched can easily be dredged to an acceptable level. Even if it is, that doesn’t excuse releasing such a defective product in the first place. Companies need to start labeling their unpolished, unfinished software as Early Access if they want to take our money for it. They’ve been needing to do that for years, and it’s not right to shrug off a situation as bad as Scarlet and Violet by just assuming it’ll be cobbled into shape some time after it's been sold.
This struggle to run properly is made all the more laughable when you consider the graphics aren’t particularly good to begin with. Scarlet and Violet’s open world consists of threadbare fields devoid of all but the simplest, flattest textures imaginable. You sure as heck couldn’t accuse anything of looking detailed, and it ain't pretty in the least. Looking out over the map from a high place won’t treat you to a gorgeous vista or even a moderately appealing landscape. You get a bland, barren, poorly rendered landmass of basic colors and shapes.
Graphics have never been super important to the series, but by now Pokémon looks dated to the point of active detriment. Such an empty, sad, quiet little world full of rudimentary character models, animations, and effects.
Like I said, there’s fundamental enjoyment to be had if you can look past the dreadful performance and poor visuals. It’s a Pokémon game after all, and its decades-long formula has remained appealing for a reason. Collecting weird little creatures and making them fight while taking all the credit for their hard work is still enjoyable, and I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t find plenty to like during the course of my adventure.
While Scarlet and Violet’s open world may not be full of much variety, the splitting of the series’ familiar narrative elements into disparate quest paths is a great move - you’re free to beat gym leaders, tackle the antagonistic Team Star, or pursue overgrown Titan Pokémon at your leisure and in any order you wish. Being able to simply wander off and do your own thing is lovely, and I really appreciate being able to explore Pokémon’s world however I want, picking a direction and seeing what awaits me rather than following the same predictable track we’ve seen for years. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a series that benefits from opening its world up as opposed to all the ones doing it for no justifiable gain.
Assisting all this exploration is an auto-battling option, perhaps the only way in which Scarlet/Violet implements a genuine player convenience of its own. Being able to send a Pokémon out and command it to automatically fight is a fantastic feature that makes grinding for experience significantly less dreary. While it’s very easy to overlevel and turn the manual fights into a cakewalk, I only see that as a good thing - Pokémon battles are hardly complex tactical affairs until you get competitive with human opponents, so I quite appreciate stomping every gym leader’s face in. It greatly reduces the tedium often involved with Pokémon combat.
One thing that really annoys me though is how short a leash your Pokémon have when you let them out of their balls. They’ll despawn if you move too far ahead, which isn’t very far at all. It makes the idea of exploring with a Pokémon at your side almost impossible, and your weird living bike becomes unviable if you’re trying to evolve Pokémon that need to walk certain distances. You’ll end up just stopping and starting to let them catch up.
As for the writing within these quests, it's... fine. The usual mawkishness from people who think and talk about Pokémon to a downright creepy degree. Do these people ever think about anything else? When you take a math class in this game, the teacher can't help but make it all about Pokémon. I doubt people in this world can even fuck unless there's a bloody Chansey watching or something. I do like a number of characters though - the Normal Type gym leader who's just a tired salaryman is great, and Team Star are sympathetic anti-villains whose misfit status will be relatable to a lot of players.
What other positive things can we say? Well, I’m somebody who has always been largely unimpressed with the creature designs for Pokémon since Generation 1. Sorry, but Bulbasaur is more imaginative and just plain better than a fucking key ring with eyes drawn on it. The ninth generation brings a change to this pattern - I have to say that I really dig many of Scarlet and Violet’s new monsters overall.
Fidough, a dog made out of pastry, is bloody brilliant, and while Flamigo is literally just a flamingo, what’s so good about it is that it’s literally just a flamingo! We’ve got an ostrich cosplaying as Cleopatra and a freakishly fingered bug-eyed rat monkey that I love and hate in equal measure. Some older Pokémon get appealing fresh looks, though the Pokédex regularly insists they’re new species. The reimagining of Tentacool as a mushroom thing with two little noodle legs is so stupid, and I can’t help admiring that stupidity.
What I don’t admire is the reduction of customization options for the player. Gen 9’s conceit of attending a school serves to weakly excuse another cut corner - the fact you can only buy new bags, gloves, socks/shoes, and head/face accessories. Tops and bottoms are restricted to four crummy school uniforms, all of which look absurd if you wear anything too distinct alongside them. As someone who loves outfit options and is usually excited to find cities in Pokémon games because they have clothing shops, the scaling back of outfits might be my biggest disappointment among the many letdowns to choose from.
The school stuff isn’t really much to write home about, anyway. There are lessons to attend, which mostly consist of a lot of waffling text, and you can nose around the school to build up friendships with various characters. I was rather amused when, after making my way to the academy for the first time, it almost instantly time-skipped to the School’s Big Test(™), which is to leave the school and do regular Pokémon shit like normal. Perfect.
This generation’s obligatory transformation gimmick is called Terastallizing. Usable once per visit to a Pokémon Center, Terastallizing powers up your Mons’ type, or even changes it - a Ground Pokémon might possess Electric as its Tera Type, for example. Tera Typing has a lot of potential, but I was disappointed to learn that it doesn’t mean Pokémon can learn moves outside of their usual pool to really take advantage. It’s still useful for defensive purposes or to power up relevant moves if available, and there’s a learnable attack that always matches the user's Tera Type. Terastallizing is a neat enough gimmick, just not quite as juicy as it could be.
Raids return, and they’re still pretty cool. They’re also the least annoying way to capture Pokémon, since catch rates in the open world are bizarrely harsh. Online raiding can be frustrating in that you almost never get into the raids you choose from the selection menu. The same selection of battles are shown to every single player in the world, so lobbies fill up far too quickly and very lengthy connection times end in disappointment. You can join random raids easily enough, or raid with friends - fine enough unless the raid menu shows a Pokémon you really want and you know you can’t get it. At least you get true co-op this time around. Players can freely explore the world together in groups of up to four. About damn time.
I’ve not mentioned music yet, despite it usually being a series highlight that I delight in listening to. Yeah, not so much here. The soundtrack is far from outstanding, but it sure is repetitive and the looping tunes get stuck in one’s head out of sheer irritating persistence. After outstanding tracks throughout the franchise, like the impeccable boss music of Sword and Shield, it’s yet another step down.
I’m sure the series’ many fervent fans will think I’ve been way too harsh throughout this review. Frankly, I think I’ve often been more forgiving over the years than I could’ve been when it comes to criticizing Pokémon, yet I just can’t look past Scarlet and Violet’s abundant negative elements. We’ve all gotten used to these games being repetitive, dated, and ploddingly paced, but you’ve got to ask yourself if you should keep tolerating this amount of trodden water, especially when it’s led to the series’ main installments luxuriating in wanton complacency.
Shit’s selling by the truckload though, so I don’t expect anything but a complacent future for Pokémon. We get what we pay for.
Scarlet and Violet is a pair of obviously rushed products that look so much poorer for following an excellent refreshment in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Regressive and outmoded, the ninth Pokémon generation still boasts some enjoyable content but I couldn’t in good faith say it’s a quality experience. The utterly shameful performance issues hammer home how crudely made it is. It’s staggering just how terribly it runs. We’ve pilloried games for less, but we’re supposed to just accept it here because it’s Pokémon.
It’s still fun, sure, but that fun is not enough to excuse its many, many failings. Not at all.