It’s been more than 20 years since Ash Ketchum declared his desire to be the very best that no-one ever was, but Pokémon is still as beloved as ever. Case in point: whenever it releases a new game, people are going to sit up and take notice.
And this is a game worth perking up for. Pokémon Scarlet/ Violet is the first properly open-world Pokémon game ever, shaking up the slightly staid formula for a soft franchise reboot.
In Scarlet/ Violet, you play a promising young trainer who has moved to the remote island of Paldea, the home of a famous training school. At the start of the game, you get to choose a starter animal – Quaxly, the duck with a pompadour, was my favourite – and off you set on your grand adventure.
But where previous games – such as Pokémon Sword/ Shield – focus on upskilling so you can beat the eight gym masters and become a champion, Scarlet/ Violet veers off into promising new territory.
In addition to the gyms, you have a plethora of new quests to get stuck into – curing a legendary Pokémon, for example, or going on treasure hunts to source rare herbs – that you can complete in any order you please.
It’s the closest that the franchise has ever gotten to an RPG, and there’s an exhilarating freedom in setting off on the beaten path, not knowing where you might end up. There are reams of new animals to get acquainted with (a stand-out is Fidough, a dog made from pastry), as well as some old favourites. You even get to attend Pokémon Hogwarts, for crying out loud.
Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty similar to what’s come before. You catch and battle Pokémon in the same way - that is, using Pokéballs to snare wild creatures before releasing them to fight each other in turn-based battle sequences against other trainers. Most of the equipment that you pick up, such as Antidotes, Heals, and TMs (ways to teach your creatures new moves), are familiar to anybody who’s played a Pokémon game before. There’s also your trusty Rotom phone, which helps catalogue your finds and fast-travel across the map.
However, the game has also developed some nifty new ways to shake up the formula - though the difficulty setting still remains frustratingly easy and non-customisable. In Scarlet/ Violet, you can auto-heal your faithful minions during battle (handy) and collect RPG-esque material such as Fidough fluff to craft your very own TMs – immediately piquing my interest in an aspect of the game I’d previously ignored. There’s even the option to supercharge your critters via the Tera Orb, which can be used in battle once per long rest.
Even better, you can actually release your Pokémon while you’re exploring, letting them merrily frisk around your feet as you run – or even engage in their own battles and scavenge for resources.
This is all genuinely exciting stuff and would all be wonderful if the game managed to bring together all these elements into something cohesive, but sadly, it doesn’t – quite.
In an era where players are used to top-of-the-range graphics, Paldea feels rather flat and 2D, even compared to previous Pokémon games: the landscape is poorly rendered, with blocky cliffs and flat, textureless beaches, which gives a slight early 2010s feeling to the game. To add to the 2D feeling, whereas in previous games you could enter houses and poke around, in this game you can’t, denying players the joy of snooping and potentially discovering valuable items.
There are also fairly hefty lag times between cutscenes – not great, as these happen frequently – and although I didn’t encounter any serious glitches, people in the background did have an alarming habit of appearing and disappearing at random (though I imagine these bits will easily be fixed with patches).
It’s all a bit disappointing, because you can see glimmers of what the game could be if the developers sank more time into ironing out these last remaining niggles.
It’s an ambitious start, and it’ll be exciting to see what comes next. Perhaps, in future, Pokémon should stick to releasing and perfecting one game a year, à la Call of Duty; as it stands, any die-hard fans might be better off waiting before investing their hard-earned cash.
For ages seven and over, £42.99 on Amazon