The Pokémon franchise has been nudging closer and closer to a fully open world since Sword and Shield appeared on the Switch in 2019. Those games and their DLC packs introduced a few dedicated free-range areas where you could roam around mostly at your leisure, but towns and caves and other areas were still strictly linear.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus came even closer. Nearly all of its world map was a free-roaming open area, but the sections were still cordoned off from one another by way of a central hub town. More importantly, progression was still largely linear—the game still introduced you to each area in a set order based on the story quests you had accomplished.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, both coming to the Switch on November 18, finally make the transition to a fully open world. After accomplishing a handful of introductory quests, the vast majority of the world map opens up to you, and you can accomplish most of the game’s quests in whatever order you want.
The result is a game that feels wide-open, welcoming, and ambitious, though the catching and battling mechanics feel like a step back from Arceus in some ways. The main problems are mostly technical—the Switch’s 5-year-old tablet hardware openly struggles to render the Paldea region, and in some ways these problems are even more noticeable and distracting than they were in Arceus.
A new world
But as with any open-world game, you can at least kind of choose to ignore these story quests and instead focus on exploring, catching, and finding items (once you’ve found a Pokémon Center, you can fast-travel to it at any time, so this exploration makes revisiting sections of the map easier later on). You will want to do the story quests eventually—they make it easier to catch higher-level Pokémon, and they make it possible for you to glide, swim, and otherwise access previously inaccessible chunks of the map. But you are generally free to chase your bliss and tackle things in whatever order you want.
The game still pushes you lightly in certain directions by putting higher-level Pokémon in some areas, rather than allowing the difficulty to scale automatically based on your party’s level or the amount of progress you’ve made in the main quest lines. This effectively “gates” those areas until you’re a bit stronger, since some random trainer with level-50 Pokémon can easily wipe the floor with your level-25 party. But the freedom and variety help break up the rigidly linear structure of past games, and the sheer amount of space and variety of creatures inhabiting each region of the map gives you a reason to revisit different areas after you’ve cleared them. (It also just feels fun to tear around the Paldean countryside on your Pokémon motorcycle, which helps.)
Speaking of the same monsters, Scarlet and Violet (like all post-Sword and Shield entries) only include a limited subset of the now 1,000-plus creatures in the national Pokédex (I am not allowed to say how many there are, but it’s comparable to the size of Sword’s and Shield’s initial, pre-DLC Pokédex). That remains disappointing, though Pokémon Home will continue to serve as a connective tissue and repository for your entire collection across multiple games. But Scarlet and Violet include a nice variety of creatures that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one generation’s Pokédex and also includes quite a few Pokémon that weren’t available in Sword, Shield, or Arceus. Not all of your favorites will be here, but some of them should be, and the selection will presumably be expanded in the coming months by new post-release DLC packs.
A different kind of shiny Pokémon
In our Arceus review, we complained about a long list of technical issues that didn’t ruin the game but did distract from what it did well. Pretty much all of those problems are also present in Scarlet and Violet, and, if anything, they’re more noticeable here because the world is more densely populated.
To recap: Pop-in for things like grass, trees, and other objects is noticeable and usually happens at pretty short range. And Pokémon that aren’t in your immediate vicinity usually fall back to low-poly character models that don’t look great at close range—you probably aren’t supposed to see them at close range, but the game doesn’t always shift from low- to high-poly character models quickly or smoothly, so you’ll regularly catch a glimpse of these low-tech models as you explore. When the Pokémon are especially small, they can even make it hard to tell what you’re looking at.
The most obnoxious and distracting performance issue, though, is that NPCs, Pokémon, and even moving parts of architecture or landscape shift to low-frame-rate animations when they aren’t right in front of your face. When you’re talking to an NPC and you see another NPC walking choppily in the background, it’s just kind of goofy. When you’re looking at what is supposed to be a stunning, windmill-filled vista, and the gigantic windmills are animated like flipbooks, it just feels sloppy.
All of these issues might be forgivable if they at least resulted in a smooth frame rate. The problem is that they don’t. The game frequently struggles to hit 30 frames per second, and you’ll notice dropped frames pretty much everywhere, whether you’re looking at a wide-open plain or a crowded town. Even the 2D mini-map that’s present on the screen at all times animates at fewer than 30 frames per second. And all of these problems were pretty much the same both docked and undocked—you’ll notice them regardless of how you play the game (Arceus was a bit better behaved running undocked at 720p, but this wasn’t my experience with Scarlet and Violet).
Maybe some of these technical issues could be addressed by post-launch updates, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Arceus engine struggled in most of the same ways nearly a year ago, and numerous reviews and technical analyses called them out at the time. If these were problems that could be patched out relatively easily, it seems like they would have been fixed by now. It’s enough to make you wish that the rumored “Switch Pro,” with its more powerful chip and support for Nvidia’s DLSS upscaling technology, had actually panned out.
For now, at least, players will need to take the good with the bad: this game really wants to be running on more capable hardware, but despite how distracting I found the technical issues to be, Scarlet and Violet are absorbing and entertaining expansions of the Pokémon formula. I could wish for a comprehensive Pokédex, for more graceful difficulty-scaling and for some of Arceus‘ updated catching and Pokédex-filling mechanics. But if you’ve been waiting for a truly free-roaming, open-world Pokémon game, Scarlet and Violet will scratch that itch.
- A wide-open world that makes story progression more varied and less linear
- Riding a motorcycle Pokémon across the countryside just feels good
- Wide variety of Pokémon can be caught and trained from very early on
- Fun new Pokémon designs (and yes, as always, a few duds)
- Type-changing “terastal” Pokémon add another layer to competitive battling
- Some sections of the map are still “gated” in some ways, either by requiring transportation methods you need to unlock or by high-level Pokémon that will wipe out low-level teams
- Limited Pokédex includes not quite half of the series’ entire creature collection
- Pokémon Home compatibility not coming until next year
- Distracting technical problems take away from the spectacle of Pokémon‘s first fully open world.
Verdict: It has some issues, but it’s a safe buy for any longtime fans and worth trying for people who were turned off by past games’ linear story progression.