Even by Nintendo standards, Pokemon has been glacially slow to change. The series has long been iterative, and the community has certainly taken notice. This year's Pokemon Legends: Arceus showed a faint idea of what a bold reinvention of the series would look like. Now Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, touted by Nintendo as the "first open-world RPGs in the Pokemon series," raise the question: Are these going to be the main series games to follow Arceus' blueprint? The answer is mostly no, but Scarlet and Violet still represent the largest break in the main series we've ever seen.
The open-world approach really is impressive in a Pokemon game, especially one as dense with monsters as this one. During a recent opportunity to go hands-on with the games, the Pokemon were everywhere, around every corner and roaming freely around the new Paldea region. While setting my sights on an objective I would practically trip over the smaller creatures, initiating a battle accidentally because I happened to kick a stray Smolive. And the world feels open in the truest sense. I had a few objectives in mind for the slice of the map I was allowed to explore, and a limited amount of time to do it, but by all appearances you really can go any direction you'd like. Gone are the narrow routes of past Pokemon games, replaced with Sword and Shield's Wild Areas but applied worldwide.
The expansive world means that some major changes have been made to battling itself, and in total, these amount to a deemphasized approach to combat on the whole. Rival trainers will no longer stop you in your tracks to initiate a battle, presumably because that mechanic doesn't work in an open world where you could just go around them anyway. Instead, you can see if an NPC is interested in battling, and then you choose whether to initiate a fight. Similarly, while running into Pokemon starts a traditional battle, you can also just release your own Pokemon to wander the world beside you, and as they follow you around they'll independently pick fights with wild Pokemon. These auto-battles resolve in seconds, passively, earning them XP in the process. Nintendo was sure to emphasize that this is less XP than they'd earn from a traditional battle, so as to not break the game balance, but it's a welcome addition if you want the freedom to explore the world without constantly breaking your concentration for a random battle.
Despite its appearances, this isn't Arceus. You can't catch a Pokemon by simply sneaking up and tossing a Poke Ball at them, and your goal isn't to collect dozens of Bidoofs. It does implement a similar structure, though. You can approach a wild Pokemon stealthily and initiate a battle, giving you a combat advantage by making your opponent Pokemon fumble their first turn. That will make capturing Pokemon that much easier, even though it follows a more traditional structure of occurring in battle after weakening your opponent Pokemon. And there is a certain wow factor in being able to freely move the camera to see your own trainer and surrounding area from whatever angle you'd like during the battle.
With such a wide-open space, navigation has also gotten an overhaul. The major additions are the Legendary Pokemon, Koraidon and Miraidon. I was playing Scarlet, so I had access to Koraidon, who acts like a lizard mount, complete with the ability to scale walls or glide. This made traversing the environment a breeze, similar to climbing to a peak and then gliding across the vistas in Breath of the Wild. Battles do still initiate when riding on your mount, though, and the camera was positioned in such a way that Koraidon's body blocks your view of smaller Pokemon wandering around the open world, so I would often run straight into them too quickly to realize. That may just be something to adjust to in the full game, but it kept me on my toes during the preview session.
With my mount in tow, I was given the chance to complete any or all of three missions for the three core paths in Pokemon Scarlet: Victory Road, the Path of Legends, and Starfall Street. Victory Road is the traditional Pokemon journey that all experienced trainers know well by now: challenge gym leaders to claim their badges and ultimately become the Pokemon champion. The Path of Legends has you hunting down monstrously large mutant Pokemon to research their properties. And Starfall Street is a war against Team Star, a gang of villainous Paldea street punks.
I happened to take on the Path of Legends first, solving some simple environmental riddles to locate, in what had to be an intentional reference, a giant enemy crab. (I pointed this out to my Nintendo representatives and no one laughed.) After attacking its weak point for massive damage, it scurried off, and I had to locate it a second time. Having defeated it a second time, it escaped again, and I was warned in no uncertain terms not to follow it. There appears to be more to this questline than we were allowed to see in this short preview, but that also makes it hard to evaluate how engaging the Path of Legends will be in practice.
Next, I tried gliding into the mission marker for Starfall Street, and in the process, learned there are some limitations to the new navigational mechanics. The gang immediately warned me to use the front door--these teenage hooligans have standards, I suppose--and I was bounced back into the open-world environment. This made sense later, once I saw how the Team Star mission worked, but it was a surprising way to learn how some story content is gated.
With my quest to take on Team Star stymied temporarily, I went on to Victory Road. This took place in a traditional Pokemon town, bustling with activity like street vendors and a new, open-air Pokemon Center that could be approached from either side without entering a building. It was a nice, breezy area to explore, and felt like a welcome break from the overworld where Pokemon roam around freely. Towns are safe zones, and with the advent of an open world that feels more dangerous than ever before, the safety provided here was especially welcome.
At least in the mission I played, Victory Road has deemphasized combat, too. Pokemon games traditionally had you face a gauntlet of NPC trainers followed by the gym leader, but that has slowly shifted towards environmental puzzle-solving over the years, but still with a few low-level trainers to conquer. In Pokemon Scarlet, I faced the gym leader Brassius without a single trainer battle beforehand. Instead, the Artazon challenge involved a hide-and-seek game for Sunflora Pokemon. Once I proved myself by catching them--and after I took a quick selfie surrounded by smiling sentient sunflowers--I was allowed to face off against the gym leader in a one-on-one bout near the old town windmill. The setting made this feel appropriately homey, and as always, the quirky personality of the gym leader was a highlight of the experience. Brassius is a capital-A artiste, who spoke in language more flowery than the sunflowers I had just chased down.
With one mission left to complete, I headed toward the Team Star gate, but not before checking out my food options. Food and cooking are an important new element in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, similar to Arceus, granting you bonuses to factors like frequency of finding or catching a certain type of Pokemon. You can buy pre-made dishes at vendors, but you can also try cooking yourself by setting up a picnic anywhere in the wild area. This gives you a place for your Pokemon to relax and heal up, as well as a place for you to put together a sandwich using your ingredients. I made a horrific concoction, with entire sausages sitting awkwardly on the bun since you actually place the ingredients yourself, but it forgave my taste and gave me a nice set of bonuses anyway.
Finally ready to take on Team Star, I entered the gates. This was essentially a speed-battling challenge to take down a certain number of their wandering Pokemon in a set amount of time, but this is where one of the new mechanics became key. I released my own Pokemon to walk alongside me and let them initiate the battles passively, racking up wins much more quickly than if I had manually initiated each battle individually. After completing the challenge, I faced off against the area's boss, Mela, who strode atop a souped-up hotrod that looked like Mad Max meets Minions.
One element that ran through all of these missions was the new Terastallizing ability, which gives your Pokemon a crystalline look and enhances their powers. It essentially turns your living breathing Pokemon into little fine crystal collectibles. Though Terastal forms can be used to simply give your Pokemon a boost, you can also find ones that imbue your Pokemon with a type outside of their standard abilities. This was extremely helpful in a closed preview environment where I had a limited amount of time to build up a collection of Pokemon, so my provided pre-fab roster of Terastal monsters was built to make up for any elemental deficiencies, but time will tell how it functions in the full game. At the moment, it seems aimed at high-level PVP play, letting experienced Pokemon masters play mind games with their opponents by switching to a new type at an unexpected moment. That could be exciting for esports, but as someone who has never engaged much with PVP in Pokemon games, it's not something I would expect to use much myself.
The Terastal Pokemon are also the major reward structure in the final game type we were able to try, Raid battles. These function very similarly to the Raid battles in Pokemon Sword and Shield, albeit with a new timer element that ticks down as you battle and puts pressure on your team to complete the match quickly. These battles are tougher than normal, as you'd expect from a Raid, but the prizes can be the special Terastal Pokemon who have affinities outside of their standard type. That makes them extra valuable and versatile in ways that go beyond simply super-sizing them as in Sword and Shield.
One unfortunate element that appears to mirror Arceus' open-world design is the appearance of technical shortcomings. I enjoyed Arceus' reenvisioning for the franchise, but its visual flaws were apparent, seeming to strain against the limitations of the aging Switch. What I saw in Scarlet was similarly rough--the aforementioned windmill was an especially noticeable example, as you could see the individual frames of its motion instead of moving in a smooth circular pattern. This was a pre-release demo, of course, so it's always possible that Game Freak will iron out any technical hiccups before launch. But the hiccups were certainly there.
Even after an extensive hands-on with the game, I'm not sure how the mission types and new open-world, go-anywhere structure will coalesce into a single, cohesive story. How does the narrative flow when you can do the missions in essentially any order, along three separate paths? Do these disparate plots converge at any point? That wasn't answered during my playtime, but I'm very curious to find out.
And maybe that's fitting. Like any good open-world game, curiosity appears to be at the core of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. The open world invites exploration and beckons you to check just around that ridge, just over that mountain, just behind that river. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are still hewing closely to the Pokemon formula in some key ways, but are shattering the mold in others. If it's successful, this will undoubtedly be the new normal for Pokemon games going forward, and that paradigm shift is an exciting prospect.
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