Editor's Note: Pokemon Scarlet and Violet's expansion comes in two parts and can't be purchased individually. Because of this, we've decided to share our impressions of Part One and will update it with a full review of The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero when both parts are available. The score attached to this review is subject to change based on this.
The fan reception to Scarlet and Violet's launch varied wildly within the community. Every Pokemon fan seems to know what's best for the series, and they were happy to share their opinions on Scarlet and Violet with anyone who would listen. Some fans decried the bugs, the struggling frame rate, and other technical problems, while others appreciated the new mechanics, open world, and story enough to make peace with these issues. Whichever side you fell on, the community was split as always.
However, the further we get away from release, the more the community cools off. And those who've stuck around for the long-term, namely competitive players, have dug their claws deep into the meta. This is where Pokemon is at its best, and The Teal Mask bolsters that side of the series through new and returning Pokemon, more TMs and moves, and some welcome quality-of-life changes. This is all wrapped up in a rich new region with a heartfelt story. While The Teal Mask doesn't do much to address Scarlet and Violet's poor technical performance, its changes and additions offer an exciting first part in a larger expansion.
The Teal Mask is billed as a class field trip. A handful of students are randomly selected to study abroad in a new rural Japan-inspired region called Kitakami. Your character is among the lucky few, and you're whisked away to the countryside. It's a punchy introduction that gets you to the new area quickly and has you catching new and returning Pokemon right away.
While Kitakami shares a lot of geographical features with Paldea--rolling green hills, serene lakes adorned with waterfalls, and a rugged mountain fixed in the center of the map--what sets it apart is its rich culture. The folks who call Kitakami home have a deep reverence for the Loyal Three, a trio of legendary Pokemon similar to the legendary birds or dogs from previous generations. As the story goes, the Loyal Three protected the townsfolk from a fearsome ogre. As a student, your assignment is to explore the Kitakami region and piece together the tale of the Loyal Three and the Ogre. It's a simple setup, but it's an effective way to familiarize yourself with the region, its history, and the characters.
The heart and soul of The Teal Mask are two of its new characters: Carmine and Keiran. These siblings were born and raised in Kitakami and attend Blueberry Academy (which will be featured more prominently in the second DLC, The Indigo Disk). As you explore the region, they'll color your discoveries with personal experience and local insight. Quickly, you learn that Keiran feels like an outsider and Carmine is competitive to a fault. The story provides an excellent backdrop for both of these characters, particularly Keiran, as his struggle with acceptance mirrors the plight of the Loyal Three and the Ogre. The story builds to a satisfying conclusion that neatly ties things up in the Kitakami region, while also sowing the seeds for the second expansion.
It's a touching story that regularly took me by surprise. While Scarlet and Violet's story had some exciting revelations up its sleeve, mainline Pokemon games are often shackled to a handful of recurring tropes: the gym challenge, an evil or misunderstood faction, and a rival. With The Teal Mask, it's refreshing to play a semi-self-contained and condensed story that sheds a lot of those tropes in order to shine a brighter light on its characters. It takes roughly four to five hours to get through, but altogether it took me around 12 hours when factoring in completing the Kitakami Pokedex.
Once you've wrapped up the story, there are still reasons to explore Kitakami, including a handful of secrets and a powerful new Pokemon to catch. But as good as its narrative chops are, the biggest draw is the new and returning Pokemon. Dipplin, Sinistcha, and the Loyal Three are creative additions that fit thematically within the region and its culture. Meanwhile, fan favorites like Milotic, Chandelure, and Gliscor are welcome inclusions to Scarlet and Violet's Pokedex.
It's hard to say which Pokemon will shake up the competitive scene, but there are a few new and returning moves that could certainly make waves, such as Grassy Glide, Syrup Bomb, and Matcha Gotcha. The added TMs could also make certain Pokemon viable once again. For instance, Scald and Toxic were fairly common on competitive teams of past generations but were missing from Scarlet and Violet at launch. At the very least, EV boosting and resetting items are far more plentiful in Kitakami thanks to the Ogre Oustin' minigame. This makes it much easier for competitors to train up these new and returning Pokemon and put them to the test.
However, the only real test Scarlet and Violet offers are a few tricky trainer battles, none of which consist of double battles. Without a Battle Tower or something similar, this means the only way to put these new and returning Pokemon through the paces is by going online. Online functionality is decent, but it doesn't always provide the best space to test out different strategies and builds. Based on what we know about the second expansion, it sounds like something similar to the Battle Tower could return, but for now, The Scarlet and Violet still feel like they are missing a core component of the endgame experience.
The Teal Mask's most apparent flaw is the same one that ultimately held back Scarlet and Violet. The performance and graphical quality are rough. The new region is plagued by low frame rates, poor-looking textures, and visual bugs. If you were hoping that update 2.0.1 might patch those issues, you're out of luck. There are some minor fixes, such as smoother Pokemon Box navigation, but it's hard to appreciate given how subpar the game remains from a technical standpoint.
Nailing down my feelings on Pokemon Scarlet and Violet this past year has been difficult. In my review of the base game, I said it was one of "the best mainline Pokemon games in years," and 350 hours later, I still stand by that. Terastallization is the best battle gimmick the series has introduced to date, the open-world design fits nicely into the series' themes of exploration and discovery, and the competitive scene has been a thrill to follow and participate in. However, Scarlet and Violet's triumphant highs are still obscured by technical issues, and the same can be said for The Teal Mask. Scarlet and Violet's core issues still persist, but there's a lot to chew on here, both for hardcore competitive players and fans who want to see more of the Pokemon world.