Pokemon Scarlet Review - Finally, We Play as a Bug Catcher
Updated: Jul 7
Pokémon Scarlet (and Violet)
Pokemon Scarlet is the first game of Pokémon’s ninth generation, but also the fourth mainline game for Switch. It builds on formula changes that we saw the beginnings of in Sword and Arceus by moving to a largely open-world format in which there are no longer any routes, all Pokémon are visible before encountering them, and objectives can be completed in any order. It's not as radical of a departure from the series norm as was Arceus, but it's certainly the most distinct of all the games that have ever been the core of their generation. If not for the, well, Pokémon in the game, it wouldn't be hard to mistake it for a game from a different series entirely. The changes are promising overall, but Game Freak's series is still going through some growing pains and the end result is far from perfect.
Let's start with the problems. First, as has been discussed ad nauseum everywhere, Scarlet is neither particularly good looking nor particularly performant. Game Freak still hasn't figured out how to do "level of detail", a technique that reduces the detail of far away objects to claw back performance without the player noticing. Instead of a smooth reduction in quality that's easy to overlook, they've simply dropped everything more than about a dozen yards away to have two frames of animation, and it's unmissable when windmills and people are twitching around like a corrupted video file. The game does at least look better than Sword and doesn't have nearly the same problem with falling frame rates, but it's still far from being a modern graphical titan.
Second, the world is a bit dead. None of the towns have anything much to do once you're done with the local gym. NPC side content is very minimal and they all have the same handful of stores copy pasted with a few item differences. It's more than was available in Arceus, for sure, but less than in just about any other game. All of the named NPCs you can interact with outside of the main story are concentrated in the game's central school, which makes the rest of the map feel like a bunch of highway rest stops with gyms attached. Parts of it are pretty, but once you've caught the local Pokémon, there's very little reason to go back to the vast majority of the map.
Finally, character customization was gutted. You're forced to wear one of four school uniforms at all times, which makes all player characters and most of the game's NPCs look indistinguishable. You are allowed to customize the clothing that isn't a shirt or pants, but you have far fewer options to do so than in the last few generations and only three towns even have new items to buy. Most of what you can get is pretty generic, and a stunningly large portion of the hairstyles reduce the options even further by preventing you from wearing hats. Oddly, the system for customizing your character's face is actually much more involved than in previous games, but the game's cartoony, low-detail art style means that this does far less to make characters feel distinct than being able to change shirts would.
Now, negatives out of the way, what's good about Scarlet? The most obvious improvement is how non-linear it all is. You could theoretically do everything except the final mission sequence in whatever order you want, although since the content doesn't scale to your level, there is a hidden order that you can't deviate that far from. Still, even though you'll sometimes fight a gym that's thirty levels below you or wander into an area that's thirty above you, the freedom to go wherever you want is very welcome in a game that's more traditionally known for forcing you to play exactly how it wants you to.
Next, the new Pokémon designs are some of the strongest they've had in a while. Quite a few neglected older mons get new evolutions that, with one insultingly bad exception, are very well done. The fully new designs are even more creative, but it's the abilities that really make them shine. This is not a lazy dump of animal clones that all have intimidate or some other dull ability you've been seeing repeatedly for almost twenty years. There's some really weird stuff here, and while I'm sure a lot of it will turn out to be broken competitively in one way or another, it makes it far more exciting to discover the new species when you really have no idea what anything is going to be.
To finish off this symmetric list of three good things and three bad things, let's go with the most surprising positive: the story is actually pretty good for all of the second time in the series. It's not going to win any awards and you'll see all the twists coming from practically the opening cutscene, but most of the characters are likable and it has fun moments. The characters that fill the rival role are a particularly huge improvement on the last few generations, although admittedly they're clearing a bar that was practically in the Earth's mantle at this point. Game Freak finally figured out how to have NPC companions still feel competent despite being destined to repeatedly lose to the player.
All told, Scarlet is three steps in the right direction and two steps back. It modernizes the series' gameplay and has the most competent story since Black, but it's still a bit of a mess technically and has a lot to learn from the last twenty years of open world design. It's good, but I doubt it will change anyone's opinion about the series. In a year that also had Arceus, Scarlet is unfortunately only able to be the second best Pokémon game of 2022.
Time to beat: 60 hours for a full Pokedex.
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