That expansive, console-sized Pokémon RPG you’ve been waiting for since you were a kid might finally be here.
Three years after Pokémon made its main series debut on the Switch with Sword and Shield, Nintendo and developer Game Freak are back with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. It’d be easy to dismiss this as “just another Pokémon game,” as that’s pretty much what each entry has been for the last 26 years. Sure, Game Freak has fiddled with the formula a bit over time, but you usually know exactly what you’re getting into with one of these kid-friendly RPGs.
Nintendo’s new Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Edition OLED Switch is available for pre-order now
I’m happy to report that after spending a little more than an hour with Pokémon Scarlet (both games launch Nov. 18), it seems like Game Freak might have done the unthinkable and turned Pokémon into a different kind of game, with a full open world and the freedom to move around in it as you please. Moreover, it seems to have done that without ditching the adorable monster charm or deceptively deep turn-based battles the series has always had.
The ‘Wild Area’ goes wide
Welcome to Paldea.
For a little over two and a half decades, Pokémon games were always refreshingly modest as RPGs go, eschewing the complex Final Fantasy-like stories about dethroning and killing gods in favor of good vibes and collecting hundreds of cute monsters.
That changed a tiny bit with 2019’s Sword and Shield, which plopped a big open-world section into the middle of its otherwise linear world map called the “Wild Area.” There wasn’t a great deal to do in the Wild Area aside from hunt down and catch Pokémon, and its presence in the game was more awkward than transformative. Still, it felt like a hint of something to come. So, naturally, Game Freak turned that seed of an idea into a whole game three years later.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet takes the open-ended nature of the Pokémon Legends: Arceus spin-off game from earlier this year and transposes it onto a more traditional series entry. Here, Nintendo and Game Freak have dispensed with Arceus‘ distant past setting and wild Pokémon attacks in favor of a more modern aesthetic with the typical Pokémon battle system.
Your custom character starts as a Pokémon academy student in the Spain-inspired region of Paldea and, from there, you’re given free rein to explore a giant map at whatever pace you want. You’ll also get a legendary Pokémon (either Koraidon or Miraidon, depending on which game you get) who acts as a mount for your travel needs.
Game Freak might have done the unthinkable and turned Pokémon into a different kind of game.
I started my demo in the large, centrally located capital city of Mesagoza, but quickly hopped on Koraidon and got to work exploring a minuscule portion of the world that the demo took place in. You can’t do much while on foot, but on your legendary mount, the world is your oyster. Traversal is nearly limitless: Miraidon and Koraidon have no stamina meter à la Breath of the Wild, so you can climb any cliff or even sprout wings and glide from any height to your heart’s content.
That freedom of movement also applies to the game’s story structure. There are three central stories to follow here. One has you hunting down mythical titan Pokémon, another has you squaring off against the adversarial Team Star, and the last is a more traditional series of gym battles to become league champion. You can apparently do these in any order you want. That said, I noticed that enemy Pokémon levels seem locked in place for different challenges, meaning you may run into something that’s too hard and have to go do something else for a while instead.
There are three stories to follow this time around.
I found it pretty damn cool to simply get dropped into a Pokémon world with the ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Summoning Koraidon and sprinting across the fields and deserts of Paldea was fun in a way that exploration usually isn’t in these games. There’s a simple pleasure to climbing a tower or a mountain, and gliding through the air to a distant area — it’s something that Pokémon has never had before in a main series title.
As someone who likes the Pokémon games but isn’t hardcore about them by any means, I’ve been begging for changes like this for years. For too long, the series has been stuck in its ways, holding onto linear design conventions from the Game Boy era. The fact that Scarlet and Violet seem to be genuinely different games is thrilling, but I’d also advise hardcore fans not to worry. That familiar Pokémon DNA is still present.
Still the same Pokémon where it matters most
I’d liken Scarlet and Violet to a sandwich, where the ingredients are mostly the same as they’ve always been, but the bread holding them together has been changed for variety’s sake.
In other words, while the pace at which you explore the world and the means you use to do so have been radically altered, your goals remain mostly unchanged. You’re here to discover and catch as many pocket monsters as you can, engaging in easy-to-grasp, turn-based battles along the way.
While the core gameplay loop there hasn’t changed much, the presentation has. Battles no longer whisk you away to a small arena outside of the overworld. Now they start seamlessly wherever you and the enemy Pokémon were standing without any loading. Pokémon Centers, used for healing, are now little roadside stalls placed in the open world, complete with shops and even a station for crafting new moves out of materials you get for winning fights.
The new Pokémon are adorable, as always.
That alone has the potential to make the game grindy as hell, but you can now press a button to send a Pokémon out to auto-battle nearby enemies until its HP runs out. I found this to be an incredibly quick way to get XP and materials (even if you get more for fighting the real way), with the added benefit of being able to run around and collect any items nearby while your little homie battles away.
Aside from the new movement abilities, I’d call that the best new feature I saw in my time with Scarlet and Violet. This is very much a Pokémon game at its core, but it’s one you can now approach more casually than before. Not every wild Pokémon is worth the effort it takes to fight, but at least you can net the benefits of doing so while lazily standing by.
I love receiving rewards for doing no work.
Oh, and to bring the sandwich metaphor full circle: You can actually throw picnics for your Pokémon, complete with a physics-based sandwich-building minigame. It’s the best. I am going to spend hours and hours doing that when Pokémon Scarlet and Violet releases later this fall.