“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” – the great philosopher, Mewtwo.
With the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus at the beginning of 2022, hopes were high for the latest mainline games: Pokemon Violet and Scarlet. Arceus gave us what many fans of the franchise always wanted: an open-world Pokémon instalment where the colourful pocket monsters are running around fields and paddling across lakes. A game where, when you are standing on a clifftop wandering where to go next, Hoppip gently rotate their leaf blades and watch you curiously. One where you can hardly take your eyes off the screen in case you miss a rare creature gallop across the highlands or surface from the ocean depths.
Violet promised to give us all this and expand upon it. But does it live up to expectations, or does it fall as flat as a Stunfisk?
Spoilers abound for gameplay. Some signposted plot spoilers.
Evolving The Concept
With a franchise capturing the imaginations of children and adults alike since 1996, Pokémon has tried to innovate a few times over the years. It succeeded with a few spin off games, like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon GO, but its mainline games, in my opinion, didn’t go far enough.
Pokemon Violet hasn’t just expanded into the open world-it has shaken up the concept itself.
No longer are you told, at the ripe old age of 10, that you must go out into the world with only your underpowered pet for protection. Violet begins with the player going to a new school, Uva Academy, to learn about Pokémon in the classroom first. This is a brilliant shift-what adolescent ever related to leaving home before puberty had even struck? When did we ever think it was a good idea to let children roam the countryside to be stampeded by Taurus?
The Academy’s field assignment involves a Treasure Hunt, which is the game’s fairly realistic excuse for why these kids are let loose into the wilderness. This can mean anything from catching ’em all to taking down the Paldea region’s resident edgelord squad, Team Star, or becoming a Pokémon Champion. Having three main story quests rather than the usual linear Gym and Elite Four journey gives players a new-found flexibility. The game is yours more than ever before.
Don’t worry, you haven’t graduated yet. You can go back to the school and take all sorts of classes, from Biology and History to all-important Battle Studies, raising your bond levels with teachers and obtaining rewards once you’ve passed their exams. Not only is this a staple of JRPGs like Persona 5, but it’s also a more fun and interactive means of getting through tutorial information-Pokémon has been heavily criticised for its boring and unskippable tutorial cutscenes in the past. Defeating gyms unlocks more classes, and listening in lessons is crucial to enable you to pass your exams (without Googling the answers, anyway).
What else is new? Well, customisation is more involved than ever before. You no longer pick your binary gender, keeping in line with the modern world’s fluidity, and you can change body and facial features before you enter the game. Once in, you can purchase clothes at shops or visit the salon for a fresh new do. It’s a small but exciting change for those who no longer want to emulate Red, Blue, or Kris and take on their own identity in the Pokémon world-though the clothing options are far more limited than in Legends: Arceus. You no longer need to grab a bike somewhere on your journey; you have your very own motorbike in the form of the legendary rideable Pokémon, Miraidon. You can craft TMs with items that drop from Pokémon or are picked up in the overworld. Hidden Machines are cleverly replaced with Herba Mystica, which slowly power up your Miraidon. Multiplayer is more involved, with chances to enter Raid battles with friends and strangers-similar to Pokémon Sword and Shield. There’s also new battle gimmick, like with most mainline Pokémon games-read on for more details.
Essentially, Nintendo have shaken up the franchise in a huge way-this time, mostly for the better.
A Story Worth Ninetails
You’re thrust into the action right from the get-go. You follow the rollercoaster journey of a mysterious Pokémon as it zooms throughout the region, soaring over the towns and rolling hills sprawling with creatures. Suddenly, past the lighthouse, it dips-it’s hurt. It closes its eyes and crashes into the ocean.
You are ready to go to your brand new school. It’s not far-just up the hill-but already, the game tells you there’s something more important to focus on.
I love that the new legendary Pokémon is introduced right from the beginning. It’s with you throughout the game, giving your journey and its conclusion arguably more gravitas than even the most dramatic storylines of the past. Some may say that the legendary Pokémon are meant to be mysterious, not your motorcycle slave. Whilst I agree to an extent, it’s great to forge a connection with the legendary immediately to give more meaning to the endgame.
Finding your “treasure” is a clever way to expand upon Pokémon storylines and gives players the autonomy to complete questlines in whatever order they wish in a truly open-world experience. Finding the Titan Pokémon swiftly became my main goal. Liberating each Herba Mystica from the Titans and feeding them to Miraidon unlocked greater exploration through swimming and climbing and served as a subtle nod to the franchise’s previous reliance on HMs. By taking them out, they cleverly shifted to a much-needed focus on convenience-Fly, in particular, is absolutely necessary with the game’s open style, so it’s great you can do this from the start.
The Titan questline also meant I could help Arden’s beloved Pokémon slowly recover too. How could I leave Mabosstiff, with its huge sad eyes, to suffer any longer than necessary? I applaud Game Freak for managing to tug on my heartstrings with such a simple narrative.
Team Star’s goal is a lot more focussed and relatable than past evil teams of the franchise. Where Team Aqua wants to flood the world to provide more habitats for water Pokémon, Team Star are just teenage delinquents raging back at a world that bullies and misunderstands them. It’s the least gripping of the three narratives, but it provides some decent mysteries: who is Cassiopeia, the mysterious voice on your Rotom Phone urging you to take down Team Star? Why is the school director dressing up as a young student to help you? Why does Team Star have such a goofy gang sign? (Okay, secretly I love it in all its camp glory. Hasta la vistar! ✬)
I do have some gripes. The Gym challenge was more colour-by-numbers than the heroic adventure it should be. The boring Champion, Geeta, has little to no personality and a strange, empty-eyed design. Some leaders are fun and interesting-beat-down businessman Larry was a fantastic stand-out-but when being asked by the Elite Four which gym leaders I preferred or had the toughest time with, I couldn’t remember most of their names. Good thing we had other things to do, or this would have been a problem.
The ending, on the other hand, was fantastic. Warning: major story spoilers here-skip to the next section if you don’t want to ruin the ending of Pokemon Violet!
Area Zero, at the depths of Paldea’s mysterious crater, looms at the centre of the map for your whole journey. It’s always present at the back of your mind when you open the map or explore the region. When you finally descend, your companions with you, it’s breathtaking.
It’s easily the most impressive area of the whole game. It glitters. It’s bright. The music has an ethereal yet powerful choral song at its centre, making Area Zero feel alien, otherworldly. The tonal change is entirely unexpected and magical. I expected the crater to be dark and desolate, but the atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve stumbled upon somewhere special-and dangerous. It makes sense-Miraidon, the legendary, fears it. Professor Turo’s stuck at its core. Mabosstiff was horribly injured down here. Crazy strong Pokémon call this their home…as well as others that have never been seen before. For a game that lets you go anywhere, whenever you want, it was genius to have an area with strong, rare Pokémon that you can’t access until the late game.
For the whole game, you’re circling around the truth. Then, you descend to the centre, and you’re hit with it all. Where Miraidon comes from, what’s so dangerous about Area Zero, what happened to Turo…it’s brilliant. It offers one of the best climaxes for any Pokémon game so far, and I don’t say that lightly.
Float Like A Vivillon, Sting Like A Combee
New game (Pokemon Violet), new gimmick (you’ll see). This time, try Terastallizing your feisty friend to turn them into a shimmering living ice statue. This temporary transformation changes your Pokémon to its Tera Type, and gives an attack buff to all moves that are of that Tera Type.
Each Pokémon in Paldea can Terastallize, but not all are built the same. Most Pokémon Terastallize into a Tera Type that matches one of its original Types, but some have a special Tera Type that allows the Pokémon to change its Type completely. Whilst your levelled Espeon’s Tera Type may be Psychic, like its original Type, I found a Dragon/Flying Salamence out in the field that became Fairy Type when it Terastallized. This meant my Fairy Pokémon were no longer super effective against it.
Have I Said Type Or Terastallize Enough Yet?
This gives some Pokémon even more utility. I didn’t have a Water Type in my team, for example, but I used my Psychic/Fairy Hatterene to give me that coverage as its Tera Type was Water. I like this shake up-as do most of the Gym Leaders, apparently, who tend to Terastallize their final Pokémon to match their respective Typings.
Finding rare Terastallized Pokémon in the field is exciting at first-but it soon turns into a slog. The shining crystals are pretty, inviting you to see which Pokémon’s waiting to be caught, but the higher-level raid battles are very tough. Like in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which introduced raids, it’s clear that Game Freak is encouraging online battling. The AI that you can take on these raids with are ridiculously stupid, meaning that I’d fail the higher-level raids almost every time. I also wish you could tell on the map what level the raid battle is. It’s frustrating not being able to check each pin for the higher-level raids before you travel to them, which often drop post-game loot. At least they’re optional.
Another thing that’s annoyed me about the newer games is that there’s no option to turn off automatic EXP share. This effortless way of gaining experience is a tricky mechanic-too much, and you’re over-levelled, making the game far too easy. However, Pokemon Violet manages to succeed where some others failed. If you’re like me and catch new Pokémon every chance you get, which gets you EXP every time, you’ll still be a bit over-levelled for the final battles. But it wasn’t bad enough for me to get frustrated like I have in the past.
Ultimately, the combat was fun, as usual, but with gimmicks that were just…there. I often didn’t have to strategise much to win, either; the boss battles were mostly a breeze. I wish they’d scale the Gym Leaders, at least, so that you can truly tackle them in any order.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All-In Low Frame Rate
Catching Pokémon in Pokemon Violet was the most fun part of the game for me. Much like in Legends: Arceus, they exist in the overworld, meaning you can pick and choose which creatures to fight and which to avoid. This doesn’t just alleviate some of the levelling issues I’ve already mentioned, but by removing the slog of luck-based grass hunting, “catching ’em all” is finally enjoyable again.
There are also a bunch of sidequests that offer even more to do. By pulling out 32 Ominous Stakes throughout Paldea, you can open shrines that hold powerful mythical Pokémon. Tiny Gimmighoul coins are dotted all around the region for you to collect-I was so glad that they make a unique clinking noise as you get near one. The 1000th Pokémon you get as a reward for collecting 999 coins is a let-down, but the accumulation of coins is satisfying, and not so difficult that I was considering giving up.
Whilst the gameplay is good, the execution could have been so much better. It’s been widely noted that the graphics are sadly not up to par. The frame rate is terrible (for the first few hours my eyes hurt while playing), and if there’s too much on screen at once, like several people strolling around, they stutter as they walk. Pokémon pop into existence whilst you’re speeding across fields and dunes, meaning that more than once I had to turn back if I saw a new pocket monster that I needed to add to my collection. Buildings look like playdough in the background. Until a patch is released, it’s just not acceptable for a “finished” game.
What makes a Pokémon game? Creative new creatures to catch. An exciting story with stakes (not just the Ominous ones!). New places to explore. It has the bones of a great game. It just needs…more. Better graphics, battle scaling, a more fleshed out world-how great would it be to see a Seviper and Zangoose fighting in the wild, instead of waiting around to be caught by you?
Despite the flaws, I’d recommend giving Pokemon Violet a go. Hopefully it’s the next exciting step into Pokémon games becoming a truly magical experience for every budding and veteran Trainer out there.