Pokémon Violet Review

Don’t violate or you’ll get violated!

Pokémon Violet Review
Platform: Switch
Developer: Game Freak and their many support studios
Publisher: Nintendo

Part 00: Violation to Progress

Ten months after Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Game Freak has released yet another mainline entry in the Pokémon series with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Anybody who has read my various Rundowns where I discussed the title prior to release can gather that I was not especially looking forward to the game. This was chiefly due to how Scarlet and Violet appeared to backtrack many of the innovations seen in PLA. An artifact of the fact that both games underwent a parallel development cycle, meaning that technology, design philosophies, and general quality of life features did not carry over into Scarlet and Violet

This creates a situation where… actually screw it, let me just jump to the bottom line.

In conclusion, Pokémon Violet is a worse game than Pokémon Legends: Arceus in just about every way. The story and general premise are needlessly busy. The game is slower, less engaging, and more repetitive. The game looks and runs worse than its predecessor. And its ‘bold’ open world is needlessly massive, forgettable, and isn’t even conducive to exploration.

If one views this game as a successor to Pokémon Sword & Shield, then I would say it is a clumsy step forward. However, as a successor to Pokémon Legends: Arceus, it is an infuriating step backwards.

Part 01: Opening Hours

Where to start? Well, first I want to highlight how this game begins, because it does not set a good first impression. Things begin with a player avatar leaving their idyllic home in order to go on a grand adventure, same as basically every other game in the mainline series. However… it decides to throw in a lot of tiny twists to make things more… interesting, I guess?

As the game begins, the protagonist is called away from their home to attend a Pokémon academy. Afterwards, they get their starter and are sent through a tutorial area. Here, the player is taught the basics of Pokémon battles and capturing Pokémon— Instead of learning this at a school about Pokémon. Following this brief snippet, the protagonist is ‘chosen’ by a legendary Pokémon from the past/future via a semi-scripted sequence.

Which, side note, is probably the least polished area in the game. Because it is a fully explorable new environment where the player can catch and battle new Pokémon and pick up items, but cannot open the menu, save the game, or alter their party. This happens about an hour into the game and sets an… appropriate tone.

After meeting the box art legendary, the player is sent through a second, third, fourth, fifth, and… possibly sixth area where they can catch and battle Pokémon. With the player being able to catch something like 30 unique Pokémon before reaching the Pokémon academy. 

Once at the outer layer of the academy, the player is greeted with a barrage of shops, NPCs, and sheer space to explore on foot. All before being funneled into a flurry of in-game dialogue scenes. In these scenes, the protagonist meets various central characters, learns next to nothing about Pokémon, and is thrust into a grand region-wide treasure hunt.

With the player likely overwhelmed with information, or just kind or reckless and bored, they are told to go nuts, explore the region however they’d like, and given a mount to do so. …Except that is not how the game is meant to be played, but more on that later. For now… let’s talk about the whole academy thing.

Part 02: Pokémon Academy

The idea of a Pokémon game set in an academy, a school, or a place where the player is given a more hands-on and detailed introduction to Pokémon is not a bad idea. Heck, ‘Pokémon school’ has been a pretty common setting for fan works for two decades. However, the whole ‘school’ trappings here are almost bafflingly underutilized. 

Going to school and attending classes are purely optional activities in Scarlet and Violet, and they are little more than brief in-game dialogue sequences. They do actually have some good information on certain mechanics, such as telling players the math behind what stat buffs do and what the standard critical rates are. Things I didn’t know, and I used to read Pokémon strategy guides every day as a little kid. However, they are less efficient than an in-game codex or mechanics summary, in addition to being as interactive as a multiple choice question.

They are so unengaging, with text distributed so slowly, that I could see why people would just mash through these scenes, not reading any of it. So, why would anyone ever attend these classes? Because you get presents for attending all of a given class, and it gives players more insights into certain characters. Some of whom only exist to provide these classes…

It is a shockingly poor misuse of a concept. Something that I’m sure is a mere shadow of what the developers originally intended. And just… not a good place to be. The academy laughs in the face of conventional wisdom of how a hub should be designed and offers one of the most needlessly expansive batches of 3D space I have ever seen. 

Everything is twice as large as it needs to be. Shops are easy to mistake one for another. Various avenues only exist to provide some form of secret. And there are many subsections that the player has no incentive to explore more than once. It is not a fun place to be… but it also really fails at ever feeling like a school.

While the campus is expansive, the actual school building is made up of a large lobby/library and a few select rooms. Classrooms, offices, a laughably small cafeteria, a massive indoor field, and a dorm room for the protagonist. …That cannot be customized, so why even include it?

There are no halls, no way to explore the school itself, and everything is so tiny and modular it feels like the player is teleporting to locations in a giant black void. …Looks like it too. Next to nothing about this execution ever feels like it understands the appeal of a school setting, or the true function of a hub in an open world online game like this. Speaking of which…

Part 03: Freedom Is A Lie – A Modern Open World In Classic Colors

…I feel as if the definition of an open world has shifted as the genre has grown more common. In 2011, the biggest open world games were titles like Skyrim and Minecraft. A game that freely let players explore in any direction and never locked them out of any location so long as it was on the map. And a game, at least partially, about taming and controlling a vast randomly generated world in one’s own direction and at one’s own pace. However, in recent years this definition was… changed.

This ‘classic’ style of open worlds has become less common in favor of a more ‘modern’ interpretation of the concept: A game set in a large world that the player is guided through via story missions, progression-based obstacles, and level-based enemies. Games where you can, and probably should, explore. But only to an extent.

This is your Genshin Impact, Red Dead Redemption, and most modern AAA Ubisoft titles. Games that have an open world the player is linearly guided through. Games where there is a correct way to progress. Games that are not strictly about exploration and could be trimmed down to something more ‘linear.’

I bring this up because it is an interesting concept that warrants more discussion— But this divide between ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ open worlds also affected how I approached my playthrough of Pokémon Violet. I went in thinking that it was a ‘classic’ open world, when it is actually a ‘modern’ one with the appearance of a ‘classic’ one. While the player can go off into any direction and do any of the 18 main tasks first, the game is designed around the expectation that the player will go through them in a distinct order. As determined by the fixed levels of wild Pokémon and other challenges in the area. This ‘optimal’ progression sees the player bouncing between the east and west ends of the donut shaped world map. Exploring an area as best they can before taking on a challenge and getting one of three rewards.

Defeating Titan Pokémon grants players access to greater mobility options for their mounts. Thus allowing them to jump higher, traverse water, climb up walls, and glide through the air. Clearing Team Star outposts grants players access to TM recipes and materials. Which I have some harsh words for, more on that next section. While defeating gym leaders gives players access to badges that let them control ‘Outsider Pokémon’ up to a certain level… Actually, no. That’s wrong!

In Scarlet and Violet, players have a penalty to the catch rate when they try to capture Pokémon above a certain level. This level is determined by the number of badges they obtained, with players being able to catch Pokémon up to level 20 with no penalty by default. This is not how badges worked in any prior game in the series, and the game does not make this clear to players, or at least clear to me, that this penalty exists.

I bring this up because I chose to play through Violet in a rather… unique manner. After leaving the academy for the first time, I re-entered the open world and saw dozens of items and areas I could not access with my mount’s current movement capabilities. …So I decided to spend the first 26 hours of my playthrough getting those movement capabilities and building my team, which I decided upon in advance.

I came to realize that this was a quantifiably bad idea 25 hours in, when I was in the northern area, spending 10 bloody minutes trying to catch a paralyzed level 36 Delibird with 1 HP. …So I then got the last mobility upgrade and proceeded to defeat all the gym leaders— in reverse order— by hour 30. I then cleared the Team Star outposts by hour 36, and completed all three quest lines by hour 40, before finishing reaching the credits by hour 44. …And then I spent another twenty hours or so doing post-game exploration stuff.

This was a grossly unoptimized way to play this game. In retrospect, I wish I chose to approach this open world game as a linear one. That is truly how this game is meant to be experienced. It is not about freedom. It is about doing what the designers want you to do, but in a bigger world than ever before.

Part 04: Technical Menace and the 180 Materials

Technical Machines have always been a vital tool for players to teach moves to various Pokémon. But they were also objectively terrible for the first four generations. A TM could only be used once, and the player only received one copy of most of them in a single playthrough. This was changed with Black and White, which established TMs as infinite use items, and this was one of the best quality-of-life changes in the entire series.

…This was rolled back in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which split TMs into Technical Machines and Technical Records. Single-use items that allowed Pokémon to learn specific moves, but could be obtained randomly by participating in raid battles or buying from semi-randomized shops. I heavily criticized this change, as it gave the player fewer options and introduced needless busywork in the form of item hoarding.

In Scarlet and Violet, all Technical Machines have regressed to single-use items, and players have the ability to craft them for currency and materials. …But only if the player obtained the ‘TM recipe’ by collecting one copy of the TM, or clearing a Team Star outpost. Because it would be too darn convenient otherwise.

Oh, but how harsh are these crafting requirements? Well, the folks at Game Freak decided to have 180 materials for 171 TMs, have TMs require three to eight of a specific material, and have a single TM cost up to three unique materials. Meaning that many TMs are non-trivial investments, the crafting costs are complicated, and players need to do some mindless farming if they want to reliably get every TM.

This is in no way, shape, or form, an improvement of what came before, and easily the worst change introduced in this game. It is a player hostile change, robs players of a quality of life feature, and is far, far worse than the straightforward paid move tutor approach from PLA.

Part 05: Player Expression (Or Lack Thereof)

As part of the school setting, players are limited in how much they can customize their character. While all hairstyles, gloves, shoes, eyeglasses, hats, and backpacks are allowed at the Pokémon academy, there are only four outfits that the player can choose between. With no extra colors, ability to mix tops and bottoms, or anything of the sort. These four outfits admittedly differ between Scarlet and Violet, but it is only a difference of colors. With Violet being far, far better. Because what sort of human looks better in orange than they do in purple?

Furthermore, the game also does not explain how to change your avatar’s appearance, which is done by pressing left on the d-pad. Because apparently this is a function so important that it must be assigned a dedicated button, instead of being part of the menu… On that note, I need to talk about the menu design.

Part 06: The Worst Menus in 20 Years!

Seeing as how Scarlet and Violet are the first games in the series designed with online co-op in mind, the way menus work has changed considerably. There is no longer any true way to pause the games and the fairly standard in-game menu underwent some changes. 

The Pokédex, trainer ID, and map options from the main menu, instead relegating them to a secondary menu accessed via the Y or minus buttons. The Pokémon party screen is now part of the main menu, but the UI does not make use of space efficiently and does not tell the player of every command. For example, I only learned I could move held items using ZL by pressing buttons and seeing what happened.

List navigation is a crapshoot, as there is no longer a ‘page up/down’ command as there had been since the GBA era, if not earlier. Which makes sifting through 180 materials and a list of 400 Pokémon a lot of ‘fun.’

However, the biggest set back and most baffling shortcoming in this game is the box management. Somehow, there is several seconds of lag when navigating boxes of Pokémon. The game cannot properly load the icons of 30 given Pokémon fast enough to make the box usable for basic organization purposes, and it’s just pathetic to look at. …But it gets worse!

Players can no longer hold down a button to travel across several boxes. Players can no longer select Pokémon from one box and go to box view to move them. And the three selection methods have been overhauled… for no reason.

I don’t know how a series that has seen four dedicated pieces of software based on storage could screw up something this simple this badly. More than any glitches, this, this right here, is the one thing that Game Freak should be ashamed of. ANY software developer should be ashamed of creating something so dysfunctional.

Okay, tangent over, now let’s finally get into the actual ‘main’ part of this game. Because it is a ripe mess!

Part 07: Battling is Pointless & Catching Sucks

…What is the point of battling wild Pokémon? Well, I would say it is to amass EXP for one’s party. Otherwise, wild Pokémon are kind of obstacles and not really worth engaging with as they roam environments. However, Scarlet and Violet have brought two major changes to this dynamic. 

One, they introduced currency and material drops for defeating a Pokémon, with players typically getting 1 to 3 of a family-specific material by completing an encounter. Two, the player obtains a secondary currency, League Points, whenever they complete an encounter or defeat a Pokémon.

This transforms wild Pokémon from obstacles into bundles of money, materials, and EXP that the player can harvest. However, battling every wild Pokémon would be a gosh darn nightmare, so Game Freak decided to introduce the Let’s Go and Auto Battle system. Systems that let the player defeat a wild Pokémon, or string of wild Pokémon, with a single button press. Typing, stats, and levels do somewhat factor into this Auto Battle process, and the EXP yield per defeated Pokemon is lower than a normal battle. But this is so much more efficient than standard wild Pokémon battles it makes them feel like a chore

As a result, the only reason I found to initiate a standard battle was to catch the wild Pokémon in question. This would be fine but… catching Pokémon ‘the old way’ has just lost its appeal after PLA. Catching Pokémon is a deliberate science and after going through it so many thousands of times, I just find it incredibly boring. Find a new Pokémon. Attack it with weak attacks and/or false swipe until HP is low. Paralyze it if you like. Then throw a ball at it and pray to the gods of RNG. Or just ditch the past three steps and throw a Quick Ball if you are feeling lucky. 

It all lacks the sense of freedom, ease, and nuance that PLA added to the catching process. And with a Pokédex of 400, it is very easy to grow tired of this systematic and thoughtless process.

Part 08: Explore ‘Em & Trash ‘Em

Something that I will say in favor of Violet is that its world is one that truly feels vast and expansive. There is so much open space to explore that I doubt I have seen half of the total landmass as of writing this review, and it is frothing with Pokémon of different species. The game does a good job of throwing a diverse group of wild Pokémon to the player with every section of the map, and it is easy to get lost in a distracted daze. Where the player is veering off into a random direction, lured forward with waypoints, items, and new critters to add to the collection. 

There is something wonderful to this wanderlust-driven ‘classic’ open world… but it is also a type of world design not conducive to continued exploration. The world here is one that the player is pretty much done with after they initially explore it, engage with all the plentifully spawning Pokémon, and pick up the goodies strewn about it by forces unknown. It is a world meant to be consumed and disposed of once thoroughly explored. Forgotten and only revisited when called back by a missing Pokémon or item… or a randomly generated shiny doodad.

This is distinctly unlike the way other Pokémon games handled their worlds. For as much as the Wild Area of SWSH was criticized, it was an efficiently used space. One that was home to a wide variety of Pokémon that changed depending on the day. Made to be explorable within a single play session. And home to a handful of randomly generated challenges in the form of raid battles. The same is true for its two DLC areas, the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra.

PLA featured highly detailed biomes meant to be explored thoroughly, with deliberately crafted environments and a trickle of interactively/collectible stuff luring them in every direction. They were areas meant to be mastered. And with roaming alpha and mass outbreak Pokémon, players had regular incentives to do a ‘run’ through these environments.

In Scarlet and Violet though… the world is just too darn big and unsegmented for players to go through it in a single sitting. Meaning it is a bad vessel for raid battles and visiting the glowing pillars that reset every day. It is a world far bigger than it needs to be, and… feels less important and memorable as a result. 

Part 09: Critter Distribution (Or How NOT to Populate an Open World)

The way a Pokémon game typically works is that the player goes from area to area, catching Pokémon as they are introduced to each route. This, naturally, does not track with the whole ‘open world’ thing, as if the player misses a section, they might outright miss a Pokémon. 

The solution is to make every Pokémon appear in multiple locations, so it is easy for players to happen upon Pokémon and not have to search for them. …This is something the designers knew and designed around, but only to an extent. While plenty of Pokémon are well represented, a lot of them are needlessly obscure and hard to find.

Due to its needlessly large world, the process of finding specific Pokémon is at its most frustrating in Violet. The idea of having Pokémon appear ‘rarely’ does not work when your game is over 20 square kilometers big. The habitat feature is so vague that it often feels like you are supposed to Google the answer instead. And interacting with wild Pokémon just… sucks.

Something that I admired about PLA was how there was an effort to make Pokémon feel like an extension of the world. Like this is their natural habitat. And not only does Violet fail to improve upon this, it has declined to the level of amateurishly bad.

Pokémon are clustered and spawned about these vast fields, where they wander about aimlessly. They neither feel like they belong with this world nor do they interact with it, and they actively impede navigation due to how irritatingly small they can be. So often the Pokémon just feel like noise in an adventure. Rubbish to be cleaned away or avoided. Or like pennies strewn about the ground, begging to be picked up, but hardly worth the effort.

I have never cared less about Pokémon than I have here. Where Pokémon spawn in such large numbers, have no purpose or direction other than to roam, run, or pursue. I would say this is at least an improvement over Let’s Go or SWSH, but that would be a lie. At least there, the spawns felt like they were designed by a human and not an algorithm.

Part 10: Graphics and Performance and the World

Scarlet and Violet do not run well, nor is the world particularly impressive with its visuals. This is something players have repeated and shouted about excessively since launch, and it is something that did not bother me all too much. I am easy to please with graphics— I still find moving grass to be impressive. And I actually enjoy bad frame rates, because they remind me of N64 games and the wonder of the medium.

However, I am very disappointed with the overall art direction on display here. SWSH had some sort of grand vision for its world designs, and many of its locales have remained crystallized in my mind. PLA’s biomes were unique in their geography and greater theming. Even now, so many months later, I still have a good mental map of all of them. But with Violet… everything looks like a boring alpha version of what the game is supposed to look like. Plains, dirt zones, mountains, nothing is striking or distinct, and I’m sure there are aesthetically better looking worlds made using asset packs.

The towns are a slight exception, but the progression system made it hard for me to care about towns as ‘towns.’ There isn’t a good reason to explore them beyond hunting for shiny trinkets and a few shops. All basic necessities are provided by gas stations at the front and/or back. And once you beat the gym leader, they become anchors to fast travel points.

There are no quests to find. No NPCs to get to know. And nothing much to do in them beyond buy food… which I never did, because I hate temporary bonus systems. I could go on a long tirade about how temporary bonus systems are a way of depowering players by making them work to get things that should be given to them. …But I would rather start wrapping this bloody thing up.

Part 11: Tera Types and Raids 2.0

Something that has been annoying me about the Pokémon series since generation VI is the generational gimmicks. Mega evolutions, Z-Moves, Dynamax, and now Terastallization. The ability to have a Pokémon change their type(s) to their ‘Tera Type.’ Which, mechanically, boosts the power of their STAB moves to 2x instead of 1.5x damage. This Is a more modest power boost than many of the previous incarnations and, accordingly, has more of a place in the more competitive end of things.

In terms of my playthrough, I went through the entire main game without using this ability. Not to make any sort of statement, but because I never felt the need to use it, and I did not want to sit through the transformation cutscene again. Yes, even when the game explicitly told me to use it during the final battle, I didn’t use it. I just didn’t want to.

Now, what strikes me as noteworthy about Tera Types is their greater purpose in the metagame. Because in addition to giving every Pokémon a set of EVs, IVs, and nature, Pokémon now have unique Tera Types that determine their value and worth in the more competitive end of things. While every Pokemon has a set Tera Type, it can be changed by collecting 50 Tera Shards from Tera Raid Battles. Why 50? Because anything less would be too generous

Tera Types are just another way to make it harder to get a Pokémon to its ‘ideal competitive state,’ and I cannot really view the mechanic beyond this quality-of-life level. This is not an interesting gameplay innovation to me, and I know it is going to be ditched in the next generation. Just like all other gimmicks of old.

Speaking of which, Max Raid Battles were one of the bigger innovations of SWSH. A co-operative battle against a Pokémon with a lot of health where players were supposed to band together. …But the game also let the player use crummy bots with suboptimal Pokémon if they were too cheap to pay for online, or did not want to deal with waiting for other players. While these were a novel concept, I found them to be egregiously slow with their overly long intro and ending cutscenes and long wait times between player inputs.

The new incarnation, Tera Raid Battles, ditch the turn-based affair for something more akin to an active time battle system, but they are a reprisal of pretty much everything bad about Max Raid Battles. Cutscenes are long. Wait times between inputs are long. Success in higher difficulty battles largely depend on the aptitude of one’s allies. But they are also kind of worse in a lot of ways. TMs are no longer rewards for completing challenges. The Tera Type mechanic encourages the player to develop Pokémon specifically for the use in raid battles. And 5-star battles are more difficult in my experience, let alone the 6-star or 7-star battles. Neither of which I have unlocked at the time of writing this review.

There are indeed options to cheese through these fights with optimized teams, but at that point, I need to ask what the purpose of these fights are? Well, beyond the act of doing stuff to get stuff and create optimized Pokémon for the sake of having optimized Pokémon… Actually, no, that is the point of all of this.

Part 12: Do Stuff to Get Stuff and Keep Doing Stuff

Over the past decade, I have become painfully aware of the sheer amount of barriers Pokémon games present before players who want to obtain ideal or good Pokémon. Ones with perfect individual values, an ideal nature, correctly min-maxed effort values, and the ideal moveset. This is what players are supposed to aspire to… but the games make obtaining this goal an absolute pain

It is this convoluted mess of selective breeding, using the correct items, capturing the correct Pokémon, relying on RNG to get the correct items, and manipulating systems that are obscured in-game. This process has been methodically detailed for the better part of two decades and has, technically, been made easier, generally speaking, with every subsequent release. …But this is still all utter bullcrap.

There is no reason why it needs to be this time consuming just to make a Pokémon its objective and best form. This is all a deliberate move. Game Freak has the capability of making all of this complexity go away, but they don’t. Because they want this to be hard, they want people to waste days and weeks of their life optimizing Pokémon. Because it keeps them engaged with the world of Pokémon. It all feels so gross and abusive that… I don’t care at this point

I am sick of catching Pokémon and being able to identify them as being objectively bad. I am sick of learning about and dealing with cumbersome grindy systems to make Pokémon better. I am sick of how accepted these systems are and how Game Freak enables them. And I am sick of this series and its inability to fix what have been foundational issues for decades.

Part 13: Bye Bye Pokémon!

Pokémon Violet is a sad game. It is a game that does so many things wrong and takes so many steps backwards that I do not think it should exist. 

It undid nearly every innovation and improvement of Pokémon Legends: Arceus and delivered one of the most lackluster open worlds I have ever seen. 

It is a game that fails to follow through its lofty and multifaceted premises. An open world game that is designed to be explored in a specific way. A title that undoes quality of life features that have been the staple for over a decade. A title with a user interface that, in some respects, is worse than it was two decades ago. A game about catching and battling creatures that undoes innovation on the catching side and makes battling feel pointless. A game with a needlessly large open world that feels like a proof of concept for a game that was released nearly a year ago. And a game that is outwardly disrespectful of the player with its sheer abundance of busywork and excessive amount of arbitrary ‘stuff’ to collect. 

Pokémon Violet is a game that took my hope and optimism for the future of this series and smashed it into dozens of tiny pieces. Because of this, I will not purchase or play another mainline Pokémon game until the series sees a successor to Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Doing otherwise would just be devoting time and money into something that I know will do little more than bring me sorrow and frustration.

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