I choose you, jankichu
It has been 11 days since the release of Pokémon Violet. Arguably, that’s far too late to even bother reviewing such a high-profile game. After all, more than 10 million people have already purchased it, and millions more have already made up their minds about it after seeing the many clips of its bugs and glitches posted across social media. Outside of a few days when I had to avoid getting killed by COVID, I’ve wrapped all my free time over the last week and some change into becoming the best Pokémon trainer the Paldea Region has ever seen. I’ve ventured to the top of the highest mountain and tunneled deep into the earth to see the wonders within.
As with past mainline Pokémon games, it’s been an adventure with good friends and great little monsters to collect. Unlike in the past, however, my journey through Pokémon Violet has been so janky that I cannot in good conscience look past its glaring faults, even if I’m admittedly having a good time with it.
Pokémon Violet (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Game Freak
Released: November 18, 2022
And of course I’m having a good time with it. It’s a Pokémon game. They sell tens of millions of copies for a reason. That tried-and-true Pokémon formula of catching monsters and battling your way through eight gyms, four elite trainers, and one grand champion is still as entertaining today as it was back in the ‘90s. Just as the Dragon Quest formula is as well-worn and welcomed today as it was back in the ‘80s. But Armor Project would never release a mainline Dragon Quest game as shoddy as this. Whereas it seems The Pokémon Company has zero issues putting out a flagship title for its billion-dollar enterprise despite it being in desperate need of TLC.
It’s also in need of some serious guidance and direction as several elements in Pokémon Violet don’t really fit in with its new, “find your own path” approach. Taking it a step further than this past January’s vastly superior Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Pokémon Violet and Pokémon Scarlet are removing the barriers of the franchise’s usual constricting routes in favor of a massive open world. And the Paldea region is huge, with plenty of mountains to climb, caves to explore, and trees to pop in and out of existence. After picking your starter from a trio of cuties (I went with Sprigatito), you’ll set out to the Uva Academy. But don’t worry about sitting in class for too long because mere minutes after finding your dorm room, the entire student body is set out into the world to discover their “treasure.” Like with Breath of the Wild, once you get past this brief opening that introduces the general gameplay, you’re free to go in any direction and approach the game on your terms. With such a level of freedom, I do wonder why the heck would Game Freak choose a school motif for its open-world game.
Let’s talk about structure
Schools are famously structured. That’s kind of the whole point of them. And while the Uva Academy does offer courses with new classes being unlocked as you make your way further into the game, it never actually forces you to attend any of them once you get past the introduction. Is there any benefit to going to these classes? Probably. I stopped caring after the art teacher tried to gaslight me into thinking this was a good-looking game. But mostly it’s just an optional activity you’re free to ignore that has zero impact on completing the game’s three main narrative threads. A Pokémon game designed around attending a Pokémon academy is a great idea, but this isn’t that game, and I just find it odd that Game Freak would choose to shackle its near-seamless open world with an institution that is often comically described as a “child prison.”
The lack of structure not only makes the school concept irrelevant, but it also screws up that tried-and-true Pokémon formula. Outside of Legends, mainline Pokémon games have always been creatures of habit and conformity. This is a franchise that is very set in its ways, and while there have been attempts to shuffle away from its stringent past, your journey to the Elite Four has always been a calculated, linear path. When you remove the barriers from that path and invite players to go about it as they see fit, that old tried-and-true formula begins to crumble.
The stories we tell
Once players are given the go-ahead to discover their “treasure,” they’ll be prompted with three different storylines to follow. Victory Road is your standard defeat eight gym leaders and the Elite Four yarn, Path of Legends sees you hunting massive Pokémon in search of some good herbs, and Starfall Street puts you on a collision course with Team Star. It doesn’t matter which path you choose because you’ll be doing all three at once. You’re told going left or right from the Academy town will determine which path you start on, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is nothing changes about the path you “don’t take.”
So let’s say you head out of Uva Academy to start down Victory Road. If you take that route, you’ll encounter a gym, a giant Pokémon, and a Star Base you’ll defeat all before you reach your second gym. That’s what I did, and after I beat that second gym, I decided to go see what I missed out on the path not taken. Heading out the other gate of the academy town directed me toward another humongous Pokémon, another Team Star base, and another gym, all of which were between 10 to 15 levels below where my team was at. After steamrolling my way through those three lack-of-challenges, I continued my journey and quickly discovered that while I could tackle this map and these storylines in any order I wanted, there is a set order in which they should be completed programmed into the game. The levels for those storyline-specific tasks do not scale with my team, which did lead to a humorous situation where I got my sixth gym badge from what should have been the final gym leader, only to then have three Pokémon on my team I couldn’t control because they were leveled too high.
I get how this could be appealing. I mean, who doesn’t love decimating the competition using a sextet of overpowered Pokémon? But having a linear order in which things should be done, even if the player doesn’t know that order, really does go against the idea and promise of a Paldea Region “with no set path.” I can’t say for sure whether level scaling is the right thing to do in this situation. What I can say is Game Freak is going to need to go back to the drawing board if it wants to keep the ol’ gym system alive and relevant for future Pokémon games.
Diamonds in the rough (and there is a lot of rough)
I can also say I enjoyed the new storylines and the characters contained within. I really warmed up to Arven, who you’ll hunt the bigguns with, the further I got into the Path of Legends storyline, and the kooky cast of Team Star are a real bunch of winners. Your requisite rival for the game, Nemona, is as annoying as any past rival, but it is nice to see that, despite the issues this game has and its lack of development resources, the writers were able to craft three storylines that neatly tied into one another for an endgame section that will likely be the source of a lot of debate. The gym leaders are a great bunch too, with Grusha and Larry sitting at the top of my rankings thanks to some excellent localization. And while I’m still in a mood to praise this game, Pokémon Violet has an outstanding soundtrack with some riveting battle tracks.
The new cast is swell, but I’m not so hot on some of the new features. Terastallizing, which allows you to change your Pokémon’s type once in a battle, is heavily featured in the game’s story but not fully explored. It’s a rather tedious process that involves collecting Tera Shards from raids that you can use to change a Pokémon’s Tera Type. Each Pokémon’s Tera Type will initially match its standard type (so Sprigatito’s starting Tera Type will be Grass). When you save up enough of a certain Tera Shard type, you can visit a single restaurant in the game that’ll let you switch one of your Pokémon’s Tera Type. It’s a lot of work, but if you’re into the competitive scene or plan on hoisting a Pikachu trophy at Pokémon Worlds 2023, I have no doubt it’ll be worth the time invested if you want to keep your opponents on their toes. I just wish the developers made the changing of Tera Type a less exhaustive process.
Far less useful in Violet is the ability to travel along with your Pokémon. Pressing the R button will send your lead ‘mon out into the world with you, free to do battles on their own with critters in the wild. If they’re outmatched, they’ll scurry back to you. It’s a great idea in theory, and the central gameplay conceit behind raiding the bases of Team Star, but it doesn’t work as smoothly as it should, and more often than not, my Pokémon would fail to keep pace with me, fail to attack the group of wild Pokémon I sent them to smash or get stuck on some structure or weird piece of geometry. As good of an idea as it is, it needs a game that’s developed far better than Pokémon Violet to meet its potential.
I keep on fallin’ through the environment
And that’s because Pokémon Violet is just busted as hell. I’ve seen the videos, you’ve seen the videos, anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account has seen the videos. Some of the glitches circling the internet are silly and endlessly shareable. That’s the case with a lot of open-world games, whether it’s NPCs in Ubisoft’s latest disaster floating up, up, and away or the double-jointed elbows of the people of Paldea. Sadly, I didn’t get any cool glitches that would have helped me go viral over the extended Thanksgiving weekend. I got the ones that pointed to the fact that Nintendo or The Pokémon Company–whoever is to blame here–had Game Freak put out a game that could best be described as “good enough for launch.”
Can you catch Pokémon in Pokémon Violet? Yes. But will those Pokémon suddenly disappear from the field? Sometimes, but it’s “good enough for launch.” Can you battle Pokémon in Pokémon Violet? Absolutely. And will the camera always be in a position that adequately showcases that battle? Heck no, but what’s there is “good enough for launch.” Will NPCs on a loop walk right through an important Pokémon battle because not enough time was given to programming this $60 video game? Of course, and I guess that’s “good enough for launch.”
Despite all the footage we’ve seen over the past several days, there is nothing fundamentally broken about Pokémon Violet. The game didn’t crash on me (though I have seen claims that it will), and I never encountered instances where assets failed to load. It’s just there is a myriad of issues plaguing this game that are too numerous for a review and too tedious for some SEO-chasing listicle. This is a game that runs, but it doesn’t run well, and that is not something that should ever be said about the biggest JRPG franchise in the world.
How long can they keep coasting on past success?
I know there is a huge debate over whether any criticisms about Pokémon Violet & Scarlet will matter. As stated in the lede, this game has sold more than 10 million copies. Pending any sort of Cyberpunk 2077 post-release nosedive, this duo could be the seventh best-selling game on Nintendo Switch by the end of the fiscal year. Game Freak, the Pokémon Company, and Nintendo probably have no real reason to change how they operate with this franchise because what they’re doing is working, which is ironic because Pokémon Violet barely works.
As I said in the Destructoid Slack to Eric Van Allen, who reviewed the Scarlet version, it’s hard to make a bad Pokémon game because the series’ standard gameplay is still so satisfying. But you can make a disappointing one, and that’s exactly what Game Freak did here. Whether it can be blamed on a lack of time, a lack of resources, or a lack of talent within the developer itself, Pokémon Violet is not up to the level where a game of this caliber should be. And while I will gladly continue to fill out my Pokédex until I’ve captured every critter hiding in this world, I’m always going to be left mourning what this game should have been rather than what it ended up being.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]