Pokémon Just Isn’t Better as an Open-World Game

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet demonstrate that the franchise's long-awaited move to the open-world genre may not be the dream we thought it was.

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet
Photo: Nintendo

The Pokémon franchise has been running strong for just over 25 years. According to outlets such as Gamespot, the latest entries in the series, Scarlet and Violet, sold over 10 million copies within the first three days. It’s not hard to see why.

On the surface, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet provide everything fans expect from the franchise. Around 400 monsters to catch, train, and lead into battle? Check. The large, open-world players have been begging for? Check. Catchy music? It wouldn’t be a Pokémon game without earworms.

Yet, all is not well in the world of Pokémon. Scarlet and Violet are undeniably fun games, but they suffer from quite a few flaws that can easily be attributed to the game’s open world and uninspired technical ambitions. Millions still want a good Pokémon open-world game, but Pokémon Scarlet and Violet ain’t it. Maybe the series will eventually offer that dream open-world experience, but its struggles to adapt to that genre raise serious questions about what has gone wrong and what, exactly, it is that we think we want from an open-world Pokémon game in the first place.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Are Still (Mostly) Traditional Pokémon Games

If you’ve played a Pokémon game before, you already know the basics of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. You are given one of three starter Pokémon and left to your own devices as you explore a new region, catch as many Pokémon as you can, and raise a team capable of defeating the strongest Trainers and Champions around. Scarlet and Violet add giant Pokémon bosses and evil teams to the mix, though previous entries offered similar tasks, so those features are technically closer to alterations than pure additions.

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As is standard for the series, the game comes in two flavors: Scarlet and Violet. Choosing between the two is an apples and oranges situation. Do you want to catch Larvitar or Bagon? Would you rather start with orange or purple shorts? Trading is still available, so dedicated players should be able to catch ‘em all eventually, but multiplayer doesn’t end there. Scarlet and Violet let players team up to take down raid bosses, and in a series first, gamers can even join each other in their own copies of Pokémon. Technology is incredible!

Every new Generation, the Pokémon franchise introduces a combat gimmick players can use to turn the tide of battle. In Pokémon X and Y, it was Mega Evolutions, and in Pokémon Sun and Moon, it was Z-Moves. In Scarlet and Violet, the gimmick of the hour is Terastalizing, which lets players or NPCs change their Pokémon‘s elemental typing mid-battle. On one hand, I love Terastalizing because it’s a satisfying middle ground between Mega Evolution and Dynamaxing. On the other hand, Terastalizing displays a disappointing trend with Pokémon games. 

When Sun and Moon were released, Mega Evolutions disappeared and were replaced by Z-Moves, and when Nintendo published Sword and Shield, Dynamaxing supplanted Z-Moves. And now Terastalizing has done the same to Dynamaxing (and Legends: Arceus’ Move Mastery). That means no more kaiju-sized Pokémon or single-use limit breaks. Sure, thanks to Terastalizing, Game Freak has finally struck a good risk-vs-reward balance that isn’t restricted to certain Pokémon, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that Game Freak will replace that mechanic again in the next entry. If that is the case, why bother getting excited or learning the ins and outs of the system?

Moreover, some aspects of Scarlet and Violet’s design feel like a strict step down from previous entries. In Sword and Shield, players can only encounter Pokémon unique to each version, but they can also fight gym leaders that don’t show up in the other version. Scarlet and Violet continue this trend, but this time the number of version-exclusive boss battles is cut in half (the version-exclusive Titan Pokémon notwithstanding). Game Freak should continuously be raising the bar, but they keep finding ways to make cuts and compromises.

That’s the strangest thing about Scarlet and Violet. In theory, it’s one of the biggest and most generous Pokémon games yet. In practice, so much of the game’s depth is artificial and comes at the cost of some of the franchise’s biggest draws.

Scarlet and Violet’s Open World Is as Wide as an Ocean and Just as Rough

One of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s selling points is its open world. Game Freak has been toying with this design for the last few games, as Sword and Shield introduced the large “Open Zones,” and Legends: Arceus split the game world into large, explorable areas. At long last, Scarlet and Violet would marry the non-linearity of open worlds with the fun gameplay loop Pokémon is known for. That’s always been the dream. It turns out that might not be as winning of a formula as we thought.

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To be fair, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet do actually feature an uninterrupted world where Pokémon run wild. What’s more, it’s genuinely fun seeing those creatures wander around that world (almost as fun as fighting and capturing them). You don’t even have to engage in turn-based battles thanks to the new “Let’s Go” feature, which lets you send out Pokémon to auto-battle. This addition speeds up the leveling process, albeit at the cost of lowered rewards. Still, it’s a fair trade-off.

Even if you don’t want to auto-resolve battles, the core experience of battling and capturing Pokémon, training them, and keeping an eye out for shinies is still as enjoyable as ever. Of course, that raises the question: What does the open world do to improve the core Pokémon experience? The answer, at the moment, is “not much.” If anything, the open world detracts from that experience.

Despite taking place in an open world, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are still fairly linear. You still can’t go anywhere you want, whenever you want. That’s because the games lock areas behind two different grind walls: leveling and traversal.

You need to level up your Pokémon as much as possible, which is standard for turn-based RPGs but antithetical to the point of open worlds. If you don’t engage in at least some level grinding, wandering into the wrong area will result in Trainers and wild Pokémon one-shotting your team. Moreover, quite a few locations are beyond your reach until you unlock certain abilities for your Ride Pokémon, but you can’t obtain these skills without beating certain bosses, and you can’t beat those bosses if your Pokémon are underleveled. Those issues hamstring the entire open-world concept right out of the gate.

Moreover, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet don’t fill their words with enough content to justify their size. That probably sounds ridiculous since the games are littered with Pokémon to catch, Gym Leaders to defeat, and secrets to uncover, but again, the same is true of every other Pokémon game.

Where are all the side activities in Scarlet and Violet? Where are all the dungeons and secret areas? Half the fun of an open-world game is wandering off the beaten path and finding a loot cave or an NPC who needs a favor. Scarlet and Violet let you attend classes and complete quizzes for prizes (as well as hold picnics to eat sandwiches and obtain Pokémon eggs) but that’s about it.

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Even towns in Scarlet and Violet start to blend together and don’t serve much purpose outside of housing Pokémon Gyms. Ironically, previous games (including Pokémon Sword and Shield and Pokémon Legends: Arceus) understood the importance of open world-like side activities and optional areas more than Scarlet and Violet. You can’t even chuck balls at wild Pokémon without initiating battles anymore.

Conceptually, Scarlet and Violet fail to justify their larger worlds. Even if they did, serious questions remain about Game Freaks’ ability to make an open-world Pokémon game that works and the Switch’s ability to run such an experience.

We’re Still Waiting On Our Dream Pokémon Game to Load

To get straight to the point, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are technical messes. It’s a miracle Nintendo allowed these games to be released in their current state.

You can’t walk for five minutes in Scarlet and Violet without something going wrong. A lighting glitch here, the camera clipping through the ground…these aren’t big problems, but they add up.

Even if you can ignore those minor issues, the game’s general performance will gradually wear you down. Scarlet and Violet’s pop-in, in particular, is some of the worst you will ever see. Characters aren’t rendered unless you are maybe 50 feet away, which makes it difficult to see rare or shiny Pokémon in the distance. Also, it’s not uncommon for the game to deload assets while they are off-camera and then spend several seconds reloading them when the perspective shifts.

As bad as the pop-in is, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet‘s framerate is arguably worse. The game’s stability is constantly on the verge of collapse (especially in towns), and even when the game’s FPS holds semi-steady, asset frame rates don’t. Walk several feet away from an NPC, wild Pokémon, or even an environmental object like a windmill, and their animations are cut in half. Walk even further, and you can count their frames on one hand. This is tragically evident during the Artazon gym challenge where players are tasked with collecting 10 Sunflora. During this segment, you can see the game struggle to keep a steady framerate, and even then the Sunflora lose frames as you collect more of them

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While I didn’t personally experience any game-breaking bugs, you don’t have to look hard to find seriously messed-up glitches other players have recorded. Some are par for the course with open-world games (such as NPCs and Pokémon spawning inside walls and walking on top of each other) but a disturbing number of bugs defy explanation. For instance, player character eyes can bug out of their sockets, and Ride Pokémon easily get stuck in falling animations even after they hit the ground.

Yes, the Switch is a weaker piece of hardware, but The Witcher 3’s Switch port shows that the console can run larger, fairly modern games. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet just shouldn’t perform as poorly as they do. The fact that they’re this bad raise serious questions about Game Freak’s understanding of the hardware and their ability to properly develop these kinds of games for it. Millions hoped the studio’s incredible handheld Pokémon games would simply be bigger and better on Nintendo’s flagship home hardware. Instead, we’re still waiting for a Switch Pokémon game that feels as substantial and complete as the series’ best handheld entries, much less one that feels truly worthy of a console. What’s so frustrating is that it’s still not entirely clear what the problem is, and it’s not clear if anything will be done to truly address that problem so long as Pokémon’s sales are bolstered by the series’ legacy.

Ultimately, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are a step in the wrong direction. The main draws of the franchise are alive and well, but they are buried by performance issues and questionable design choices. It’s almost as if Game Freak was so concerned with creating an open-world experience that they forgot to a worthwhile reason for that open world.

Game Freak may eventually develop an amazing Pokémon open-world title, but in all honesty, Pokémon Legends: Arceus‘ modified “large world” has more to offer than Scarlet and Violet‘s open worlds. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are fun games, but at what point does the seemingly obvious idea that Pokémon games should eventually be open-world games start to seriously compromise the reasons that millions of people love these games in the first place?