Over the course of Pokémon’s first eight generations, the number of catchable monsters is nearing 1,000. And yet in that same time, the basic formula for the series’ gameplay has largely stayed the same (aside from some small tweaks or offshoots like Legends: Arceus). But after getting the chance to preview Pokémon Scarlet ahead of its official release in November, it feels like GameFreak has remixed a ton of longstanding tropes in a way that brings a new spark to its next release.
Starting off with the Paldea region (which draws inspiration from the real-world Iberian peninsula), Pokémon Scarlet and Violet expands on previous games (most notably Legends Arceus and the Wild Area in Sword and Shield) by offering a fully open-world design. This means there’s no set path when it comes to taking down gyms, which gives you much more freedom to choose where you want to go and in what order. On top of that, to help traverse the world, you get access to the game’s legendary Pokémon (either Koraidon or Miraidon, depending on which version of the game you choose) very early on, instead of having to wait until endgame to catch them like in previous titles.
Even the gyms themselves have gotten an update, with the trials that you need to pass in order to battle Brassius (the leader of the Artazon gym) taking place around town instead in a single room or building. The impact of this is that the world of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet just feels more vibrant and lived in, which adds a new dimension to how you experience the game.
Of course, there’s much more to Pokémon than just gym battles, as riding your legendary Pokémon lets you literally run, jump and fly across the landscape. As you explore Paldea, you’ll encounter wild monsters roaming the region, which you can choose to battle or avoid as you see fit, though you’ll run into some random battles as well. There are even rare Titan Pokémon that you need to battle multiple times to best as you try to complete your Path of Legends, which is a separate story branch from your gym battles and run-ins with Team Star. And while you’re out exploring the world, if you don’t feel like directing combat yourself, you can bring out your lead Pokémon to find items or auto-battle other nearby monsters (with the fight taking place off-screen).
Scarlet and Violet’s open-world design also means there are more places to run into Team Star (this generation’s Team Rocket equivalent). During one event, I had to break my way into a barricaded compound while using the new auto-battle system to take down 30 different monsters before my team ran out of HP. After that, I had to battle one of Team Star’s leaders while she rode a huge vehicle, which had a massive health bar to match. Meanwhile, standard combat still consists of turn-based battles with each monster having access to four different moves. And when it comes to catching wild Pokémon, your best bet is still to whittle down their health with attacks and status ailments before tossing a Pokéball at them. There’s no need to aim your throw like in Legends: Arceus.
But for Scarlet and Violet Gamefreak has added a new twist called Terastallizing, which allows a Pokémon to change their normal type to its hidden Tera Type. Take for example Tyranitar, which is normally a rock/dark type but changes to ghost type when Terastallized. This unlocks new ways to punish your enemy’s weaknesses while also giving you access to the new Tera Blast TM so you can take full advantage of your Pokémon’s more powerful altered state.
Alternatively, for people who like more cooperative fights, there are four-player Tera raid battles that allow you to team up with friends to catch Pokémon with rare Tera types. And unlike traditional combat, there’s no turn order to follow. You can spam moves to your heart’s content and if you get knocked out, you can cheer on your fellow trainers while you wait to be automatically revived. As someone who has long thought Pokémon’s core combat system has needed an update, raid battles are a lot of fun as a break from the main story, even if they do feel a little button mashy.
And these are just some of the bigger changes. Gamefreak has tweaked a lot of other mechanics in a way that makes the whole franchise feel fresh again. So let me list a bunch here rapid-fire style. Instead of the standard eight gym badges to collect, now there are 18. Character customization is way deeper and can be changed at any time from the standard menu screen. Also, other trainers won’t initiate a battle on sight as they have in the past, you actually have to walk up and engage them on purpose. There’s even a new auto-heal feature that uses potions from your inventory to recover HP after battle, which saves you time sifting through menus over and over again. And what could have the biggest impact on Pokémon battles in Scarlet and Violet is that now you can now craft your own TMs.
So while I only had a little more than an hour to play Pokémon Scarlet during my preview, I’m really happy to see Gamefreak mess around with its traditional format. The world is big and beautiful, there are now three main storylines that you can complete as you choose and there are a lot of other remixes and quality-of-life changes that make the series feel like it’s gotten a reno and a fresh coat of paint. And we haven’t even talked about all the new Pokémon yet.
I normally always go with the plant-type starter, but this time around I already know I’m choosing Fuecoco. There’s something about his goofy toothy grin I just can’t ignore. Then there’s Lechonk, which is a masterful play on words, and one of your rival’s main Pokémon Pawni is so cute and fluffy that I almost can’t handle it.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a new mainline Pokémon game. My only small concern is that I did notice a bit of frame-rate choppiness in some areas, which could indicate that Scarlet and Violet’s new open-world design is really taxing the Switch’s horsepower. However, since my time with the game was in a development build created for this preview and not a full retail version, it’s difficult to say if we should expect similar performance upon release. Regardless, I can’t wait to play more when Pokémon Scarlet and Violet officially go on sale for the Nintendo Switch on November 18th.