There are few events that players get hyped for more than the launch of a new Pokémon generation. And Nintendo is kicking off Pokémon’s ninth generation with Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, both releasing on November 18, 2022.

Earlier this month, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company invited me to test out Pokémon Scarlet and Violet before nearly anyone else. Over the course of two hours, I got to explore the new Paldea region, fight a gym leader, catch Pokémon, and even join a multiplayer Tera Raid Battle.

Here’s a rundown of everything that I learned from that session, along with my first impressions of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: Gameplay

Let’s start with the most important topic: What are Scarlet and Violet like to play? And how do they compare to past games in the series?

Scarlet and Violet have a massive open world that’s easy to explore

Most Pokémon games follow a simple formula. You start in one corner of the map, and slowly follow predetermined roads and routes to discover new towns and fight gym leaders.

Scarlet and Violet throw that all out the window. Nearly as soon as you start the game, you’re allowed to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Nintendo made it clear to me that if you want to skip right to the very end of the game, you can do it.

All of this is made possible by your “Ride Pokémon,” the legendary Koraidon (in Scarlet) or Miraidon (Violet). These Pokémon, which look like hybrids between dragons and motorcycles, can dash at mach speeds, glide through the air, swim through oceans, and even climb up sheer cliffs. Crossing from one side of the map to another takes only minutes.

But unfortunately, while racing across the Paldea region is fun, the map can seem incredibly barren at times. There are items and wild Pokémon everywhere, but not much that encourages you to explore deeper. It’s just a new way to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.

After playing, I described the game to my colleagues as “Pokémon meets Breath of the Wild,” referring to Nintendo’s open world Legend of Zelda game from 2017. Like Breath of the Wild, if you want to go somewhere, you can just go — there’s no set path you have to follow.

You choose what kind of Pokémon game you want to play

From what we’ve seen so far, Scarlet and Violet have three major quests you can follow, each with its own storyline and gameplay style.

First, you can take on the Victory Road challenge. This works the same as any other Pokémon game: You travel the land to battle all eight gym leaders, then face off against the Pokémon League, the strongest trainers in the region. Before you can battle any gym leader, you’ll need to solve a puzzle or complete a challenge.

Next, you can play through the Starfall Street story. This path pits you against Team Star, a gang of rebellious students who have set up bases across the region. You’ll have to infiltrate each Team Star base and earn the right to battle the gang’s leaders.

Lastly, there’s the Path of Legends. Here you’ll team up with a student named Arven to battle massive Titan Pokémon and gather the herbs that they guard.

You get to choose which paths you take, and in what order. Combined with your ability to skip straight to the end of the game, you essentially get to choose what kind of game you’re playing — and how hard it’ll be. I went straight for Team Star, and would have lost the first time through if the demo hadn’t supplied me with some overpowered items.

There are no random encounters

This might be the biggest change to the series. As far as I can tell, random Pokémon battles — whether they be with wild Pokémon or with Pokémon trainers — are completely gone.

Instead of hiding in grass, wild Pokémon are fully modeled creatures walking around the world. Every route is filled to the brim with Pokémon, which will react to you when you get near, running away or watching you carefully. To fight one, you need to physically touch it or throw a Pokéball at it.

Same goes for Pokémon trainers. You can’t start a Pokémon battle by just making eye contact with another trainer anymore — you have to actively talk to them first. This gives you a massive amount of control over the speed of the game and how strong your Pokémon get.

But this isn’t to say that it’s easy to avoid ever battling. A lot of the Pokémon that walk around are incredibly small and blend into the environment, and some even chase you. It only takes one misstep to accidentally start a battle that you never saw coming.

And Game Freak’s attempt to let you transition seamlessly from walking into a battle doesn’t work perfectly. Check out the GIF above, where there’s an awkward pause and graphical downgrade between throwing a Pokéball and the battle beginning.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: New features

Scarlet and Violet come with new ways to battle and make your way through the game. Unfortunately, not all of them work.

Tera Types give the game new depth and difficulty

For nearly a decade, every new Pokémon generation has included a gimmick for powering up your monsters in the middle of battling, like Mega Evolutions or Dynamaxing.

Scarlet and Violet introduce Terastallizing, a special evolution that turns your Pokémon into a living gem and usually gives them a new type. You can only Terastallize once per battle, and you’ll need to recharge before you can activate it again.

Compared to the previous gimmicks though, Tera Types actually make battles a lot more skillful. Since transforming gives nearly every Pokémon a new type, it gives both you and your opponent new avenues for counterplay and mind games. 

For example, the Pokémon Sudowoodo — famously a Rock-type that looks like a Grass-type — can actually become a real Grass-type once it transforms, meaning you’ll need an entirely new strategy to beat it.

Terastallizing also looks beautiful, and is one of the few places where Scarlet and Violet resemble impressive next-generation games.

Character customization is more open than ever

Since Pokémon X and Y, one of my favorite parts of any Pokémon game has been dressing up my player character and customizing their look. I’m excited to say that character customization is easier and deeper in Scarlet and Violet than ever before.

Like previous games, you can still buy new clothes for your character at shops. But now you can change your character’s clothes, eye color, hairstyle, and more at any time, even while traveling.

There aren’t any clothes or hairstyles that are exclusive to one gender anymore. Although you can start the game with a preset appearance that makes you look like a boy or girl, the underlying character models are exactly the same, so you can make your character look however you want.

It reminds me of how character customization works in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where there’s a focus on style instead of gender. It’s a fantastic change to the series.

Auto Battles are disappointingly half-baked

New to the series is the “Let’s Go!” feature, which lets you send out your Pokémon to collect items and battle wild Pokémon without your control. When your Pokémon independently battles another, it’s called an Auto Battle.

Sending your Pokémon out to Auto Battle while traveling is a decent way to earn items and EXP without doing much work. Where the feature falls apart, though, are the moments when you’re forced to do it.

When you infiltrate a Team Star base, you’re told that you have 10 minutes to defeat 30 Pokémon, and only then can you face the gang leader. This seems exciting at first, until you realize that you have to defeat those 30 Pokémon entirely through Auto Battles.

What follows is three minutes of standing around as your Pokémon do all the fighting for you without any real interaction. And since the Auto Battles are barely animated — your Pokémon essentially just growl at the others to beat them, and that’s it — watching the fights play out isn’t interesting.

As you move through the game, and Pokémon evolve to get bigger and stronger, Auto Battles might become more fun. But during the demo, I just found them boring and hard to follow.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet: Performance

In the leadup to Pokémon Sword and Shield in 2019, Nintendo and Game Freak received a lot of criticism for the games’ simplistic graphics, animations, and performance. Although three years have passed, I’m afraid to report that not much has changed.

The games struggle to run smoothly

My Pokémon Scarlet demo didn’t play well. The game runs at a native 60 frames per second, but regularly dips down to 30 or even lower. Textures on flowers and buildings don’t appear until you’re a few steps away. And sprinting through Paldea on your Ride Pokémon’s back can feel slow and sluggish as the game races to load every new area.

In one section of the demo, I was tasked with finding 10 missing Pokémon. I couldn’t help but cringe as my character ran at 60 FPS, but the Pokémon and NPCs around me slid along at what looked to be only about 10 FPS.

There are also some pretty noticeable load times when you’re switching Pokémon in battle or trying to view their summaries. 

To top things off, I played the demo alongside three other people, and we ended our session by teaming up for a multiplayer Tera Raid Battle. The Raid Battle ran smoothly — until the very end, when three of our four games crashed to a blank white screen.

I genuinely hope that these issues are exclusive to the demo, and won’t appear in the final release.

The animations are barebone

It’s a new generation, but Pokémon battles haven’t changed. The opposing Pokémon still never touch, and moves are still just basic particle effects. It’s disappointing that Game Freak can’t make battles look as dynamic as they did in Pokémon Battle Revolution, a game that came out 15 years ago.

One fun change, though: You can now freely move the camera during Pokémon battles, giving you a 360º view of the action.

When it comes to the human characters, there’s still no voice acting, which is fine. But most conversations are still just two characters staring blankly ahead, flapping their lips and occasionally moving their hands.

The new artstyle doesn’t help much. Scarlet and Violet’s graphics aren’t as anime-esque as previous entries, and everything has a plastic sheen on it, giving some characters an unsettling half-Pixar half-Uncanny Valley appearance.

Insider’s takeaway

Among hardcore Pokémon fans, Scarlet and Violet are clearly going to be controversial. They present a radical change to the typical Pokémon formula, which fans aren’t always open to. And the performance issues — if they last — won’t make anyone happy either.

But in my eyes, these might be the most accessible Pokémon games ever. No matter what kind of player you are, you’ll find something in Scarlet and Violet that piques your interest. Taking on all the gyms, exploring the map to find every Pokémon, racing to see how fast you can finish the game — it all feels equally important. There’s no right or wrong way to play.

I hope that Game Freak takes time to iron out the framerate drops and glitches. Do that, and Scarlet and Violet have the chance to be top-tier Pokémon games.

Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet will release on the Nintendo Switch on November 18, 2022. Each game will cost about $60, and you can buy both together in a bundle pack for $120.

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