Thursday, July 13, 2023

Review [Video Game]: Pokémon Violet by Game Freak

Like stale meat between two fresh slices of bread.

The highly anticipated Pokémon Violet launched to middling reviews last November (and is the reason I’ve waited until now to play it). With performance issues galore, the game showered the Internet with memes for over a month. Performance issues aside, Pokémon Violet suffers from one of the worst things a video game series can do: remain stagnant. Last year’s Pokémon Legends Arceus offered a flawed glimmer of hope for the future of the series. While some of the mechanics from Legends Arceus carry over here, something is amiss. Despite the new additions, Pokémon Violet is a clear example of a franchise without much competition.

The opening scene of Pokémon Violet introduces the player to Paldea, a sprawling open world consisting of many different biomes with many Pokémon to capture and trainers to battle. At first glance, this is exactly what fans—myself included—have been asking for. An open-ended adventure that allows players to be the kind of trainer that they desire with the ability to go where they want and when they want. In some ways, Violet excels, while in others it nosedives.

Like many other bigger open worlds, players slowly gain the ability to traverse more terrain as they progress through the game. This can be done by following Arven’s quest line. A new mechanic introduced in Violet/Scarlet sees the player obtain the box legendary from the outset, but only in the form of a vehicle (sorry, no easy powerful legendary for you). Exploration of the world is often satisfying, not entrancing. The game often looks bland and uninspiring; a step above Legends Arceus, but not a steep one. With frequent texture pop-ins, the game world can be a letdown to explore. Pokémon frequently appear out of nowhere—breaking immersion, and people in the distance walk with LOD animations, making them look like jerky robots until you get up close. For being the world’s number one entertainment franchise, this is unacceptable.

One of my favorite additions to Legends Arceus was the ability to stealthily sneak up on an unsuspecting Pokémon and throw a ball to catch it. This often ignored the necessity to engage in battle when I simply wanted to catch a wild ‘mon. But alas, Violet and Scarlet did not include this amazing feature. Instead, they've added the ability to send your Pokémon out to do battle with other wild monsters (without engaging the battle screen) and gather any items it finds along the way. While I loved this feature it was sometimes unresponsive. The player is also given the ability to lock on to a specific wild Pokémon so that they could throw a ball and engage in battle. Unfortunately, I found the lock-on mechanic to be a bit unresponsive as well, so I barely used it.

The combat is trite and, like the world itself, uninspiring. In this game, they introduced a new mechanic called terastallization (talk about a mouth full). This allows a Pokémon with the ability to change their type to their Terra type and increase the damage output of said type. The game makes you sit through a small animation every single time that you want to use this ability. It provides a decent boost, but considering the game isn’t that challenging, I found it more satisfying to ignore the mechanic altogether so I could avoid the cutscene. With no option to skip certain cutscenes (catching a Pokémon, terastallizing, loading into a raid, raid catching, etc.), I found myself frequently sighing when going to use certain mechanics or load up a raid. There was an option to skip all cutscenes, but that would include anything related to the story as well. A massive oversight that I’m not sure would have solved my problem.

Battling is the same as ever. Each Pokémon has access to four moves at any given time, though now they can thankfully relearn things from the main menu instead of having to go to a specific location. Regardless, Pokémon's battle system is outdated. While I wouldn't expect a complete overhaul of an established franchise, some fresh and exciting additions would be nice (and no, terastallizing isn’t the answer). Persona 5 has proven that turn-based combat can introduce a bit of exciting flair to an age-old system. Pokémon relies on type matchups; fire beats grass, grass beats water, water beats fire, etc. Once you’ve learned type matchups, there is no challenge you can’t beat. The game’s combat is straightforward and I couldn't wait to be out of the battle screen.

Leveling up is also straightforward; beat wild Pokémon/trainers and get experience. Leveling up is very easy, but the game’s open-world structure is unbalanced. Back in the day, Pokémon gyms used to be a challenge. By restricting how far trainers could level their Pokémon (before they would start to disobey you), players would generally stop training and try to get to the next gym and challenge them so that they could increase their Pokémon’s obedience level. For some reason, Violet doesn't do this. You can go anywhere and level up as much as you want. Then, when I’d go to battle a boss, I demolished them. Instead of making each gym’s power reflect the order in which you visit them, they have a specific structure that the game doesn't tell you about. By the time I got to the last gym leader, all their Pokémon were under level twenty while mine were over level seventy.

The new Pokémon designs are mostly great. I loved the starters, though not necessarily all of their evolutions. It was nice to build a team of some of my favorites with a few cool newcomers. I just wish the legendary scene was a bit stronger here. It’s possible that if the game had a stronger incentive, I would have removed all the stakes and chased the additional legendary Pokémon, but as is, I had no desire to catch them all after the credits rolled. Gone are the days where I would chase Suicune from one area to another just for a chance to catch them.

While I love trouncing enemies and feeling like an amazing Pokémon trainer, the journey is poorly written. Violet attempts to replicate some aspects of the Persona series, but only in a very lazy and spiritless way. The academy (of which the player is a student) has classes that can be attended, but they are optional. You can grow closer to academy staff but it has no impact on, well, anything. Three types of badges can be obtained; the standard gym badges, Arven’s quest badges, and Team Star base battle badges. This adds a little diversity to the gameplay but feels like more of an addition for addition’s sake and not a meaningful expansion of what the series could be.

Speaking of Team Star, the writing is an absolute joke. The developers have forgotten that the player base consists mostly of people between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. While I do not expect the game to have a very mature story, past Pokémon games have proven that more complex subjects can be explored (Black and White). The entire game—but especially the Team Star quest line—feels like a patronizing joke. A game that was written exclusively for seven-year-olds.

Negative tones cover most of this review, but the game works well despite some performance issues. Filling the Pokedex is an enjoyable experience and exploring can be rewarding at times. But considering this series sells so well, it’s a shame that Game Freak couldn't evolve the series in a more satisfying way, one that appeals to both new, younger players and classic players as well. With many issues adding up to huge annoyances, Pokémon Violet feels like a misfire. But, it sold over twenty-two million copies and has no direct competition, so I don’t see any huge gameplay evolutions incoming. Though the open world and a few mechanics bring some fresh concepts to a mainline Pokémon game, it is bogged down by trite combat design, unskippable gameplay cutscenes, geometry that you can get stuck on, and a story written specifically for children. If this game were a sandwich, it would be like stale meat between two fresh pieces of bread. Hopefully, Game Freak’s next entry uses more fresh ingredients.


The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for being able to send Pokémon out to explore. +1 for new Pokémon designs.

Penalties: -1 for awful writing. -1 for unskippable gameplay cutscenes. -1 for boring combat.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.