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Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Might Be the Wrong Approach to Open-World Pokémon

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet three story adventures lack identity at Game Freak on Nintendo Switch, lack focus and do not fit open world

Released earlier this year, Pokémon Legends: Arceus finally delivered the sort of franchise evolution fans had been waiting more than a decade for. It experimented with many new ideas and concepts that 2019’s Sword and Shield had not. Now, the latest entries in the series, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, appear to be carrying on several of those ideas. Yet the more that I learn about Scarlet and Violet, including from the most recent trailer, the more that I fear that they don’t have a clear identity of their own. Based on what we know so far, I can’t help but feel that Game Freak is taking a kitchen sink approach to Scarlet and Violet and not taking any legitimate feedback about what fans liked about Arceus.

We’ve known for a while now that Scarlet and Violet will focus on three different storylines, officially being framed in the latest trailer as, “Go where you want, and do what it is you really wanna do the most!” However, these three storylines seem to be competing against one another instead of complementing each other. One storyline, Victory Road, has you competing in Gym battles per franchise tradition, but the two other storylines feel separated from one another. The Path of Legends storyline has you teaming up with an NPC to explore the open world and defeat Titan Pokémon to find a mystical herb, and Starfall Street has what appears to be you traveling to the mischievous Team Star’s bases and defeating them.

Looked at from a distance, it all seems a bit overstuffed. You have your typical Pokémon adventure of assembling a team to become the champion, mixed in with open-world exploration searching for unique boss Pokémon, as well as arena challenges against the evil team of the generation, while also having a new gimmick in the form of Terastal Pokémon that is bound to play into some or all of these stories. In theory, I enjoy the concept of having you decide which adventure you want to focus on, but there’s a legitimate risk that one of the three will ultimately overshadow the other two as the “real” main story. No matter how much they may say that the adventure is yours to create, the credits have to roll at some point, and it’s going to have to be at the end of one of these quests.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet three story adventures lack identity at Game Freak on Nintendo Switch, lack focus and do not fit open world

This haphazard approach also has the potential for the game to feel directionless if you’re constantly bouncing between multiple main quests vying for your attention. For the most part, open-world games do benefit from having a singular direction or goal for you to achieve. Take The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When you start that game, you’re given an obvious and simple goal: defeat Calamity Ganon and restore Hyrule. You can approach that goal however you see fit, but no matter what you do or how many sidequests you undertake, the game can only end by defeating Calamity Ganon. I feel that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is somewhat framing itself as a sandbox game where you can go anywhere and do what you want, but you’re not given a variety of tools to play with.

Ultimately, this new direction comes across more as set dressing in that it doesn’t change the core gameplay of the series. It’s still a Pokémon game where you assemble a team and fight against other Pokémon, catch them, and use them to battle other Pokémon. All that the three storylines do is trade in the motivation and the why. Why are you collecting Pokémon and battling? It doesn’t matter if it’s to find a rare plant, become the champion, or stop the bad guys. Regardless, you’re still going to do the same thing to reach all three of these goals — catch monsters, train them, and have them fight other monsters. Looking at it like that, are the three unique storylines going to be enough to motivate fans to complete all of them? Or are they just going to seem like content to be checked off on a list like in most other open-world games?

We’ve seen evidence that an open-world Pokémon game can work. Pokémon Legends: Arceus successfully transitioned the Pokémon series into an open-world game (though it was technically divided into zones) because the gameplay evolved beyond just fighting monsters. The game was centered on exploring the world and learning more about Pokémon by completing the Pokédex. Even though there is a secondary plot, the game still limits your progression by how much you filled out the Pokédex and progressed in the main quest. You haven’t truly completed the game until you have done so.

How you go about completing the dex can involve traditional battling, but the game pushes you to search your environment for new Pokémon with an emphasis on catching different amounts, sizes, and genders, in addition to feeding them and engaging in sidequests. By shifting the focus away from combat to exploration, Arceus justified the shift to an open-world structure as its new purpose fits the needs of the genre.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet may not have learned that lesson. The biggest lesson, if any, that Game Freak took from the success of Arceus appears to be that people liked an open-world Pokémon game. Granted, they probably didn’t learn any major lessons from that game as Scarlet and Violet were almost certainly too far into development to adopt any major feedback from Arceus, but they probably hedged their bets on fans liking the concept of a truly open-world entry in the franchise. After all, Sword and Shield faced criticism for not going far enough with its open-world area, so they decided to make that the major selling point of the next mainline entry.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet three story adventures lack identity at Game Freak on Nintendo Switch, lack focus and do not fit open world

But what Game Freak did here doesn’t look like the breath of fresh air that Arceus was. It just looks like the developers transplanted a traditional Pokémon game entirely into an open world without adjusting it to the unique characteristics of the open-world genre. Arceus withheld a lot of information leading up to its launch, which led to a lot of speculation and fan satisfaction in discovering the intricacies of the Hisui region for themselves. It felt like a truly open-world Pokémon game, while the publicity for Scarlet and Violet is framing it as a Pokémon game in an open world, which is an important distinction.

When I look at the trailers for Scarlet and Violet, I don’t see the next big evolution in the Pokémon series. Instead, I see a game that is trying to do everything that fans want but not creating a unique identity of its own. Sword and Shield may not have been the evolution that fans were looking for, but they at least stayed true to being a traditional Pokémon game. This latest generation looks like it’s trying to combine random elements from the franchise dating back to 2016 and mixing them all into something that resembles progress but isn’t actually progressive. Time will tell if the developers are able to make it all blend together seamlessly or if it clashes with itself and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of fans.

About the author

Jesse Lab
Jesse Lab is a freelance writer for The Escapist and has been a part of the site since 2019. He currently writes the Frame Jump column, where he looks at and analyzes major anime releases. He also writes for the film website Jesse has been a gamer since he first played Pokémon Snap on the N64 and will talk to you at any time about RPGs, platformers, horror, and action games. He can also never stop talking about the latest movies and anime, so never be afraid to ask him about recommendations on what's in theaters and what new anime is airing each season.