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Pokémon Scarlet (Switch) artwork

Pokémon Scarlet (Switch) review

"An imperfect Pokémon game can still be a (somewhat) beautiful thing..."

Stay a while and listen... to this review. Audio generated by AWS (Joanna voice) with No Ads.

There’s not much chance we’ll look back in a few years and regard Pokémon Scarlet as a series high mark. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I have to say: I enjoyed myself quite a lot over the dozens of hours I spent playing it.

Released in late 2022, Pokémon Scarlet immediately inspired predictable comments about how Game Freak’s developers are unforgivably lazy. Such critiques follow every new Pokémon release, it seems. The texture work isn’t quite up to par, critics claim. Or a favorite monster (out of the many hundreds now in existence) didn’t make the cut. Or the draw distance isn’t terrific. Or someone found some glitches. Maybe there’s even too much water?

My issue with such complaints isn’t necessarily that they’re false; it’s that they so rarely matter in the grand scheme of things.

As someone who doesn’t play Pokémon games as religiously as the super fans who buy each new installment on launch day and then proceed to bash the developers with unrivalled passion, and as a gamer who owns all the current consoles and recognizes that the Switch hardware suffers from some regrettable technical limitations, I tend to take such complaints with a grain of salt. Maybe the issues they reference will prove relevant to my own time with the game. Maybe they won’t. I won’t really know until I play for myself. That’s true of games in any franchise, but it’s especially true of Pokémon games.

This is the point in the review where I admit that the last time I spent more than a few minutes playing or even closely watching someone else play a Pokémon game before Pokémon Scarlet, that game was Pokémon Sun for the 3DS. I enjoyed its relaxing island vibe and the low-stakes plot enough that I resolved to give another Pokémon game a shot in the very near future. But I’m good at lying to myself, and so here we are.

Pokémon Scarlet begins like every Pokémon game I can recall ever playing. You start by choosing your name and your trainer. Then you appear in your house and it’s not long before you have embarked on a quest to catch all of the Pokémon in the region, with one of three possible starter monsters at your side. You embark on your quest with cheerful consent from your parental figure, who seems entirely unconcerned that you might get into the sort of scrapes a person tends to get into while saving the world. Maybe your mother is right not to worry just this once. After all, you’ll be attending a prestigious academy, and the headmaster visited your house personally to make sure all is well. Even Dumbledore didn’t do that much!

All is not well, however. Evil is clearly afoot. And so, you must train your favorite critters so they can survive battles not only with rival trainers and experienced gym masters, but with thuggish groups of students who decided the academy life was not for them. You deal with all of this on your way to a forbidden zone where only the most powerful and dastardly of foes can thrive. Fortunately, you have a special mount that eventually gains the ability to glide through the air, race across water, and even tool across rolling hills like a motorcycle. He’s really quite nifty.

The unusually capable mount is actually one of my favorite things about Pokémon Scarlet, because he makes it possible to explore every corner of the island region of Paldea. You just have to find the right upgrades. Before you know it, you’ll be doing a good job of mimicking Link from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, exploring every surface in evidence. It’s exhilarating, and I can only imagine how much more I might have loved all of it if I had encountered it while still a child not yet into my teens (the audience for which this game was clearly designed, even though we all know plenty of adults like me who will happily devote hours of their lives to such games).

Paldea feels enormous at first. It comes to feel smaller over time, despite the numerous city, mountain, forest, and prairie environments you’ll eventually explore. Fast travel is available if you’re in a hurry, but I have the best time just exploring without any particular objective in mind. There aren’t any load times that way, and I can soak in the beauty of it all. Helpfully, players don’t even have to worry about running into a lot of Pokémon critters that will interrupt their romp, since they’re all visible on the map. Some of them will give chase if they spot you, or they’ll hide in grass so that you run into them when you’re not paying attention, but random encounters are essentially a non-issue. I didn’t mind them in older games, honestly, but I was surprised to find how much I appreciated their absence here.

Since Paldea is a big, lively place, there were bound to be technical concessions made. Draw distance isn’t amazing, for one thing, though I found it generally sufficient. There are a lot of enemies almost everywhere you turn, and this tends to lead to a bit of stuttering (at least in my experience) if you like to swing the camera around a lot. Stuttering and slowdown occur periodically in town environments, as well. The villagers walk with awkward animations that I finally chose to ignore. Texture work is not impressive in most locations. This is particularly true of regions in the northeast, which are supposed to look like jungles but feature blurry, poorly detailed earth with generic vines and bamboo that wouldn’t look out of place in an especially good PS2 game.

At launch, Pokémon Scarlet’s critics also made a huge deal of its glitches, which apparently were numerous. I didn’t play the game until a few weeks after it hit stores, by which point a lot of the early rough spots must have been patched away. I spent dozens of hours playing through it and didn’t encounter a single glitch, but that’s consistent with my luck: I very rarely encounter glitches in games (aside from my tendency to fall through the map in some games), and yet I know folks who can’t seem to rotate the camera in the latest open world outing without everything falling apart. I’ve seen videos depicting disappearing mounts and bizarre animation sequences that make Pokémon Scarlet seem like an absolute trainwreck. The argument is always some variation of, “When a franchise makes as much money as Pokémon does, we shouldn’t have to deal with bugs and glitches.” I’m not sure I completely agree, given how complicated games have gotten, but I understand the perspective.

So no, Pokémon Scarlet isn’t perfect, or even within spitting distance of perfect. I hope I’ve made that clear. It doesn’t offer a gargantuan world, but Paldea is big and wondrous enough that I enjoy visiting. The landscape isn’t littered with tiny details, and there aren’t intricate systems at play like you’d see in Elden Ring or the latest Ubisoft release, but there’s still plenty to do and see. It’s not going to be remembered as one of the prettiest games of this era, and it doesn’t trump other Nintendo-published fare that clearly inspired its design, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but few games do.

I forgive Pokémon Scarlet for those flaws and others too minor to mention, however, because the fact remains that I had a lot of fun playing it. That end result is always going to be what I care about most. I can picture myself returning to it 5 years from now, perhaps even after a superior new Pokémon installment arrives, and still enjoying myself. Pokémon Scarlet is not likely to change how anyone feels about the franchise, or about its developer, or much of anything else. But it’s a good game that offers dozens of hours of enjoyment. That feels like enough to me.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 04, 2023)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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jason posted April 04, 2023:

Hey Jason, thanks for sharing! I'm glad to hear you had fun with this installment of Pokémon!

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