After what feels like ages it has all come down to this one moment. A sudden rustle in the bushes on the hill and I can feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins like molten magma. I see it. Approaching from the grass, carefully placing one pink hoof in front of the other. Its eyes are fixed on me, pupils dark and empty like the void. I grab my Pokéball firmly before I wind up my throwing arm and send it flying like Babe Ruth directly into the face of terror. The creature lets out a little "oink", and a few shaky moments later it is done. I am now the proud trainer of the myth. The legend. The Lechonk. My own little chubby bacon-factory. Together we will be unstoppable.
Not everything is hakuna matata in the world of Pokémon Scarlet/Violet, but moments like these are still pocket monster magic. Catching and training the weird little critters is the meat and potatoes of any Pokémon game, and that has not changed here. Indeed, very little has changed, and it has come to a point where it feels like we as players have unknowingly participated in some sort of social experiment of how long Pokémon games can go on without attempting to innovate, switch up the formula or even - and I know this is absolutely insane - try to impress visually.
Look, I know. Graphics are not everything, but come on. This is a Pokémon game launching in 2022. It should not look like this. The Nintendo Switch is not the most powerful console on the market, but it can run The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, so there is that. There is also the fact that Pokémon as a franchise is sitting on more money than Mickey Mouse, so a few bells and whistles visually is not asking too much. Despite the abysmal graphics, the framerate really struggles to keep up almost constantly. Panning the camera while running around is actually straining on the eyes, and often tears the game world itself by breaking or clipping textures. At times it felt like I was entering the Matrix as I was watching the region of Paldea descend into a chaotic programming madness.
That being said, pan the camera you must, as one of the few new features is the open world that can be explored at your leisure, much in the style of Pokémon Legends Arceus. Regardless of the graphics, the freedom to go pretty much wherever whenever was a liberating feeling to be having as I rode astride Koraidon, the half-lizard, half-motorcycle Pokémon that accompanies you on your journey. I do prefer Pokémon being integrated into the gameplay mechanics like this instead of giving us HMs or a bike, and Koraidon learns new traversal abilities as you go, increasing its usefulness. Also, Koraidon reminds me of Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon and if you do not feed him all of your sandwiches, you are a monster.
"But, Ruben!" I hear you cry. "We don't care about all that graphics, structure, and balancing stuff. Tell us about the Pokémon!" A fair request. As generations of Pokémon go, the ninth is pretty sweet. There are hits and misses - as always - but the joy of discovering brand-new monsters is ever present. I still get excited when a fresh 'mon jumps out of the grass or one of my contemporary companions suddenly begins evolving.
Usually, I go for the fire type starter-wise, but that choice burned me badly back in generation six when I picked the flamebreathing fox Fennekin, which I affectionately named Mozilla. Imagine my disappointment when he evolved into a vulpine witch with a stick, while my friend's choice - water type Froakie - became a #%#%¤% shuriken-wielding shinobi. Let's just say I learned my lesson.
With new Pokémon and a new region, there of course has to be a new battle gimmick, as well. While Dynamaxing in the previous iteration was cool enough, this current one - Terastallizing - is pretty lacklustre. It can only be used once between visits to the Pokécenter, and it empowers your Pokémon's moves by letting them wear a dumb crystal hat in the shape of everything from a chandelier to a water fountain. It looks about as stupid as it sounds. Please, for the love of Arceus, just bring back Mega Evolution, already. We do not need a new crazy thing to enrich the battle system every time.
What we do need is a battle system that has been updated to modern times. I can not believe how slow the battle system still is. It felt like a step in the right direction when Pokémon Legends Arceus introduced more dynamic battles where you were still in control of your character, running around as you shouted commands to your pocket monster mid-fight. Now, it feels like a step back again. When you enter a battle in Scarlet & Violet, you are redirected to another screen separate from the one in free roam. Here you can - wait for it - rotate the camera on a fixed sphere. Other than that, it is the same as always. "Quaxly used tackle!" Insert the same tackle-animation we have seen for years which is basically a little firework display on the opposing Pokémon. Using items, switching Pokémon - it all feels incredibly slow and janky.
Yes. You can take selfies. And yes. It is awesome.
Good luck trying to get your little beasties to line up for the shot, though. The mechanic, much like most of the game, feels clunky and unrefined. Why, Game Freak? Why do you refuse to make your games at least functional to look at? The transition from free roam to battle should be seamless, not explicitly freezing the game, making Koraidon go poof! out of the picture, switching frame to my character who is still locked in a weird position because his animation has not loaded - oh, there he goes and bam! Another hard cut to my opponent who apparently is still figuring out his lines, come on buddy, you can do it, aaand there it is, it is battle time!
It is not smooth, it is not seamless, and it is definitely not up to par when you compare it with other modern turn-based systems.
Another thing that should be included at this point is actual voice work. It has been charming for years, but the endless dialogue when not even accompanied by a soundtrack is now getting really old. It goes on and on in dead silence, only interrupted by the loud "PLING!" every time I press A. It is so jarring to be in this dialogue situation and then have the NPC suddenly start clapping, the thunderous roar of his palms slapping together being the only noise in the entirety of Paldea.
In the end, nothing has really changed in the world of Pokémon. This means that I reluctantly have to admit that I had a great time in Paldea, despite Game Freak's unwillingness to modernise the formula of Pokémon. I still love it, but with each iteration it gets more and more frustrating. Playing almost any other modern game out there amplifies that level of annoyance, because it just shows how far behind the rest of the pack Game Freak really is.
I have a dream of a Pokémon-game. An open, living world full of wonder and genuine excitement, where you can dynamically meet other players to battle, trade and explore together - and it actually looks GOOD. For now, I guess character models that turn into Tetris-blocks as soon as you move ten metres away from them will have to do.
The fabric of the world of Pokémon Scarlet/Violet is seemingly held together by loose duct tape and cheap glue, but for now it is holding.