You’ll spend the first 20 minutes or so of Pokémon Violet slowly scrolling through an onslaught of unskippable text boxes, before eventually selecting a starter Pokémon and completing your first battle. It’s then that you’ll be rewarded by a Professor Oak stand-in who delivers a line of dialogue that essentially serves as the game’s thesis statement. After you learn from one of his students that there’s a downloadable Pokédex app that you can use to catalog everything in the game’s world, Director Clavell says, “No matter how much times have changed, the wonder of meeting new Pokémon never does. That truly is a timeless pleasure.”
While this proclamation is somewhat self-congratulatory, seemingly acknowledging how averse to change the Pokémon franchise is as a whole, it also gets to the heart of why people continue to invest their time and energy into what amounts to slightly different variations of the same JRPG year after year. Say what you will about the rest of Pokémon Violet, a game that could be charitably characterized as rough around the edges, its now decades-old central mechanics hold up surprisingly well considering how rudimentary they first appear.
Encountering a plethora of new Pokémon, each with their unique quirks and characteristics, and trying to “catch ‘em all” after lowering their health in a turn-based battle is an engrossing process that helps to flesh out the latest region of the Pokémon extended universe that we get to traverse. They usually function as extensions of the environments where they’re located, from the Bug and Grass varieties found in forests to the Water types in beach areas. Some Pokémon can evolve into stronger, more imposing versions of themselves after reaching a certain level, and others, like the bipedal pink sloth Slowking, require a little extra leg work to get there, such as needing a Slowpoke to be holding a King’s Rock while being traded with another trainer.
The battles themselves, which regularly amount to repeatedly spamming whichever special attacks the opposing Pokémon is most susceptible to, are fun in a fairly elemental way, even if they occasionally allow for too much dead air. Say that your Quaxly gets shocked by a wild Raichu, a text box informs you of the electrocution, followed by quick animation of electricity floating through Quaxly, then another text box telling you that its taken damage, and, then, after what feels like a small lifetime, your Quaxly’s health is finally lowered. A more sensible game would have all of these actions occur simultaneously or in rapid succession, but Pokémon Violet seems almost content to stretch what could have been seconds into countless hours.
The developers at Game Freak know and understand that, no matter what else surrounds it, this basic formula will always remain a rock-solid foundation around which a good game can be built. However, outside of a basic pre-established framework that’s succeeded before and, for the most part, does here, Pokémon Violet has little else going for it. The game brings a few new ideas to the table to re-establish the series’s artistic relevance, but for a title that presents itself as a bold new step within a strict lineage heavily defined by its adherence to tradition, the overall results are too lackluster to ever meet those lofty ambitions.
Just about every Pokémon game up to this point has followed a relatively straightforward path, as well as offered a similar set of objectives: Travel to different predestined cities to beat different Gym Leaders, catch a lot of Pokémon in the interim, then go on to challenge and defeat the Elite Four to become a World Champion. Pokémon Violet, like the simultaneously released Pokémon Scarlet, seeks to shake things up by letting players choose which Gyms they want to go to in whichever order they see fit, permitting them to tackle the game’s major challenges at their own pace and which types of Pokémon they may be interested in catching at the time. Like just about every other legacy gaming franchise these days, Pokémon has gone open world.
This approach, though, indirectly reinforces the series’s penchant for linearity, as the overworld around you doesn’t level scale in accordance to wherever your Pokémon are at in the game. Enemies you face in initially accessible regions will remain at levels six and seven when you show up later, making it seem as if you’re unlocking sections of the map whenever you’re finally able to successfully venture out into uncharted territory and not get instantly killed by one attack. While encouraging players not to dilly-dally around for too long in one location is pretty much a standard in most JRPGs in order to keep the plot moving, it’s a strategy that doesn’t work in this specific context. A lot of the time, you battle enemies so severely underpowered that their presence becomes more of a mild inconvenience than an actual threat.
For example, due to the game’s loose structure, it’s entirely possible that you can defeat a few Gym Leaders in a row before coming across one that you’re easily 10 levels ahead of. Say that you start with Brassius, whose Pokémon hover around level 16, and then take on Iono, who’s seemingly next in line (level 24), followed by Kofu (level 29), but then decide to go after Katy, you’ll end up easily dwarfing her level-15 Bug types by that point in the game, deflating any tension that the showdown should have produced because you chose to fight her further down the line. But since the end goal is still always going to be the same regardless of which Gym Badge you acquire first, this choose-your-own-adventure style progression system registers as far less revolutionary than the game wants you to believe.
Regardless, what nearly sinks Pokémon Violet in the end isn’t any pretense of player freedom. Rather, it’s the game’s glaring technical issues, as this is easily one of the sloppiest-looking triple AAA titles in recent memory. Textures are crudely and lifelessly rendered in what feels like real time; environmental animations regularly dip down to 12 FPS as opposed to 30; and the open world itself is sparsely populated with wild Pokémon, a few nonspecific trainers, and what seems like a never-ending supply chain of healing items, rendering the game’s currency worthless in the process. Things look generally okay whenever your character is indoors, but, unfortunately, that accounts for about three percent of your total playtime.
It’s astonishing how a game as clearly unpolished as this could be allowed onto the market, especially once you consider that it’s representing a media franchise that’s made approximately 92 billion dollars to date. (The easy answer is that this is yet another example of a major release being rushed out to meet an approaching holiday deadline, where quality greatly suffers in the name of convenience, but that’s a story for another time.) If players choose to squint their eyes and push on through—and, hopefully, don’t clip into the ground or encounter any game-breaking glitches that will force them to restart their save file—then that old Pokémon charm might still be an adequate reason to give Pokémon Violet a pass. But before the franchise can ever truly hope to redefine itself in the future, Game Freak desperately needs to iron out the issues that are currently holding Pokémon back by at least two console generations.
This game was reviewed with code provided by Golin.