Pokemon Scarlet & Violet’s Directionless Gameplay Is So Close To Getting It Right
New age open world games continue to vex me. You know, I used to be with it. Then they changed what ‘it’ was. It’ll happen to you! Now I want the kids to turn down that rockin’ rock music and just tell me where to go. Open world games were becoming stale and overstuffed with pointless quests and random quest markers, so Breath of the Wild blew the doors off by removing absolutely everything. A winner with some, I found the game’s appliance of this feature to be irritating, especially as quests would frequently fling you across the map to force you to enjoy the vast emptiness. Elden Ring followed this trend, but the experience was marred by arcane lore and a steep difficulty spike. Finally, Sonic Frontiers used the ‘go anywhere’ formula to always pepper the map with some entertainment, trusting you to stumble onto the right path eventually. Now Pokemon Scarlet & Violet is getting in on the mix, and it’s so close to getting it right.
While Pokemon does indeed allow you to ‘go anywhere’, there’s still a clear indicator of where exactly you need to go. The school sits at the middle of the map slightly to the south, and it’s obvious (from hints given by NPCs and from just a few minutes of gameplay) that tougher challenges lie further north. Much like trying to get funds from a Tory government, it becomes more difficult the further north you ascend. Nobody sits you down and physically explains this exact phenomenon (a rarity in Pokemon), but it’s a simple concept to understand, and this is the biggest strength of Pokemon’s exploration.
Of course, it’s not as straightforward in its execution, but the game provides you with tools to tackle it however you like. Grass and Water gyms are early fodder, but as I’m trying to build a Grass-only team, Water is significantly easier for me personally, whereas I need to overlevel and Terrastalise tactically to tackle Grass. Knowing Bounsweet (and therefore Tsareena) could be found early, I also spent too much time looking for my ideal team rather than training them, so I’m a little behind the curve anyway.
This is all part of the challenge. Pokemon is a very easy game, and this challenge I have set myself is supposed to offer, if not a hard mode, then at least a medium mode. I can hardly do it and then complain by starting with a Grass gym before I’ve evolved my team into dual-types and collected a range of Tera types – after all, I don’t need to do it. There’s nothing stopping me from leaving the Grass gym until last. As there’s no level scaling, I can return with an army of level 60 dual-type plant beasts and eviscerate the Grass gym’s meagre line-up. There’s a freedom unlike any Pokemon game ever, and while ‘go anywhere’ threw me off Breath of the Wild eventually, I love Pokemon’s interpretation of it. I just wish it were true.
Pokemon’s map is really very bad. I could think of a more sophisticated way of expressing my displeasure at Scarlet & Violet’s navigation, but they haven’t tried so why should I? It’s populated by the locations of the three main questlines, as well as Tera locations marked by Tera type. You can plant a flag down, and the game will set that as your marker on the compass at the top. All very standard stuff. The problem is the execution is terrible. You can zoom out on the map, but must be zoomed almost fully in before you can place down a marker, at which point everything becomes far more congested.
Far too many of the paths are winding and inaccessible too. I know from the trailers Koraidon will be able to climb them eventually, but for all the clutter of the map, they’re often lacking in essential detail, with pathways covered by sprouting bushes or trees. There’s no way to know if an open road or a deadend hides behind this blur of green until you arrive. There are also so many minor events early on that you never get pushed to go off and do anything. Some hint as to what level we should be, or any indication other than a marker’s northness might be useful. While it’s enjoyable to be plonked down to just do anything, the lack of level scaling means there’s still a deliberate order to it all, and hitting challenges too early or too late punishes you for enjoying this freedom.
‘Go anywhere and do anything’ is the best philosophy for Pokemon to adopt, but in Scarlet & Violet, there’s a failure to commit paired with a botched execution. With so many bugs and wonky moments in the game, it feels rushed, and that shows in the lack of consideration in your exploration. Breath of the Wild, despite my lack of love for it, was curated to lead you through rewarding pathways to choreographed moments that gave you a feeling of freedom. Pokemon is closer to true freedom, but in doing this it offers a complete lack of control and large parts of the game feel aimless. I don’t mind going anywhere, but until the game is able to provide that and make it feel like an immersive and earned adventure, I’m never going to want to go anywhere at all.
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