New Paths: Pokemon Violet

I’ve been a Pokémon fan since before the very first game launched in the US, and I have to say that playing Pokémon Violet is some of the most fun I’ve ever had with the franchise. Yes, I know about the glitches and lack of polish. I got stuck in a black void inside my own house right at the start of the game, and I’ve taken note of the wonky physics. But even though I’ve finished the main game, I still keep jumping in.

Similar to Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are open-world games, meaning that they emphasize freely exploring the environment without forcing you into a certain order of doing things. This is both a plus and minus, personally: I have felt that newer Pokémon games are a little too on-rails, and this is a way to break with that trend, but I’m rather directionally challenged both in real life and in games. Luckily, they’ve added things that make the world feel pretty navigable even for someone like me. One key concept shared with Legends: Arceus is to have a ridable Pokémon that replaces the idea of key TMs or HMs to traverse unusual terrain—a definitely welcome change.

The new region, Paldea, is based on Spain. Here, you enter a Pokémon school that places heavy emphasis on both searching for and pursuing your dreams. To that end, there are three separate but overlapping storylines that each emphasize somewhat different views of what it means to thrive in the world: Victory Road, Path of Legends, and Starfall Street. Their stories progress in compelling ways, involve meeting great new characters, and even act somewhat as tutorials to help you develop certain skills. 

Victory Road feels the most refined, being the most tried-and-true part of Pokemon singleplayer. It’s the familiar acquiring of gym badges in order to fight against the Elite Four and become a champion, but it also manifests in cultural aspects of Paldea that result in a unique experience. Whereas Gym Leaders in other games dedicate their lives to running their gyms, it’s more of a side job here. Paldean Gym Leaders include a baker, a streamer, an office worker, a rapper, a sushi chef, and so on. Gym battles take place outdoors—perhaps as a way to not have to model interiors, but it nevertheless adds to the feel that Paldea isn’t like other regions. 

Adding to this is maybe the most fun rival to ever appear in Pokémon. Nemona is a fellow student, but she’s already a Champion-rank trainer by the time you meet her. Rather than growing alongside you, she guides you to become stronger, all because she loves Pokémon battles so much that she’ll seize any opportunity to have a great match. Players online have compared her to Goku from Dragon Ball, and it’s quite apt.

The storylines in Path of Legends (where you pursue titanic Pokemon) and Starfall Street (where you fight against school delinquents who comprise the latest nefarious organization, Team Star) have really engaging plots full of interesting developments. I found my view of certain characters evolve over time, and they provide both some of the most heartfelt moments and some of the funniest gags I’ve ever experienced in Pokémon. One downside is that I think the gameplay elements they each emphasize could have been done in somewhat more exciting ways. The Titan Pokémon could feel more titanic, and there really isn’t much to the battle system used for taking down Team Star. They’re more good than bad, though.

Playing through all three paths is very rewarding, not only because it opens up new branches and brings the overall plot together, but also because they collectively convey the richness of Paldea. The region seems to move at a characteristic pace (at its Own Tempo, one could say) that is about loving life and enjoying good food, while the blossoming of aspirations, the learning of mythology, and the reassessment of assumptions create a feeling that this is a robust world with lots of history and personality.

As for the Pokémon themselves, appealing to those who prefer a more classic look and those looking for more bizarre designs. Nothing is as off-the-wall as the Ultra Beasts of Pokemon Sun and Moon, but they expand the series’s universe in interesting ways. One quirky thing is the abundance of Pokémon based on food, whether it’s Fidough the dog bread dog, Garganacl the living salt golem, or Scovillain the two-headed pepper plant, culinary creatures are a norm. The game also has a feature where you can make sandwiches and visit restaurants that confer certain bonuses, driving home the idea that Paldea is a land of gourmets—an idea heavily promoted by Spain’s own tourism industry, incidentally.

Compared to Pokémon Legends: Arceus, one thing that’s missing is the greater sense of experimentation with the gameplay mechanics. That game really turned key aspects on their heads, and it was refreshing in a way. I do understand keeping the game more turn-based and rooted in established elements like the implementation of speed and status effects and even agree that this was the right choice for a main Pokémon title. That said, I can see it being a little tedious for those who want something more different.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet certainly have flaws, but there’s an undeniable charisma that makes me want to keep playing. Witnessing the myriad stories unfold is fun. Venturing out into the world is fun. Finding and learning about Pokémon is fun. Meeting new characters and discovering what makes them tick is fun. And growing alongside everyone is fun. I don’t know how long I’ll stick around, but I’ll consider it time well spent.

Life, the Universe, and Battling – Pokémon Legends: Arceus

For better or worse, the Pokémon games have stuck to a tried-and-true formula that has brought it great success for nearly 30 years. While there have been some oddballs, the clear emphasis on the series has been on a fairly gentle-yet-complex turn-based experience that allows it to remain popular and accessible. For those wanting more—like a real-time battle experience—it can feel like a futile wish.

The pseudo-open-world of Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn’t exactly the game to answer these prayers, but it is the most daring title to date. It’s sort of a middle ground between various poles—not a full-fledged main title entry, but one that still maintains most of the core concepts of Pokémon. The open field at the center of the Sword and Shield games is greatly expanded upon here, and is in fact pretty much the feel of Legends: Arceus. The game also incorporates some real-time gameplay elements that put your trainer in peril instead of just your Pokémon, but battles inevitably come down to a turn-based experience, albeit one where the mechanics have a few added twists. All this makes for a fairly refreshing game that’s like a foot pressing halfway on the gas pedal. Some things feel familiar and other things are real surprises.

The premise of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is that you have been transported back in time to an era before the Sinnoh region was even called by that name. You arrive right on the cusp of the invention of the Poké Ball, which means that the so-called Hisui region is a place with a fundamentally different relationship with Pokémon consisting of fear and reverence. I was genuinely surprised to have the player character experience a time slip, and I have to wonder why the developers went with this angle instead of just having it be a child of the past. The story is decent enough, but I think the gameplay itself is what’s most interesting.

Because this is supposed to be a historical period that’s also more dangerous for regular folks, the new mechanics (or sometimes lack thereof) feel like both a throwback and a new frontier. There are no features like traits or even held items, let alone something as modern as Dynamaxing, giving me a real Generation-1 vibe at times. I experienced a number of moments where I was worried about a Pokémon having something like Levitate, only to quickly realize that such things don’t exist in Hisui. 

The really major change comes from the way attacks can have different “speeds” to them, such that while battles are still fundamentally turn-based, sometimes you or your opponent can go two or more turns in a row. Combined with the fact that things like status effects and stat buffs/debuffs work quite differently all around, and the result is something familiar, yet strangely new. Also, sometimes, you’ll have to fight 1v2 or more, whether because you caught the attention of multiple wild Pokémon, or you’re fighting someone whose village culture is one where having multiple Pokémon out to do battle is perfectly normal. It’s not like any standard rules have been codified yet—which adds to the feel that this game takes place in a bygone era.

As for the real-time elements, the main ones are special boss fights against guardians known as “Noble Pokémon,” where you have to pelt extremely powerful Pokémon with bags of soothing balm and create opportunities to engage them in a proper Pokémon battle. The added factor of having to learn boss patterns and how to best dodge their attacks brings a dexterity element mostly absent from older games, but the awkward transition into battle mode feels like it could use some work—like a bizarre cousin of chess boxing. Maybe if you still had to dodge collateral damage while your Pokémon is engaging them, it could integrate the two pieces better.

There are hints that the upcoming Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are going to utilize at least some elements of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though to what extent is still not entirely clear. While I do enjoy that real-time aspect, I’m not sure if I necessarily want it for the main series. I personally would be served with a solid hybrid between real-time and turn-based, but when I think about the fantastic accessibility of Pokémon that has allowed players young and old to approach it regardless of dexterity, and of the stories where kids have learned to read because they played these games, I don’t want that taken away. Maybe we could live in a world where Pokémon can somehow be both, and everyone can be happy.