The Pokémon games evolve at a leisurely pace. This can be frustrating for fans looking for the latest and greatest but does make it easier to chart how the games progress over time. Take the series’ relatively recent fixation with offering players an open world. It started small, with Pokémon Sword and Shield adding a wild area in 2019 that let players freely explore. At the beginning of this year came Legends: Arceus, a spinoff that divided its world into huge chunks full of wildlife and secrets. And now, we have Violet and Scarlet, the first truly open-world games in the franchise’s history. They’re the biggest, most varied Pokémon games to date.
That scale comes at a cost, however, as the Nintendo Switch often struggles to keep up with the games. But even though this milestone for the series feels hobbled at times, that never really kills the thrill of adventure. I don’t know what the future holds, but at present, the Pokémon series is in a great place.
The games take place in the new Paldea region, a place with a mix of Spanish and Portuguese influences, and centers on a local academy for budding pokémon trainers. It’s basically the magical school trope but for Pokémon — and it works very well. You play as a recent transfer student, and after a few weeks of classes (which you thankfully don’t actually have to sit through), you’re sent off on an independent project with the theme of “treasure hunt.” In reality, though, you’re just let loose in the world to do pretty much whatever you want.
Not only does this setup make more narrative sense than in past Pokémon games (sending kids out for a giant adventure with little to no training seems barbaric in retrospect) but it also allows the game to be much less rigid. Violet and Scarlet essentially have three different narrative threads, each with associated quests, and while you need to complete them all to finish the game, you can tackle them in almost whatever order you want.
The first thread will be instantly familiar to longtime fans: you have to travel the world to beat eight gym leaders, collect their badges, and then move on to the Pokémon League to become champion. But the others are quite different. One has you searching out mythical “titans” across the land in the name of research, while the other has you essentially raiding the basecamps of a group that seems to be behind some bullying problems at the school. Each has its own storyline, and while they start out very simple, they get surprisingly compelling — and weird. By the time you reach the climactic final boss, the game becomes delightfully strange.
Violet and Scarlet are also frequently very funny. One of the gym bosses is a like-obsessed streamer, while another is a dejected salaryman. At one point, a professor asks you the definition of cheugy. Later on, there’s a rap battle with lyrics that put Weird Al to…