In my first impressions of Pokemon Violet, I focused on the game’s essential mechanics: capturing and combat. These serve as the foundation onto which an open world adventure is built. Your character sets out from school into the world of Paldea on a “treasure hunt,” a journey of self-discovery where the real treasures are the friends you make along the way. As part of that treasure hunt you have three main objectives: defeat the region’s eight gym leaders, defeat the five titans protecting the Herba Mystica, and defeat the five bosses of the school’s roughest club, Team Star. All in total, you have eighteen challenges to tackle (one per Pokemon type) across the vast region of Paldea. In this article, I’ll be talking about my initial impressions of each task as well as the other activities available in the game world.
Gyms are the most familiar concept from previous entries so they serve as a useful starting point. The gyms of Pokemon Violet are kind of a combination of the typical gym format and the island trails from Pokemon Sun and Moon. When you visit a gym you are really just registering for the gym trial, a minigame that takes place somewhere either in town or located in the world nearby. Each gym has a different minigame themed based on the local community. The gym leader of the bug-type gym, for example, is also a chef, and the community where they live has a harvest festival to pray for a good crop for the coming year. Competing in the festival is her gym challenge. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on with regards to the minigames, and during the challenge you can still battle gym trainers for EXP similar to the gym puzzles in other Pokemon games. Once you clear the trial, you battle the gym leader. Again, this goes pretty similarly to what you likely already know from other Pokemon experiences, with the terastilization mechanic providing a new wrinkle. The gym leaders use a Pokemon with a different typing than their specialty but that terastilizes into their specialty, giving you a more complex challenge to deal with. Defeating gym leaders is how you progress your ability to catch higher level Pokemon, and you also get a TM of the gym leader’s preferred move. Personally, I don’t think the gym trial is really preferable to the gym puzzle; I’d rather figure out a teleporter maze or a sliding ice block than something as low-effort as pushing an olive around. Gyms are what they have always been for the most part, though; if you’ve liked them in the past and didn’t want them to change too much, you’ll likely be satisfied.
Next are the Titans, five giant and powerful Pokemon protecting the enigmatic Herba Mystica. You hunt these to help out a young man named Arven, who has a mysterious connection to the legendary Pokemon that you ride around the overworld. Titans are similar to the Totem Pokemon from Sun and Moon, at least conceptually. They are larger, powered up versions of Pokemon you could otherwise encounter in the world. And because of the Herba Mystica, you have to fight them twice. This means you’ll likely want multiple Pokemon with super effective abilities to deal with them, and you may want to save your terastilization for the second phase. Defeating a Titan the method through which you unlock new traversal abilities for your legendary – in the case of Pokemon Violet, Miraidon. While the game is open world and you can basically get anywhere from the jump, these abilities are key to doing so faster or more efficiently. While the rewards attached to Titans is certainly nice, I find them the least interesting of the challenges in terms of what they bring to the table in combat. “Find them and beat them twice” is pretty straightforward.
Finally, the battles against Team Star. Team Star’s five bosses each have a base located somewhere in the game world. When you enter the base, you have ten minutes to clear out 30 enemy Pokemon within 10 minutes using “let’s go!” – the mode where you send out Pokemon to autobattle in the field. You have three Pokemon you can send out in this way, and you can restore your team by visiting a vending machine. Of course, running to a machine while the timer is ticking can be costly, so you’ll want a team that can handle itself against most of the enemy’s Pokemon. The opponents will have a common type, but will also use plenty of Pokemon with secondary typings that might challenge the squad you’ve brought along. For example, against the dark type team I brought a bug type, a fighting type, and a fairy type, covering each dark type weakness. Even so, they had something for each member of my team. Murkrow’s flying type was a problem for my bug and fighting Pokemon, for example, while Pawniard’s steel type gave my fairy trouble. Once you’ve cleared the initial challenge, you battle the boss, each of whom has a trick up their sleeve that I won’t spoil here but makes for a fun little fight. Clearing the Team Star bases gets your list of craftable TMs expanded, giving you a larger pool of moves to teach your Pokemon to help them in battle. Of the three main mission types in the game, the Team Star battles are my favorite. They use the unique mechanics of Pokemon Violet by incorporating the “let’s go!” mode, and have a lot of spirit in terms of the unique boss design and absolutely fantastic music (if these aren’t the tracks Toby Fox worked on I’ll be deeply surprised).
Each mission type has a specific type of reward that comes with it, and this helps to give you an idea of what kinds of challenges to focus on. If you’re feeling like your ability to traverse the world is lacking, it’s time to pursue a Titan. If you need to be able to capture higher-level Pokemon, you need to clear some gyms first. If you’re having trouble teaching your Pokemon stronger moves to take on greater challenges, you need to defeat a Team Star boss. Being able to target missions based on what aspect of your abilities you want to progress is an effective way of allowing players to set their own goals. That said, I think there are a couple of factors in this game that prevent it from being truly open – or rather, maybe the game is open world, but it’s not a particularly well-done one.
One of the basics of open world design is to encourage exploration. Players want to be able to venture off the beaten path and to be rewarded for that effort. There are a few ways to make this happen. For example, in Skyrim, mission objectives are placed far away from the player so they have to cross a lot of space to reach the next quest, giving lots of opportunities to get distracted and find new discoveries along the way. In Breath of the Wild, notable landmarks draw attention; when you see a huge column of light pouring onto a lone tree on a cliffside or a mountain that looks like it is split in twain, you want to go take a closer look at those things. Pokemon Violet really doesn’t use techniques like this to draw you out into the world. All of the missions are on the road; you can simply follow trails all across Paldea and complete all of the main objectives without ever really exploring at all. And while there are some small areas that could conceivably be described as landmarks, they aren’t noteworthy or rewarding to discover. I was very excited to discover a cave on a particular path when I was exploring western Paldea, but the cave was just a tunnel and other than one or two new Pokemon to catch, it didn’t have anything to offer.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing to discover in the open world of Paldea; it’s just that most of the time, what is there to discover is going to be telegraphed to you with an objective marker. You can see the locations of all the main story objectives at all times, and the tera raid battles which give you the opportunity to catch Pokemon with unique tera types are displayed on the map based on the tera type you can capture. When you look at the map, you know which areas off the beaten path are going to lead to something really good and which ones will just have normal rewards like Pokemon battles or items lying on the ground. And while items on the ground could certainly be beneficial TMs, most of the core TMs you need the most are going to come from defeating gym leaders or Team Star bosses and so are already marked on your map. Exploring doesn’t feel quite as exciting when the reward for doing it is Endure.
The other aspect of this game that limits how “open” it truly is is the lack of level scaling. Have you ever played an old NES JRPG like the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior? Often these games feature areas you can walk to at any time but which you are absolutely not intended to go to until a certain level, and it becomes clear the moment you enter a random encounter that the world isn’t really open. Paldea functions similarly in that while you can technically discover the objectives in any order, beating them in any order is a rather unrealistic goal. There are regions of Paldea which are simply higher level regions, and until you build your team such that you can traverse that are successfully and win battles there, you aren’t actually going to be able to meaningfully explore there. You definitely won’t be able to complete objectives like defeating gym leaders or Team Star bosses. So while sure, the world is open, chances are pretty good your progress through that world is going to look pretty similar to many of the folks you are playing the game with; there’s an optimal order you’ll likely sus out as you play.
Pokemon Violet is trying to build something new with the Pokemon formula, and I certainly respect that ambition. However, the failure to take advantage of tried and true techniques for creating open worlds as well as mostly reutilizing the same types of challenges they’ve had in previous games leaves Pokemon Violet feeling iterative rather than revolutionary. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s a positive iteration that I hope we see them build upon more in the future. But it is clear their first experiment with a fully open world hasn’t learned the lessons other games using this structure have taught. GameFreak is still hesitant to do something too far removed from their traditional formula. That said, I’m glad to see them try something at least a little bit new, and I think that this game will teach some lessons they will hopefully apply to their next title moving forward.