Pokemon Violet Review – A Glimpse of Future Pokemon

A couple of weeks ago I shared some first impressions of Pokemon Violet. I spoke about the basic mechanics of capturing and battling and how they seem to improve marginally on what the series has done in the past. After playing a bit of each story path and exploring some of the open world, I shared my impressions of a game that seemed more linear than promised but was playing with some interesting ideas in each of its story arcs. Since that time I’ve played all the way through the game’s main story and rolled credits – I’m now working my way through the postgame content so that, when the time comes, I can do some of the activities with my friends. I’ve battled every gym leader, overthrown every Team Star Boss, and I’ve even been inside the mysterious crater known as Area Zero. So today, I want to share my full thoughts on the Pokemon Violet experience.

A note: at the time of writing, I have not played the game since the latest patch, which has mixed reports as to how much of Pokemon Violet’s technical problems it actually addresses. I can only speak to my pre-patch experience and have no firsthand perspective to add regarding the benefits of the patch.

The premise of Pokemon Violet is simple. You are a student at Uva Academy, a centrally located school in the Paldea region where students of all ages come to learn more about Pokemon as well as math, history, biology, and a number of other subjects. Each year the school has an independent study project colloquially referred to as the Treasure Hunt. Students are sent out in the world to “find their Treasure,” which in your case means completing three different story paths. Victory Road, in which you take on the region’s eight gym leaders and then defeat the Elite Four and Top Champion to become a champion-ranked trainer. Starfall Street, in which you take down the five bosses of a group of students in an organization called Team Star at the behest of a mysterious figure named Cassiopeia. And Path of Legends, in which you battle massive Titan Pokemon in order to collect the five Herba Mystica, herbs with incredible healing power that restore your companion legendary as well as serving the mysterious purposes of your friend Arven. Completing every path opens up the final area, Area Zero, in which another story unfolds and the game comes to a conclusion.

You accomplish all of this by exploring the most open Pokemon region to date. You can essentially go anywhere in Paldea once you’ve been let loose on your Treasure Hunt. The only limitations are the capabilities of your mount – in Violet the mechanical legendary Miraidon – and the levels of the Pokemon and trainers that occupy a specific region. Generally, Paldea is safer in the southern portions of the region and more dangerous in the north. Progressing through the game in “proper level order” sends you along a zigzag path bouncing back between the east and west, slowly working your way to the northern part of the continent. What is much more natural to happen is that after you pick a direction, you’ll head that way until you hit a clear barrier where your Pokemon are outclassed, which pushes you to go to a different part of the region and explore there. Because you can do content in any order, sometimes you might fight a harder battle before an easier one, at a time when your team isn’t quite ready for it. This can lead to some thrilling encounters – my most interesting battles in all three segments were ones in which I came in underleveled and had to really take advantage of my knowledge of type match ups, switching strategies, and items.

Paldea is famously a world full of technical glitches and visual issues. I can only speak to my experience. My game was consistently framey, with even close-by characters running at framerates that I must assume were in the single digits. Bad camera angles would show me the world as seen through a voided-out mountain. Pop-in was common and was the most likely bug to have an actual gameplay impact – Pokemon would manifest into existence right in front of me and cause an encounter I did not want, or stop existing right when I threw a Pokeball at them to try to initiate capturing them. At one point during a particular Team Star battle, where there were multiple “let’s go” battles happening on the screen and we were in an environment with shallow running water visible on screen at all times, my game fully stopped for about three to five seconds and then stuttered back to life, continuing to lag seriously until I left that area. There are countless videos online of visual bugs more horrifying than what I have just described, but I can only speak to my own experience. Overall I found the bugs disappointing and annoying but manageable; your mileage may vary on that point.

Pokemon Violet has a lot of familiar elements from across the series. You capture Pokemon by weakening them in battle and throwing a Pokeball. Pokemon level up from combat, learn moves, and exploit type advantages in order to come out on top in battle. This game does have some quality of life touches as well as new features. You can access your Pokemon box at any time in the overworld, change nicknames for free from the menu, remember moves for free from the menu – these changes are subtle but appreciated and streamline a lot of the experience. Combat itself has been streamlined through the “let’s go” option – send out your lead Pokemon with the R button and they’ll dash forward to the nearest target in the overworld and fight them, having a simple fight based on level and type advantage. It preserves your resources like PP but more importantly it preserves your time – let’s go battles take only moments, in exchange for sacrificing the amount of XP you receive. I found this so useful for grinding when you don’t have experience candy on hand, or as a way to both make exploration progress while also leveling up a bit.

The open world itself is a bit barren, but I will say that I did not quite give it enough credit in my last write up about it. While you can certainly beat this game by sticking to main roads and following the story “in order,” exploration has benefits to it. While Pokemon Centers are marked on your map and serve as fast travel points, there are other fast travel locations called watchtowers that you have to fly and climb before they are unlocked. Many towers have a TM located at the top as well as a Gimmeghoul you can battle or capture at your leisure. Mysterious dark stakes planted in various spots throughout the world serve as the binding on ancient seals that hide legendary Pokemon – and unlike the game’s main story, the map does not just tell you where to find these things. Some Pokemon only spawn in particular environments on the map that require you to go off the beaten path. I was practically in post game by the time I found the new dolphin Pokemon Finizen, for example, because I never really spent much time exploring the water. Pokemon Violet is not as good as something like Breath of the Wild for catching your attention from far away with an interesting thing to reach and explore, but there are meaningful rewards for going off the beaten path for those who want to look.

Each of the game’s story paths offer a bit of a different spin on the core mechanics of the game. Gyms present you with some kind of preliminary challenge – usually a minigame – before facing off against the gym leaders in standard battles. Titan Pokemon fight you multiple times, with their second battle presenting them in an upgraded form while one of Arven’s Pokemon provides support. Team Star leaders have their grunts rush you in large-scale “let’s go” battles before facing you themselves, and their modified vehicles provide a unique challenge at the end of each showdown. Mechanically, I preferred the Titan battles the least. The second battle never really added enough complexity to justify doing the same thing twice (with one notable exception – the highest-level Titan was my favorite for this reason). Team Star battles made the most use of the game’s new “let’s go” mechanic and really challenged you to build a team around their preferred typing – just running into the dark type base with a fighting type will mess you up when you get stormed by a horde of Murkrow. That said, these did get samey after awhile, with the only real change-up coming not in the form of new battle mechanics but in a shift in the structure of a Team Star base. Gym battles and their preceding challenges weren’t much different from previous entries in the series, but did have a little more to offer in terms of variety and mechanical challenge. This is largely because of the new terastalize mechanic which allows Pokemon to change typing. Many gym leaders take clever advantage of this by terastilizing a Pokemon that has coverage for whatever typing you would typically use against them. The electric type leader, for example, terastilizes a Pokemon with the Levitate ability into an electric type, making them only weak to ground and then removing that weakness. The psychic leader terastilizes a fairy type into psychic, giving them a powerful answer to dark types that you might have brought in to win the battle. The pre-gym minigames were the least consistent of the three story paths in terms of quality, but thanks to terastilizing, the gyms themselves provided the mechanical challenge that I personally look for when playing RPGs.

Interestingly, though, my opinions of the various storylines are totally flipped when it comes to the narrative arcs. (I won’t go into much detail here but mild spoilers for the premise of each story follow.) Victory Road is the most standard and primarily focuses on your relationship with your rival Nemona, who is eager to finally have a classmate on her level and is obsessed with battle. Her extroverted nature and insistence on fighting all the time may be irritating to some players. I had a pal jokingly suggest a headcanon that in my experience made Nemona more charming and pleasant to interact with but ultimately your predisposition towards bubbly, talkative character types will define a lot of your experience with that storyline. Team Star focuses on the topic of bullying and how students who are seen as different can come together to build their own community at school. There were some weird reveals in this one that I didn’t think made a whole lot of sense if I thought about them too hard, but overall the charm of the Team Star path comes from the various characters you interact with and the relationships they share with one another. As for the Titan path, Arven’s cagey behavior and unpleasant exterior hide a relatable story about friendship and family that I found surprisingly compelling for a Pokemon narrative. All of this builds up to a finale that really caught me off guard in terms of quality. After having to play a Global Warming Supporter in Sword and Shield I had low expectations for the story in this game, but it may very well be my favorite in the series. It makes sense, has believable stakes, stages a compelling final showdown, and is way more nuanced than any Pokemon finale has the right to be. It’s not Shakespeare by any means, but if you typically skip over the dialogue in Pokemon games – maybe don’t this time? I think you’ll be surprised by what you find there.

Overall I’m quite impressed with Pokemon Violet. That impression comes with an asterisk – this game needed more time in the oven to address all of the technical issues that plague the visuals from start to finish. But if Violet is a sign of where the future of Pokemon is going, I’m cautiously optimistic about the next generation. I’ve still got postgame to experience and before I can really submit my final thoughts on Violet, I want to play Legends Arceus too and see what that game has to offer. I imagine that there will be aspects of both that I want to see incorporated into future titles. But it feels good to be excited about Pokemon again; not just in the same sense of always looking forward to a new opportunity to explore that world, but in the sense of truly seeing something that looks like forward momentum for the first time in ages.

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