Don’t look now, but Pokémon Scarlet and Violet may earn the nickname Pokémon: Breath of the Wild.
Of course, this is by no means the first time fans of The Pokémon Company and Game Freak’s forever-running series of creature-gathering RPGs have imagined a Pokémon riff on Nintendo’s arguably most venerable game. In 2021, when The Pokémon Company unveiled the spinoff Pokémon Legends: Arceus, people immediately likened it to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “Look,” they said. “It even has the same mountains!”
Those comparisons ultimately turned out for naught. Legends: Arceus was more akin to a Monster Hunter game, giving plenty of fodder for “Pocket Monster Hunter” jokes while dashing hopes that a Pokémon game would live up to the standard set by Nintendo’s totemic open-world masterpiece.
Well, next month’s Scarlet and Violet might just fit the bill. Based on a hands-on preview session attended by Polygon earlier this month — in which I played an hour of a custom Scarlet build from an unspecified midway point — the duo of games sure seems like it’s shaping up to carry the “Breath of the Wild but make it Pokémon” mantle.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are the ninth iteration of mainline Pokémon RPGs. For more than two and a half decades, these games have hewed to a tried-and-true formula. You, as a young child, befriend a cohort of monsters of varying cuteness. You train them, grow them, forge bonds with them, mold them into a small team of mini murder machines. You pit your team against the teams of other trainers, with the goal of being the very best, like no one ever was. If you’re wondering, or worried, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet don’t exactly nuke this framework from orbit.
While every Pokémon game iterates, and none have introduced quite so many fundamental swerves as Scarlet and Violet. After all, this is the first generation in which the series is adopting a fully open-world model. Pokémon roam environments openly, rather than hide, sight-unseen, in disparate patches of tall grass. Quests are more varied than “defeat the other Pokémon.” You can, for perhaps the first time in the history of the series, get truly lost.
Also, how’s this for you, BotW superfans? If you can see something on the horizon, you can probably climb it.
You get the legendary Pokémon early… as a mount
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet take place in an island region called Paldea, inspired by the IRL Iberian Peninsula (which consists of Spain and Portugal). You can get around the world by walking, but your primary means of transit involves riding a version-specific legendary Pokémon: Koraidon (for Scarlet) or Miraidon (for Violet), both of whom look like sentient motorcycles.
During my session with Scarlet, Koraidon proved a faithful steed with a full range of movement. Leap off a ledge, and you can glide — just as you can in a certain game that totally redefined how players think about and approach open-world games. Glide into a cliff wall, and you can climb it. Best of all, there’s no stamina wheel.
It’s unclear when exactly Koraidon or Miraidon joins your team, but it’s far earlier than they would in other Pokémon games — typically around the seventh gym leader. Still, legendary Pokémon have historically been superpowered leviathans who can turn the tide of battle with a single move, not steeds. So it felt a little humiliating, degrading almost, to use a mythical beast as a chauffeur.
During the preview, a representative for Nintendo declined to answer questions on the record about when — or even if at all — Koraidon and Miraidon would be usable in battles.
The open world is massive, and full of quests
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet have three main campaigns, which you can tackle in any order:
- Victory Road: This the standard Pokémon narrative that has you battling eight gym leaders, each of whom specializes in a specific elemental type.
- Path of Legends: Path of Legends missions task you with tracking down and battling kaiju-sized versions of normal Pokémon. Klawf, the giant crab Pokémon revealed in September, is one such target.
- Starfall Street: Team Star is the antagonistic organization in Scarlet and Violet. On Starfall Street missions, you raid their bases and engage in an auto-battling minigame.
It took me the duration of the session to finish just one mission on each of these three quest lines, which should give you an idea of how meaty these tasks are. The world itself is rife with other activities. You can make sandwiches. You can peruse various storefronts, including a dedicated shop for TMs, or single-use items that will teach your Pokémon new attacks. You can deck out your character with customized outfits. The map was further covered with a litany of other icons I did not have time to assess or identify. Needless to say, it’s a lot.
Battles are mostly easier (but, in some ways, harder)
The preview build started me with a preselected team — including the newly revealed Bellibolt, who absolutely rules — set at level 25. I started my session with the Victory Road mission, which tasked me with defeating Brassius, the grass-type gym leader. In most Pokémon games, you fight a series of lower-level trainers, all of whom specialize in a specific type, before taking on the leader. In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, you’ll instead have to complete a non-combat mission. Before I could fight Brassius, for instance, I had to find 10 Sunflora — a sunflower Pokémon first introduced in Gold and Silver — hiding around town. Just two fought back. A representative for Nintendo seemed surprised at that. Apparently it’s random; usually just one puts up a fight.
Brassius, who used three grass-type Pokémon, barely did. Scarlet and Violet use the same rock-paper-scissors structure that’s defined the series since its inception, where certain elemental types are strong or weak against others. Since Brassius uses grass(ius)-type Pokémon, I slotted my allotted fire-type first and wiped his whole team in three turns flat.
It’s imperative to note, again, that I was playing with a preselected team of Pokémon, all of whom were at a higher level than the rest of the Pokémon in the region. But it nonetheless raises questions about the game’s challenge factor. Series purists have long thought the more recent games trade challenge for approachability to a detrimental effect. Those on the other side argue that Pokémon games are, fundamentally, meant for children; the lower barrier to entry isn’t a bad thing, they say.
Since what I played was not indicative of what the game will actually be like, I have no clue where Scarlet and Violet will land on that divide. Following the preview, a representative for Nintendo declined to answer questions on the record about how exactly level-scaling may or may not function in relation to the new open-world structure.
Pokémon games have always told you where to go, what to do, and sometimes even how to do it, while keeping some esoteric aspects (cough, IV training) hidden to everyone but the most stalwart players. They’re generally guided experiences, and rarely, if ever, overwhelming. What I played of Scarlet was the opposite: It explained everything to me, then let me loose. Y’know, like Breath of the Wild.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet come to Nintendo Switch on Nov. 18.