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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

‘Pokémon Violet:’ A dream still working out the details

Few franchises have a better pitch than “Pokémon”: tame and trained magical animals battle each other, save the world with a team of them and ultimately become “the very best, like no one ever was.” 

Whether each game brings the player into this dream is a different question. The previous main series games, 2019’s “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield,” are infamous for their failure to do so. Additional content for these games, however, quickly got back on track, and “Pokémon Legends: Arceus,” released in early 2022, truly makes magic. “Pokémon Scarlet” and “Pokémon Violet” aim to continue this upward trajectory, and in this reviewer’s experience of “Violet,” the game is a success, and it’s easy to see how the series can shine even brighter.

Catching, raising and battling Pokémon is as enchanting as it has ever been. The new battling mechanics introduced in this game are creative and allow for exciting possibilities, which this review will not spoil. The greatest issue with the system is the lack of a difficulty setting. This is a game for all ages, which means the adventure must be accessible, but there is no button to give opponents stronger Pokémon or more complicated strategies. Instead, one must create self-imposed rules to add to the game’s challenge, and even so, one cannot create new opponents. This is an easily remediable problem for the next “Pokémon” games, though.

“Pokémon Violet” is the first fully open-world game in the series and is a great first step into this new system of world design, with compelling prizes for exploration and a surprising degree of freedom in movement. There is a simple and powerful joy in climbing a mountain that seemed impossible to summit and finding a rare item or special event at the peak. There is still substantial room for growth for future games in this department, however, as the environments are mostly unmemorable (with one magnificent exception) and the human settlements are uninteresting. These cities lack distinct cultures, interesting populations or exclusive activities. There is also very limited interaction between Pokémon and humans in the cities, which is a shame, as bringing Pokémon into everyday city life could make these places attractions. Imagine a mountain city where flying Pokémon carry people between buildings, or a city with a parade in which Pokémon use their abilities to create a light show.

Most frustrating of all the game’s best elements, however, is a lacking technical presentation of this world. The game simply runs poorly, and its visuals are at a low quality.  Older “Pokémon” games with pixilated, two-dimensional overworlds and Pokémon battles used the power of suggestion to their advantage, letting players imagine the world in greater detail and conceiving something far beyond the technical capacity of any video game. As a three-dimensional adventure in an open world where one can travel anywhere, this game must depict its world as accurately as possible to satisfy players.  Rather than inviting players to join the game in fully constructing this world, “Pokémon Violet,” at its worst, invites players to imagine a better piece of software.

The story here, unlike many Pokémon games, is not a formulaic tale about an evil organization chasing a god Pokémon to realize its ambitions. Instead, the player’s character is simply a schoolkid in the Pokémon universe, whose friends bring them into the main adventures of the game. While these will not hold an adult’s attention throughout their duration, they are excellent stories for younger players about empathy. The three main supporting characters — Nemona, Arven and Penny — all have problematic aspects to their personalities and difficulties that define them. Nevertheless, the player finds the good and brings out the best in them. Our friends aren’t perfect, the game argues, but that shouldn’t be our expectation. Being human is about connecting with other humans in our brokenness, as our relationships can build us to be better. That is an invaluable lesson for players of all ages.

“Pokémon” is still working out the details of its dream, but “Pokémon Violet” is a wonderful blueprint for adventures to come, and a very good game in its own right. While its world needs more splendor and its adventure more flexibility, “Pokémon Violet” still has magic. It may not convert older players to following the franchise, but hopefully this is building up to the show that will sweep the world away, the long-awaited realization of the dream. But as it stands, it’s still worth letting “Pokémon Violet” cast its spell, even if the seams of the fantasy are visible.

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