Make no mistake – Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are good-looking games. I won’t stand for any of the “it looks like a PS2 game” rhetoric that’s plagued Pokémon Sword, Shield, and Legends Arceus.
Partly because, of course those didn’t look like fucking PS2 games. It’s a testament to PS2 game devs that people – wrongly – remember their games looking that good. But mostly because, when the Switch manages to keep up, Scarlet and Violet can easily hold their own against other current-gen JRPGs.
When the game tries to push the Switch too far, though… ehh, not so much.
The game hurriedly strips off its crisp shadows, fancy lighting effects, and hi-res textures, and sits there with its underpants around its ankles hoping you’re too polite to say anything.
Here’s a really egregious example, from the start of the game:
Similar weirdness happens whenever the camera angle changes during a cutscene. It takes a moment for the effects and lighting to load properly, giving everything an off-putting, juddery appearance. Usually it’s only a single frame, like in this example:
Sometimes it’s way longer, like here, where the game takes nearly half a second to get its shit together:
And sometimes the effects seem to unfold layer-by-layer, like the shots of Nemona in this clip:
The whole game is like this, and it’s by no means a dealbreaker — I noticed the exact same thing in Horizon: Zero Dawn’s cutscenes on the PS4, and I don’t remember anyone laying into that game’s graphics.
That said, there are general performance issues and frame drops throughout pretty much the entire game. Everything feels stuttery and slow — running through the environment, moving the camera, initiating battles — but it seems to have been the trade-off for all the things the game does right.
Draw distances feel endless, and Pokémon Legends’ repeating textures and weirdly flat cliffs are reserved for things wayyyyyy in the distance. The game does look soft, like pretty much every other game on the Switch. (Before you say it, here’s a quick follow-up to my earlier point about “PS2 games”: did you know Breath of the Wild doesn’t look as sharp as you remember, either?)
But it looks good.
Materials in the game look more realistic, from the player’s leather backpack, to Mom’s polished hardwood floors, to another character’s Eevee plushie, to the soft, downy feathers on a Psyduck. The texture detail is often pretty impressive.
It has me totally convinced we were supposed to have a “Switch 2” or “Switch Pro” console by now, but that it got delayed due to the 2020 chip shortage. I’m about three hours into Pokémon Violet, and it has all the telltale signs of a game that was designed with more powerful hardware in mind. I suspect it was pencilled in for a “Switch 2 and Switch” multiplatform launch, or otherwise would’ve been promoted as “Switch Pro Enhanced” or something.
I’m not saying it wasn’t ever intended to run on the base Switch hardware — more that what we’re seeing here is the pared-back version of something that should’ve been way smoother and more performant. I’m… also not saying that Game Freak couldn’t have done more to optimise the game. This is Game Freak we’re talking about. They could definitely have done more to optimise the game.
Luckily, the overall sense of lagginess doesn’t hurt the gameplay for me. I’m having a wonderful time so far. Everything is far more streamlined than in previous Pokémon games — even moreso than in Legends Arceus. Battles against wild Pokémon and Trainers take place right in the overworld, with no long-winded transitions or loading screens. And the game doesn’t unload anything during battles! You can rotate the camera and see nearby Pokémon, people, and entire towns going about their business in the background.
When battles end, experience points are doled out, moves are learnt, and prize money is awarded more swiftly than ever — no need to click through pages of text. And did I mention that Trainer battles are now completely optional?! Trainers in the world will now wait for you to interact with them before challenging you, although like Pokémon Sun and Moon, the game does still incentivise you for beating all the Trainers in a given area.
You can even “overhear” other characters speaking while you’re running around the overworld, without having to dismiss text boxes or pause for cutscenes.
This is a valuable, meaningful change of direction for this franchise. In the produced-by-Junichi-Masuda days of yore, we were repeatedly told we didn’t need post-game content because “kids these days” had short attention spans — even though navigating the world and jumping in and out of battles still took ages. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet genuinely seem to respect their players’ time in a way we haven’t seen before, and that’s really encouraging.