Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There are quite a few negative things you could say about Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the most recent installments in Nintendo’s long-running series of monster acquisition simulators. The games are undeniably glitchy, with frame rate issues in abundance, and an increasingly well-documented trove of bizarre visual bugs. Their environments look less like lush living landscapes than the sort of thing you might see in an indie game from a team with a Unity subscription and more ambition than cash. And they have the standard Pokémon early game issues of talking at you incessantly in the first few hours, when you’re desperate to just get out there and shove some monsters in balls.
But none of these things, honestly, outweigh this: These are a pair of video games where you can jump a motorcycle-shaped Pokémon off a mountain, land 500 feet below your starting point, and then scoot off to explore a brand-new corner of the map, complete with a ton of new Pokémon to acquire. Not only able to, but encouraged to: This is Pokémon as free-form adventure, offering players a massive (ugly) map, throwing out a handful of objectives as basic guidance, and then letting them have their way with it.
To see one of the most hand-holding game franchises of all time take the training wheels off like this is, frankly, staggering—maybe even a bit overwhelming. Once you get through the game’s opening hours, and depart on the school-based Treasure Hunt that makes up the game’s core play—the most hilariously explicit justification the series has ever had for setting up a world in which feral children roam the landscape, poaching animals for bloodsports with abandon, by the by—the ability to go anywhere is almost immediately yours. It’s a jaw-dropping moment: “Really? I can just ... Go there? Climb that mountain? Try to catch that Level 40 pig monster? No bullshit plot interludes? No ‘You have to go wander around this city for 20 minutes buying hats’ horseshit? Just … freedom?”
The reductive take would be to suggest that Nintendo has just decided to Breath Of The Wild-ify all its franchises, taking the open-world exploration of the groundbreaking first Switch Zelda game and applying it willy-nilly. But the fact is that this kind of freeform expression is a perfect fit for Pokémon, a franchise that has always had an admirable dedication to allowing players to find their own fun. Sure, it’s janky as hell, as you ride your big motorcycle-saurus all over the canyons and fields. But in some ways, that glitchiness only enhances the feeling of freedom: It becomes obvious that Game Freak has sacrificed quite a bit on the game’s technical side to make this kind of exploration possible, and all the weird pop-in and graphical whoopsies somehow contribute to the feeling that anything can happen here.
(Also: God bless the studio for adapting the “no random battles” idea from Pokémon Legends: Arceus to the main series here; the ability to actually scout out which monsters you want to fight and capture, as opposed to having to cut through every poor Pidgey that comes your way, absolutely enhances the feeling of being a hunter and explorer.)
As someone who dips in to check out every generation of Pokémon game, I’m comfortable saying that this is the most excited I’ve been to play these games in years. The truth is, the core gameplay of Pokémon—the exercise in strategizing and team composition that is Pokémon battling—is about as solid, by now, as it’s going to get. (Certainly, the latest version of digivolving or crystallizing or whatever the game calls its latest super move system doesn’t add much to the equation, at least not in the early going) But Game Freak has gone out of its way here to make a world that serves as a far better support structure for that core—ugly, yes, glitchy, sure, but undeniably refreshing as hell.