Opinion: Nobody Asked - A Maniacal Engineer's Thoughts on Scarlet and Violet - Part 2: A Big, Empty World

Nobody Asked Maniacal Engineer
In the previous article, I discussed my initial reaction to the whole “open world” gimmick in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. While I understood the developers hopes of bringing a bit of fresh air into what many considered to be a stale franchise, I had plenty of concerns concerns with Pokémon trying to hop aboard this particular train. Now, it's time to talk about how that open world actually ended up in practice.

As it turned out, I was entirely justified in my concerns. As far as how the open world was implemented, while it was technically mostly “open,” there was no level scaling. That means that, despite the fact that you can go just about anywhere, you will either find yourself insanely outleveled, or extremely overleveled if you don’t follow the “recommended” path. While facing down wild Pokémon, Trainers, and Bosses that are much higher leveled that you can present a challenge, there is a difference between a winnable, but difficult, challenge, and an impossible scenario. Furthermore, if you do win, then you end up being extremely overleveled or overprepared for other areas.

You managed to scramble back out of the water!
I do see both sides of the level scaling issue. For starters, I’m sure that implementing a level scaling system would have required more work and a lot more coding. Given how buggy and half baked the games actually were at release date (something we'll get into more in later parts of this series), adding more complications would have only made the situation worse. As Game Freak’s first open world game, going with the less programming intensive static level method was probably the best way to start. Also, I recognise that there are plenty of people out there who want Pokémon games to be more challenging, and who would have appreciated being able to run off headlong into areas with high level opponents. In a level scaling system, that would be far more difficult. And the game does at least try to put some “road blocks” in the way of just running off into certain doom by requiring unlocking some of your ride Pokémon’s abilities before allowing you to access certain areas, theoretically at least.

Ultimately though, I do think it would have been beneficial to implement some sort of level scaling mechanism, and it would have certainly helped open the world for more thorough and personalized exploration. It certainly would not be the first time that it was either implied or outright stated that Gym Leaders use different teams depending on the number of badges that a challenger has, even if we the players are forced to take on the Gym Leaders in a more-or-less fixed order. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in these very games that the Gym Leaders are holding back when they battle against students or other challengers.

A Big Ol' Empty City
As for the world itself, it felt surprisingly empty. While some cities were physically larger than others, what they all pretty much boiled down to was: gym, restaurants and battle shops (most of which were either stalls, or just menus, not even buildings you could enter), and clothing accessory stores. There was no Silph Co. or Devon Corporation. No Pokémon Tower or Radio Station. No ferris wheel, sports stadiums, or Contest Halls. With the obvious exception of Mesagoza, each city pretty much felt like the same basic concept, just reskinned. Even with Mesagoza, it only felt different because it happened to be the “hub city” and had the academy in it. For the most part, Mesagoza just felt needlessly large for the sake of being large, with the extra space not really adding anything except longer travel times between stores.

The routes themselves are also fairly bland. While they are littered with items and wild Pokémon symbol encounters, the nonlinear nature makes it difficult to explore the entire route. I used to be a “no experience or item left behind” kind of player, who would go through dungeons trying to find all of the items and battle all of the trainers. In a world where everything is so spread out and multidirectional, it’s a lot easier to miss a trainer or an item. In the post-game, I’d often be cruising down a route to get to a Tera Raid crystal, and run into a trainer that I had never battled before with laughably low leveled Pokémon. That said, this particular problem was partially resolved by actually needing to talk to the trainers before they will battle you, so, in a situation like the above, you’re not pulled out of what you're doing into a mandatory battle with some low leveled punk.

Inlet Grotto - a Generic Cave
Similarly, the “dungeons” in this game were just generic caves, and all felt pretty much the same, to the point where I could never remember where I was whenever I was in a cave. To be fair, this was also a problem with some of the earlier games, but with those games that was mostly due to limited memory space and available graphics. Although it would have been much more difficult to program in an open world and 3D environment, something like the Distortion World or Chargestone Cave would have made a big difference. I don’t usually have a lot of good things to say about X and Y, but dungeons like the Reflection Cave had a lot more personality than almost anything we saw in Scarlet and Violet, and definitely contributed toward worldbuilding in a very positive way.

I will grant that Area Zero was certainly more visually interesting than anywhere else in Paldea. It’s just a shame that it was only accessible starting in the fourth act of the game. It evoked memories of the Pokémon Mansion from the Kanto games. As a kid, walking through the burned out husk of a building, encountering shady Burglars and Scientists, and finding and reading the cryptic journal entries was a very positive experience and really contributed to worldbuilding and giving each dungeon at least a little personality, even if the graphics were reused in other locations. I had similar worldbuilding and mystery solving vibes when going through Area Zero for the first time. Finding the abandoned research stations and reading the discarded journals. Descending further, and seeing the final station completely engulfed by crystals, and the last two cryptic journal entries really helped build the world in a positive way. But all of that was story based worldbuilding, and could have easily been done in a non-open world environment.

Being somewhat fair, I do feel like Pokémon Sword and Shield suffered from a lot of similar problems, and while they might have dipped their toe into the idea with the Wild Area, those games were not open worlds. So, overall, I think that this is more of an issue of Scarlet and Violet having limited development time than a specific symptom of trying to build an open world system. What I suspect the open world contributed directly to were the unique problems that plagued Scarlet and Violet upon their release, namely the myriad of graphical glitches, bugs, performance issues, and random game crashes. To a certain extent, there are still many technical issues with the games that have failed to be addressed, but that, of course, is another story for another article.

Maniacal Engineer - Signing off
Overall, I believe the open world literally contributed nothing to expanding the world, and, given how buggy the game was upon release, I would argue that it actively detracted from the game as a whole. Too much of the extremely limited development time was spent programming and developing the open-ended nature of the world itself, as opposed to finding things to put into this world. In my admittedly limited experience with open worlds and semi-open worlds, both Breath of the Wild and Legends: Arceus handled the more open-ended exploration much better than Scarlet and Violet did, without suffering from the same level of technical limitations and general jankiness. For the sake of the franchise, I hope they go more in the direction of Legends than Scarlet and Violet in future. More than anything, though, I hope that Nintendo, Game Freak, and The Pokémon Company International give the programming teams the time they need to actually program, test, and debug a fully functional and optimized game. We've heard some promising indications that they've listened to fans here over the past month, but only time will tell if they'll keep that promise. After all, as I have touched on here, and will get into in more detail in the next article, not having enough development time leads to nothing but failure and a half baked final product.
Maniacal Engineer Written by Maniacal Engineer