Going into my hands-on time with Pokémon Scarlet, I was expecting some changes based on the ninth generation’s embrace of open-world gameplay and a “do what you want when you want” mentality with its three primary story paths. Pokémon has yet to take the massive generational shift I’ve dreamed of for years and has instead opted for half-steps with each new entry. Scarlet isn’t the transformation I hoped for, but it’s significantly more than a simple half-step, representing arguably the most considerable shift in mainline Pokémon history.
I explored a small portion of the overall Scarlet map for roughly an hour, though it appeared much larger in-game. I saw three objective markers across a valley and a desert area, each representing one of the three main story paths: the Victory Road path, which is the standard eight-gym storyline seen throughout the series, the Path of Legends, consisting of tracking and battling Titan Pokémon, and Starfall Street, a unique take on the Team Rocket-esque plotline found in every mainline entry. Determined to experience a little bit of all three, I took off from the southern region of the map toward a Path of Legends marker, and I did so atop Koraidon, the legendary Pokémon adorning the Scarlet box.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus inspiration is clearest here because, like Arceus’various helpful Pokémon, Koraidon can glide through the air, swim through lakes and oceans, and climb up cliffs. Plus, you can ride atop it anywhere, making traversal across Paldea much faster than on foot. I loved being able to do this as it made the open world feel seamless and sped up a formula of gameplay that can, at times, feel slow. I was even more surprised by how seamless the world actually is, riding Koraidon aside.
When roaming the area, I saw different wild Pokémon all around me. I saw an aggressive Lechonk holding his ground, threatening a battle if I got closer. I captured a special Shinx that glistened from a distance, which indicates it has a rare Tera-type. I saw a small horde of Shinx elsewhere and Magikarp swimming through the ocean while gliding across it. Taking inspiration from Arceus, Scarlet’s world feels alive thanks to these wild Pokémon.
I was surprised when I went to battle one, and instead of seeing the typical screen-break transition with a new bombastic battle theme song, the fight simply started. There was no pause, no change in camera – nothing other than the shift in music. It was the most surprising aspect of this entire preview. You can move the camera freely while selecting moves and watching the battle play out, which gave me a sense of cinematic freedom I’ve never felt in Pokémon before. And when the battle was over, I was right back to riding atop Koraidon, again with no screen break or transition.
Furthering my sense of control and freedom over the seamless landscape was a mechanic strangely named “Let’s Go.” Here, you press R to send out the Pokémon arranged first in your party to retrieve an item or battle a Pokémon. It’s completely autonomous. After pressing R toward a direction, your Pokémon is sent out and does its own thing. You’ll need to pay attention to type and levels to ensure your Pokémon can defeat the one it’s attacking.
If your Pokémon faints, you need to revive it with an item or at the Pokémon Center. Here, you can also restore your Terastalize ability, which one Pokémon can only use in one battle at a time. After using it, you’ll need to restore it at the Pokémon Center or by interacting with one of the various Tera jewel formations spread throughout the open world. These are also home to the Tera Raids.
I did one with other players, and while it was fun, it wasn’t all that different from raids seen in Pokémon Sword and Shield (although much more visually impressive). After completing a raid, which houses a rare Tera-type Pokémon, you can capture it. During raids, you can attack freely, in an almost Active-Time Battle format like the Final Fantasy series. You can also perform callouts to chat with the team, Cheer to raise the attack or defense of your allies, or heal their Pokémon up.
Upon reaching the Titan questline marker, I encountered a massive Klawf. Nintendo told me that these Titan encounters contain three steps: track down and chase after them when they run, battling against them, and a third step I could not pursue based on preview parameters. This was fun, but I could see Titan battles growing stale after some time, especially if each encounter consists of the same three steps. Nintendo gave previewers overpowered teams, too, so I don’t have a grasp on Scarlet’s challenge, unfortunately.
From here, I visited one of the many Team Star bases to try out the Starfall Street path. I tried flying in from above, but the game told me I needed to enter from the front gate. Upon reaching here, Nintendo told me to put the three Pokémon I wanted to fight with at the top of my party. Once inside, a timer appeared, and I had 10 minutes to defeat 30 Team Star Pokémon. I didn’t do this by completing standard Pokémon battles, though. I finished this challenge using the Let’s Go mechanic I mentioned earlier, as instructed. It was quite easy – again, I had an overpowered team – and I completed it in just a minute or two.
Nintendo tells me this is how these bases are defeated and I was disappointed to hear that because this wasn’t particularly fun. However, I think that with a less powerful, more level-appropriate team, there’s a good and unique challenge to be had. At the end, I battled the base’s leader, Mela, who you might have seen in a trailer or two.
She stood atop a large and colorful truck-like vehicle called the Starmobile, and her Pokémon battled from there, too. After defeating her party, I had to attack the Starmobile and beat it.
To round out my time with the single-player portion of the preview, I attempted to complete a gym for the Victory Road path. I took on Brassius, a grass-type leader, in one of Paldea’s various towns. Before I could fight him, though, I had to complete his gym’s challenge: finding 10 Sunflora scattered around the town. It was quick and easy, but charming. I hope other challenges will be more of an actual challenge – Nintendo tells me some will feature battles, so perhaps I’ll get my fix there. I couldn’t complete my battle with Brassius due to time, but after completing the Sunflora challenge, I could go right to fighting him rather than progressing through a gym filled with trainers.
The last piece of my hands-on time I want to touch on is picnics. Like Sword and Shield’s camping, you can set up a picnic to interact with your party, play ball with them, clean them off with a shower, and build and eat sandwiches together.
Sandwich-making seems like it is a big part of this generation. The towns I visited had multiple shops selling ingredients or pre-made meals. Making a sandwich involves picking your ingredients and dragging them from their plate to the actual sandwich. You’ll need to stack ingredients properly and choose ones that mesh well to make a delicious sandwich, and the animation that plays after completing one lets you know how you did. It’s cute, and the perks of eating a sandwich with your party seem great, though I can’t specifically mention what those perks are.
I left my Pokémon Scarlet preview feeling more excited about a new Pokémon than I had in a long time. Sword and Shield left me wanting a lot more, especially as the first big mainline entry on Switch. Scarlet and Violet aren’t flipping the formula on its head, but there are enough changes that I’d call this the biggest generational transformation in years, perhaps in series history.
The open-world aspects of these games are refreshing, adding more personality and seamlessness to the series than ever before. The ability to more freely engage with the three primary story paths seems fun, too, but I wasn’t able to test out its limits. Can I genuinely tackle these how I want, or will built-in level gates essentially push me into doing this or that at specific moments in the game? That was a question I could not find an answer to in this preview, but I’m hoping the former is true come November. I also hope I’m tested more in the final game because I felt little pushback from Scarlet during this preview.
Nonetheless, the design of Scarlet’s open world, its improved visuals, and how well its individual pieces seem to flow together have me excited to experience this Paldean journey, even if I’m left wanting more in other aspects of Pokémon’s new generation.