Massively on the Go: Pokemon Scarlet and Violet inches franchise closer to Monster Hunter multiplayer status

    
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Let me start off by saying I am thoroughly enjoying Pokemon Scarlet and Violet for what they are: an open world Pokemon game with more multiplayer than Sword and Shield, which I also enjoyed. But I am slightly disappointed. No, it’s not because of all the glitches you’ve seen reported, the lack of a national pokedex, the soft-gating mechanisms that often nearly require you to play the game in a certain way, or the lack of level scaling (which really would have been nice). I’m an MMO vet, so those are practically launch features for me. No, what disappoints me is all the steps back after the franchise made such great strides forward.

Pokemon Legends: Arceus showed that we can have a strong Pokemon game with new mechanics and rules, and while the game was almost strictly single-player, the ideas could be used to make less combat-oriented, science-like MMOs. And that’s from a single-player Pokemon game. Instead, Scarlet and Violet played it extremely safe, which was exactly my problem with Monster Hunter Stories 2: MHS2 gameplay is too much Pokemon and not more MH. I don’t say this because I want to be playing more MH games but because PLA took notes from the MH franchise and made them their own, but then Gamefreak shed the best and most multiplayer parts.

I still can recommend the games, but as we’re an MMO site, we need to talk about the online multiplayer first.

Failing to absorb past success

As we initially reportedScarlet and Violet were announced early on as open-world, multiplayer games. The Pokemon Company was quite silent about how extensive that would be, going so far as to not even mention raids at the time, even though it was a feature that I felt went over fairly well in Sword and Shield. Sneaking did make its way into the game, but its execution left a lot to be desired.

For those who didn’t play it, just know that PLA didn’t force you to beat up pokemon to catch them. In fact, boss battles were more about throwing medicine at enraged beasts to soothe them. Basic gameplay, as you can see in the video above, allowed you to sneak around in tall grass and set some simple positioning traps to capture your target. Of that content, however, all that’s left is sneaking and throwing your pokemon’s pokeball at the enemy to get in a free attack.

Yes, battling is at the core of the Pokemon experience, but the pokemon world has expanded since then. Features come and go (including “fashion battles” that really could have helped the game grow up), but the stealth gameplay would have made a lot of sense for open world multi-player gaming, especially in a post-PLA scene. Again, in thinking of the MH games, you could have one player distracting the target while the others set traps. Maybe it’s as simple as having one player lure the pokemon into a good capture position, or something like in MH Rise where you lure an enemy over to make the pokemon fight each other, at which point you could step in and claim one or both for yourselves.

And that’s the other issue. Even if The Pokemon Company wanted to ignore how satisfying it felt to capture a pokemon through guile instead of brute force, we could have had more open-world battles. The “Star Barrage” battles above would be perfect for multiplayer. They’re a great addition to the series, especially with how you battle now. Scarlet and Violet does let you play in the same world as friends (including starter story stuff!), but not with them. There’s no taking on pokemon, gyms, or other challenges together except Tera Raids.

It’s phasing, for the most part, so even though you may be in someone’s Scarlet game as a Violet player, you’ll see Violet’s exclusive Clauncher instead of Scarlet’s Dragalge, and if you’re looking for the opposite Charcadet armor quest, you’re out of luck. The only exception seems to be post-game paradox pokemon (think legendaries). You’re basically just borrowing a friend’s area, sort of like how people would rent out their Animal Crossing town when Turnip sales allow people to make major cash: People aren’t visiting to play with you, just what you have access to.

11/24 Update: As reader Schmidt.Capela notes, the “phasing” is a bit more complicated than that. Spawns occur based on players and can spawn version exclusions at least if you’re near each other. In terms of end-game content though, it may be more complicated, as I’ve seen someone getting the other games’ version exclusive paradox without the other player nearby, though they only got a single species and noted this happened when visiting several different players.

And that’s the next problem. There’s no matchmaking, easy-access for friends, or joining randoms for world exploration. Matchmaking is just for raids. You either have to know someone and input lobby codes or find a community that provides those codes. You can’t just open the game to friends a la Animal Crossing or search for online friends’ rooms to join. Codes are required, and since there is no way for other players to screw with your experience because of the non-interaction and inability to chat via text or voice, this hard multiplayer gating seems antiquated. And I’m leaving out the disconnect issues that are fairly frequent in open world play that don’t seem to be half as bad as the Tera Raids, which seem more difficult to connect to in the first place, suffering the same issues I mentioned back in Sword and Shield.

In terms of co-op, it’s sad that the game is essentially a 3-D lobby, not much better than Sword and Shield where you could make curry together, but by joining your friend’s gameworld rather than finding a copy of their tent in your own game. That means you can trade, battle each other, have a picnic, and make sandwiches in the same online space, but there are no gyms, no battling wild pokemon, or raids (except via the “Tera Raid Battle” option under the “Poke Portal” menu).

Pokemon Legends: Arceus had a deeper and more immersive world in terms of catching and battling. It’s small stuff, but rock throwing, smoke bombs, and food use to capture pokemon as opposed to just battling to catch pokemon are all far more visceral and are all attributes that I personally found immersive in the MH series as well.

Sword and Shield felt more MMO-ish in terms of visuals in that it at least populated the game with players. Sadly though, the style feels like it’d be of more value in the Splatoon series lobbies than the world of Pokemon. At this rate, if things work out for the series in terms of both open world play and co-op (and the continuation of raids seems to imply just that), Gen 10 might have some true co-op beyond raids, possibly bringing it more in line with the Monster Hunter series for bite-sized adventuring.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, especially on the multiplayer side.

The accessibility “problem”

if you can ignore the co-op visitation aspects, Scarley and Violet do give you a lot of options right from the start, including raiding. Clearly early access to raids did well in Scarlet and Violet as you also have access to them within maybe 20 minutes of linear gameplay, and much like in Sword and Shield, I was raiding long before I even saw a gym.

It’s not just that Tera Raids are multiplayer content; as I mentioned in the POGO prep article, they can revitalize the series. Take the first Black Crystal Tera Raid (think rare spawn raid), Dragon Charizard. Charizard is always part Fire type at least. With two Mega Forms and a Giganticmax form, it has as many variants as Meowth, as odd as that sounds (but also Pokemon clearly has a cat bias). Just looking at what it can learn via TMs shows the advantage it could have by being a pure Dragon type. That means any water type move you brought to the fight is now going to be fully resisted.

But what many people forget is that Charizard is part Flying, making it quad weak to Rock. Oddly, you could actually get a Grass Tera-type so it resists both Water and Rock types. The dragon can learn Sunny Day to weaken Water moves and boost the damage of Fire moves, but it also allows learnable move Solar Beam (yes, it can learn SB) to fire off without needing to charge. That would take all of its traditional weaknesses, turn them into resistances, and give it a strong, STAB-boosted attack against its would-be counters. That’s a major 180 on just one of 400 pokemon in the new games at the moment.

That’s just the start in terms of basic gameplay that may distract people from traditional blasting-through gym experiences. While I’m not there yet, visiting someone else’s game for paradox pokemon as end-game content also has me eyeing my friend’s list to see who I can count on, as I love the designs for the paradoxes and am looking to capturing them myself.

The “problem” is that the solo gameplay is actually quite strong. Again, players have a lot of complaints and are voicing them quite loudly online, but there’s also a lot of enthusiasm among the players. As much as I want to do endgame content, I keep getting distracted by, well, the gameworld.

Your pokemon is actually more like an MMO pet now; not only can it follow you, but you can sic’em on nearby pokemon instead of fiddling with slow, menu-based, turn attacks. It feels a bit lazy as the player, but it’s also visually awesome (and somewhat sad, as pokemon sometimes look as if they’re in family groups before you run in and faint them all). It’s something you can do right from the start, it still takes advantage of the typing system, and it’s fairly intuitive. I honestly hope this is a feature we see in future generations.

While there are limitations to content access based on team levels and travel abilities (like gliding and swimming), they’re minimal in my opinion. The game explicitly gives you three story lines (battle gym leaders, discover Titan pokemons’ secrets, or team with the game’s good-for-nothing Team Star gang members), but you can also obviously make your own content.

For example, I created a wishlist team of non-legendary pokemon before the game came out because I love pokemon spoilers and planning ahead. As noted in our prep guide for POGO players, while there are some regional variants of old pokemon, there are also convergent pokemon: ‘mon that look like older generation pokemon but are totally different. I love the real-world inspiration as well as the execution of designs.

When release day came, I decided I’d focus on getting the pokemon I wanted (again, within reason) before finishing any of the explicit storylines created for me. I’ve only defeated three gym leaders, but I’ve already got my leveling dream team, which includes this game’s version of Dragonite, not through trades but almost purely through solo hunting and a few raids.

It feels like a solid accomplishment, especially because I usually can’t do this without a lot of uneven trading with friends farther in the game than me, which feels cheaty. Going through the game with the team I want instead of just whatever’s conveniently nearby makes me feel more like I’m in a game world than playing a game. I know some people wanted a “truly” open experience, but don’t expect scaling in levels or power, just some small hurdles to jump.

As a basic example, specific badges don’t make it easier to control pokemon, it’s the number of badges you have. That means if you decide to skip gyms for awhile, like I did, you may come to a point where pokemon suddenly become much harder to catch and your own ‘mon start refusing to follow orders. It sucks, but by that point, going back to the content you’re lacking is a breeze since you’re probably fairly outleveled it. I haven’t done much in the proper order, but for the Path of Titans, I essentially did (in terms of level accessibility) the first third.

Breaking through the linear path opens things up, and honestly it’s kind of fun to accidentally run into a high-level area seamlessly. It’s something that happened a lot in my old MMO days, but recent games, even without loading screens, tend to announce when you’re in a new zone and maybe even give some warning as to whether or not you should be worried.

The lack of forced trainer battles is also a huge relief. Between all the visible pokemon (including when they’re shiny!), various items, hidden points of interest, raids, and other various treasures (gimme your coins, random Gimmighouls), the last thing I want to worry about is whether or not I’m going to trigger an annoying trainer battle. You do get some bonuses for fighting them via crafting materials and cash (which I’m in dire need of thanks to prioritizing exploration), but you can neglect them and other areas of the game until you feel like tackling them.

“Crafting” is neat too, and I’m glad that carried over from PLA. Rather than making balls and potions, you’re making TMs from recipes you find or unlock out of various dropped materials. Pokemon GO players can think of it like candy: Each evolution stage drops an item named after its least-evolved form, such as Pikachus dropping Pichu items. It’s not particularly deep or terribly interesting, but it helps ensure that I’m less stringy with both TMs and money than I was in previous games. Knowing that I can bring some of my past companions into the game later helps as well.

Raising pokemon, though, is still much like what we experienced in Sword and Shield. Essentially, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet takes the Sword and Shield pokemon mechanics and raids, borrows PLA‘s stealth and crafting in very simple ways, then turns the usual gameworld into a more open-ended island to traverse. Being a literal school child with few customization outfits sucks, but the stories are slightly better thus far. Try as I might to simply blast through everything to get to the endgame, I’m literally sitting here writing with my game open so my ‘mon can make eggs to help random online strangers. There’s so much to slow you down, not because of bugs or perceived slights but because the developers gave us several storylines instead of a single linear one and we can weave it as we see fit.

I know hardcores have their own thoughts on how the franchise is going, but Scarley and Violet are highly accessible, and accessibility is what really makes this series so popular. Now if only they’d take advantage of that popularity and let more of us play together in a shared world!

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!
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