Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, our video host Alex Olney has some ideas on how to make Pokémon Scarlet and Violet better...
The Pokémon series is slowly, painfully evolving its games into open-world exploration games, rather than the linear route to the Pokémon League that they used to be. Pokémon Sword and Shield had wide, open areas, but was still a linear path; Pokémon Legends: Arceus had more open areas, but each one was separate; now, we have Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the first "proper" open world Pokémon games, which promised us from the beginning that we could do things in any order we liked.
Except it turns out that that's not quite true. You start at the bottom of the map, work your way up to the main city, and then you can go anywhere — although most places will contain Pokémon stronger than you, and obstacles you can't overcome without some late-game traversal mechanic. It's technically true that you can go anywhere... you just won't get far.
So, how could The Pokémon Company and Game Freak improve the open-world experience for next time? Our video host Alex has some thoughts...
How To Improve Pokémon Scarlet And Violet's Open World
Start in the middle of the map, or at least not at the edge
In an open world where exploration is the main drive, it’s important to give the player the agency to reach a wide variety of different locales.
This sort of happens in ScaVio, but you’re largely discouraged from going North due to the giant crater of Area Zero. By plonking the player in an area that has intrigue regardless of direction, you allow them to forge their own path, and ultimately their own unique adventure. Pokémon has always tried to achieve this with the Pokémon alone and the party that you make, so adding in another element of agency is only going to heighten that.
Give the player the ability to go almost anywhere virtually immediately
Don’t lock required movement abilities behind progress. It artificially restricts the player’s exploration possibilities.
That doesn’t mean players should be encouraged to go literally wherever they want as that can upset the flow of the game; something that is already an extremely difficult thing to balance in open world titles. Instead the game can apply soft gates, such as high level Pokémon, or obstacles that are possible to scale but very difficult to do so without some variety of optional upgrades.
This will let less experienced or more cautious players know that they’re likely not equipped to be here, but also signal to more daring players that whilst you probably shouldn’t push further, you’re welcome to try.
Use sprawling landscapes instead of extreme verticality
The sense of scale is important in giving players the feeling that they are in a truly gigantic world. Seeing landmarks and points of interest from great distances is only possible with gradual, more sweeping landscapes, even if they aren’t that accurate to real life.
This can be further amplified by having the camera higher up, allowing the player to see more than their in-game character would be able to. Give players the chance to see something and want to explore it, rather than feeling trapped within a certain locale.
Give the player health
Not strictly an open-world mechanic, but it plays into the way the world is experienced. In ScaVio the player is merely an agent for the Pokémon they catch, and is essentially absent from any meaningful interactions, partly due to their silent nature.
Giving the player health like in Legends: Arceus makes the player feel as though they themselves have a genuine presence in the game. Wild Pokémon should try to attack you personally, rather than simply forcing a battle with whatever you’ve already caught. This means that having no healthy Pokémon doesn’t result in a white-out; rather losing all your health does, encouraging a wider variety of playstyles depending on the surrounding monsters.
This can be fraught with its own problems of course, one of which is players simply damage-boosting through powerful foes to reach high-value rewards, but this can be mitigated by making health recover gradually, or limiting your movement when ‘injured’. The Pokédex tells us that some of these creatures can level mountains or melt stone, so give the player a reason to fear them.
Don’t lock players into trivial battles they don’t want to take part in
Trainers won’t interrupt you in ScaVio, but many small Pokémon are almost impossible to see due to their diminutive stature. It’s all too simple to just run into one and be locked into a tedious battle that’s too easy; the player should always be the one to decide if a wild encounter turns into a battle.
Have weaker, smaller Pokémon actively run away or keep their distance from the player if they get too close, even if it’s a ‘friendly’ or ‘curious’ one. More powerful or aggressive monsters should attack the player directly if they feel threatened, knocking them off their mount and forcing the player to decide whether to engage, or run as best they can.
Don’t scatter items quite so freely
It makes little sense for so many man-made items to be so readily available just lying on the ground everywhere from a lore sense, it makes the game too easy in a mechanical sense, and gives off the impression that these items are litter.
Instead, have more natural environmental items such as herbs, plants, berries, and other natural resources that players can use in order to heal their Pokémon. Legends: Arceus did something similar, but locked it behind a crafting mechanic that merely added a step to things, but the idea is sound.
The flora should also be visible from a distance rather than inexplicable sparkles on the ground. Players should be able to spot something from a distance and think ‘Ah! Green Leaves with faint yellow stripes, I can use that to heal my Pokémon!’ and give them agency and an –admittedly piecemeal – objective to reach organically. Crafting or processing could potentially be used to improve the potency of a plant’s healing properties if required, allowing more health/status effects to be healed in a single interaction rather than requiring multiple doses. A healing herb could be combined with a healing mushroom to provide greater benefits than the sum of their parts, much like the cooking mechanic in Breath of the Wild.
Man-made items can still be present, but significantly rarer, and most commonly broken. Broken TMs, Poké Balls, lures, they could all be repairable for a nominal fee, or using your own expertise. The latter of which could be an optional upgrade to the player’s skillset. You don’t tend to walk the countryside or a city and find intact and untouched bottles of medicine wherever you go.
Make trainer battles an event
Trainers just hang around strangely waiting for someone to battle them, and when you do engage with them it’s often barely different from a wild encounter.
Trainer battles would be far more interesting if there were fewer of them, and their party was of a greater size. Give each trainer a pool of Pokémon to pull from, and take the player’s gym badges and highest level Pokémon in their party into account when pulling from the pool somewhat randomly. Whilst it makes no logical sense for a trainer at an early section in the game to match your skill level if you’ve been training for dozens of hours, the strict levelling system doesn’t make any logical sense either; it’s a mechanic that provides an illusion to streamline gameplay.
However, this can in turn run the risk of presenting inexperienced players with too much of a challenge; if a player takes on a trainer and loses, then trains up further to try and take them down only for their opponent to suddenly match their improved Pokémon, they’re likely to feel cheated, and as though their grinding was for nothing. This can be worked around by locking an enemy trainer’s party once it is generated, and keeping it that way until the player defeats them, or the player increases their number of gym badges as a distinct marker of progress.
An open world is no fun if the difficulty can’t adjust itself in order to keep the push/pull balance in order throughout. Scaling Wild Pokémon is something to keep in mind, although some areas should naturally have weaker monsters than others so that the scaling can be ‘hidden’ to some degree.
Perhaps using too strong a Pokémon to take out too many weaklings can trigger an enraged parent or ‘related’ Pokémon of a much higher level to appear suddenly and attack the player, immediately and unexpectedly bringing an element of difficulty to an otherwise simple area, and only triggered by the player’s brutish actions that can come only from being too powerful for the common fauna.
But far more importantly Gyms absolutely need to be scaled. Using the same system we mentioned for Trainer battles, they should pull from a pool of available Pokémon at semi-random, using the player’s total number of gym badges and highest level Pokémon as values to determine the eventual leader’s party, with a small degree of randomness thrown in to keep things exciting.
Again, once decided, the Gym Leader’s party should be locked unless the player acquires more Gym Badges from elsewhere. This could even be easily explained in lore, as the Gym Leaders consider your number of badges and select a party befitting of your current ‘ranking’. This has even been addressed in official media, namely the mini-series ‘Pokémon Origins’.
Make traversal fun
Exploration is made infinitely more enjoyable if the mere act of moving around is fun. Giving the player the desire to use the landscape to change and accelerate or improve how they explore will help the player become familiar and invested in the world.
Examples include using steep slopes to slide down and ramps to launch from, tall vertical structures that can be climbed and jumped from to provide greater air time, and a moveset and toolkit that allows multiple methods of traversal. This feeling can then be heightened in specific sections where this freedom is taken away from the player, like the slippery Shrine walls in Breath of the Wild.
Change the camera’s position, you can either see the landscape ahead of you or the tiny Pokémon right in front of you, which is a really irritating problem, possibly designed to limit your field of view and make rendering ‘easier’. Whatever the reason, we don't need to see our character’s shoes 100% of the time.
Just let us catch Pokémon by throwing balls like in Arceus. If they’re too tough you have to battle them anyway but there are an awful lot of the sods around. Let’s Go streamlines battles so let us streamline catching… like you did before.
Think about the purpose of towns and villages before making them. There’s one early on that’s literally just four houses, and you can’t even go in any of them. What’s the point?
Do you agree with Alex? Which of these ideas would you like to see in Pokémon and Scarlet the most? And what are your ideas to fix the open world? Tell us in the comments, and make sure to read through our Pokémon Scarlet & Violet walkthrough guides if you're having trouble with the game!