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Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s open world needs better cities

Larger cities can feel superficially big, but exploration outside of them is enchanting

Four Pokémon trainers hanging out around a picnic table with their Pokémon. Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The Pokémon Company promised a big, expansive world with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, with cities and towns that spill over into fields, forests, and sandy beaches. A great open world feels alive, as if it’s going on without you — the main character it all revolves around.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet achieve this feeling, but only in parts. The games’ sprawling, wild areas are awe-inspiring and packed with Pokémon; deserts and mountains are split by a craggy mountain wall, and icy rivers flow into massive lakes with thriving ecosystems. But compared to these areas, some of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s biggest Paldean cities feel paltry. Scarlet and Violet’s academy hub of Mesagoza, in particular, is superficially outsized.

Standing atop a watchtower in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, overlooking a desert landscape that leads toward a PokéStop. Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo via Polygon

Mesagoza is clearly the largest city in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and both students and citygoers gather in the academy courtyard and the town center. But when you look closer at the city, wandering its streets, things start to feel empty outside a few small areas. There are lots of alleys that sweep behind buildings and offer nothing but a dead end. The city’s stores are largely just fronts where you’re kicked to a menu to buy items rather than wandering around an actual store. (A small handful of shops let you through the doors, like the sandwich store.) It wasn’t particularly promising, as the first city your character encounters; it felt disappointing to enter from a lush wild area into a stark, superficial city.

Not all the cities are like this, though they do all tend to have menu storefronts rather than actual shop interiors. Most other cities are tightly condensed in small, bustling areas that better flow from towns to wilds. This smaller size makes such towns feel fuller — even as many of the stores and vendors in these smaller towns are the same as the ones in Mesagoza.

But it’s the wide-open spaces where Pokémon Scarlet and Violet really thrive. These biomes tell stories about the world that we can’t see in Mesagoza. It’s much more interesting to climb into a watchtower and scan the area; sparkling light shines up from Terastal Pokémon, glimmering colors lighting up the sky. You can pick out a landmark and head out from there, using your Miraidon or Koraidon as a glider that zooms through valleys. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s map provides a lot of context and serves as a pretty extensive guide on the landscape, but the real moments of magic are in stumbling upon something exciting or unknown, even if it’s a wild Pokémon that’s about to wreck your Lv. 14 creatures.

Different areas have unique habitats with Pokémon that spawn there, each with their own Pokémon interactions. Pokémon separate into little groups in some spots, with one big Pokémon surrounded by little guys following the big Pokémon’s lead. During battles, wild Pokémon hop around in the background, some bumbling over to watch the action. Each Pokémon species reacts a little bit differently when you pass by; certain Pokémon are aggressive and looking for a fight, but others seem to just want to follow you around. It feels easy to overlook certain visual problems when the world feels more special.

My instinct is that this sense of size and scope in Paldea’s open areas will only be expanded with the inclusion of multiplayer, which wasn’t in action during Polygon’s pre-release playtime. Exploring environments alongside other players — something we’ve never been able to do before in a Pokémon game — will make this world feel even more alive.

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