For a series that has so often been accused of exploiting nostalgia or failing to innovate, “Pokémon Scarlet and Violet” were unexpected but welcome leaps toward a new direction for Pokémon. Following in the footsteps of “Pokémon Legends: Arceus,” “Scarlet and Violet” also brought in many ideas of their own: open-world exploration, the flagship Terastalization feature and a three-route split that resulted in the games having over twice the content of previous entries. First tries, however, are never perfect, and considering Game Freak’s history of rushed development, “Scarlet and Violet” felt too ambitious for their own good and were clearly unfinished. The strange glitches, frequent frame drops and infamous memory leak issue certainly didn’t help Generation IX start on a strong note.
But in today’s gaming atmosphere, post-release content is an opportunity to rectify a bad first impression. “Cyberpunk 2077’s” “Phantom Liberty” expansion and “No Man’s Sky’s” many patches are the most notorious examples of this, but Pokémon is no stranger to this practice: “Pokémon Legends: Arceus” and the Generation VIII games both received downloadable content that, among other things, strengthened their core gameplay and fixed many of their launch issues. In the past, the series has done this work with the release of a third version, but this hasn’t occurred since “Pokémon Platinum,” which was 15 years ago (sorry!). Today’s DLC has all but replaced third versions, adding new content and refining the old. So, does “The Teal Mask,” the first half of Generation IX’s expansion pass, achieve this?
Not really, no. But it is a worthwhile experience in its own right, and for those that enjoyed the base game in spite of its performance issues, there is a lot of compelling content. “The Teal Mask” features the brand-new Kitakami region — the first Japanese-inspired region since Generation IV — many new and returning Pokémon and a new story, accompanied by plenty of side content.
The “six wonders of Kitakami,” the central Oni Mountain and Mossui Town are lively and novel locations that flesh out Kitakami’s identity, setting it apart from previous Pokémon regions. The new areas are fun to explore and there are plenty of things to see: the Crystal Pool calls upon the primal human urge to stare at pretty water graphics. The region is replete with returning fan-favorites, including Snorlax and Milotic — both of which appear as static encounters in Kitakami — as well as Mightyena, Ninetales, Ribombee and Vikavolt, among many others. Yet as always, the main appeal of any entry in the series is the new Pokémon, and “The Teal Mask” doesn’t disappoint. The Sinistcha line takes Polteageist’s already fantastic “spirit possessing a teacup” concept and turns it into a kami possessing a matcha bowl, a memorable design by itself as well as contributing to Kitakami’s Japanese theming. Dipplin is a fitting third evolution for Applin, adding to the line’s motif with a candy apple design, though there are indications of a possible further evolution. The Loyal Three — Okidogi, Munkidori, and Fezandipiti — are a cohesive and innovative trio, playing off each other to compensate for somewhat boring individual designs, while Ogerpon, the wearer of the titular Teal Mask, is one of the most charming legendaries in the series with a cute design playing off the fearsome nature of oni and a mischievous personality that is immediately endearing.
“The Teal Mask’s” story, which is only the first half of the “Hidden Treasure of Area Zero” storyline is not groundbreaking but does its job. The player embarks on a poorly supervised field trip across the Kitakami region and unfolds the lore of the region’s legendaries, the aforementioned Loyal Three and Ogerpon. Arven, Penny and Nemona are odd omissions, considering that the story is framed around a school trip, but the new characters stand on their own. Carmine and Kieran work off each other well, and although they’re not the deepest characters, they’re both quite charming. Because this is only half of the announced DLC, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and certain characters, like Briar, only really exist to set up the “The Indigo Disk’s” plot, which results in a story that is somewhat unsatisfying, but understandably so.
Kitakami also features a multitude of sidequests, from the gym-like Kitakami Ogre Clan battles to Perrin’s “Bloodmoon Beast” quest, as well as a brand-new minigame, Ogre Oustin’. Expectedly for Pokémon, replayability is a strong suit: you can complete the Kitakami Pokédex, participate in Tera Raids, hunt shinies via mass outbreaks or build competitive teams. There is some modular difficulty here, as the levels of all Pokémon and Trainers change drastically depending on whether you have completed the main story. If you have, you’ll likely have some overleveled Pokémon with which you could easily stomp the entire region. However, I would recommend that you play through “The Teal Mask” with a full party of Kitakami Pokémon, as I did. If you do opt for this extra challenge and try out everything that this package has to offer, there is plenty to do.
For the most part, “The Teal Mask” is completely separate from the base “Scarlet and Violet” games, but there are some quality-of-life features to note. The Experience Charm, which is received during the story, makes grinding easier by increasing experience gain, while the Glimmering Charm, which raises Tera Shard drop rates, makes experimenting with Tera Types much less tedious (although you’ll need to complete the Kitakami Pokédex to obtain it). The brand-new mochi are a less morbid alternative for Effort Value training when compared to the traditional method of force-feeding your Pokémon vitamins, and the Fresh-Start mochi resets all EVs to zero, which is a welcome addition, finally freeing competitive players from the horrors of Porto Marinada auctions.
All this is not to say that the original game’s flaws aren’t present here. As fun as exploration is, the frequent frame drops can make it an annoying experience, and as beautiful as Kitakami’s landscapes are on paper, the Switch’s flimsy 720p resolution when undocked and “Scarlet and Violet’s” graphical deficiencies create visuals of questionable quality, even though the newly textured Pokémon models and new character designs are fantastic. The aforementioned Ogre Oustin’ mini-game lost most of its fun value when my console struggled through it, and there’s still some rough edges here, though it is worth noting that some of “Scarlet and Violet’s” launch issues have been addressed.
“The Teal Mask” is not too different from the original Generation IX games, but for those that enjoyed “Scarlet and Violet” for their bold direction, focus on exploration, openness and unique story, there’s more of the same here. It isn’t possible to purchase “The Teal Mask” on its own, as it’s only the first half of “The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero,” which retails for $34.99. The second half of this pack, “The Indigo Disk,” is set to release later this year and has some exciting additions of its own, making “The Teal Mask” all the more enticing — both as a prelude to the next chapter and as a worthwhile adventure in its own right.
Daily Arts Contributor Ariel Litwak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.