I’ve put over 120 hours into last November’s Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and I think at some point between then and now, I must have mentally suppressed just how poorly these open-world Switch games run. Either that, or their first DLC, The Teal Mask, is somehow worse at holding itself together than the base games were.
At a glance, I’m not sure why walking through Kitakami, the DLC’s tiny new region, threatened to break the game, but I experienced some of the worst framerate dips (sometimes even complete stoppage) I’ve ever experienced on Nintendo’s hybrid handheld. The Teal Mask runs so poorly that it leaves me once again bewildered that the original games launched in the state they did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Teal Mask feels like a microcosm of the base games’ larger issues, as well as their strengths.
Coming off Scarlet and Violet’s Yoko Taro-ass finale and going into The Teal Mask’s relatively low-stakes Pokémon story feels like a nice palate cleanser. We’re not dealing with life-and-death right now, with the DLC instead bringing things back to your character’s school life. You get dragged into an exchange program (all by yourself, too, so don’t expect to see Nemona, Penny, or Arven) with students from Blueberry Academy, a sister school to your Naranja Academy/Uva Academy (game version depending). You’re all to meet at the remote region of Kitakami and learn about the local culture and legends and partake in a festival to celebrate some of the Pokémon folklore. The story is where The Teal Mask shines in spite of the technical troubles, so perhaps fittingly, this DLC embodies both the best and worst parts of Scarlet and Violet.
The Teal Mask is at its best in its writing. New characters like the brother and sister duo Kieran and Carmine stand tall next to Scarlet and Violet’s already wonderful cast. Carmine is a hoot and a holler as she gives angry big sister energy and gradually softens overtime. Kieran, meanwhile, is the new expansion’s emotional core. Much of the DLC is about how kind-hearted people are excluded, and that extends both to the grander lore of Kitakami and its individual villages.
I’m really loving how much Scarlet and Violet delves into these really poignant stories, and even if Teal Mask never reaches the dramatic heights of the base games’ final hours, it feels reassuring to see Game Freak still writing Pokémon stories that build the world and its people out rather than feeling like vehicles to deliver more competitive tweaks and catchable critters. In that, The Teal Mask is already making a solid first impression for the wider expanded story the studio is adding through this collective Hidden Treasure of Area Zero expansion, which will be concluding in The Indigo Disk DLC set to launch later this year.
Those themes extend to the story of Ogerpon, the enigmatic legendary Pokémon who is the headliner of the DLC and owner of the titular mask. The grass-type, mask-wearing little guy is part of local urban legends that, as you play through The Teal Mask, reveal themselves to be half-truths, and circle back into the story of disenfranchisement the DLC illustrates with Kieran. The tale is compelling, and even if it doesn’t dig too deep, its take on the cognitive dissonance the locals feel toward tradition in the face of new information is a pretty cool use of Pokémon lore. I’m not super compelled by Ogerpon as a Pokémon, and its original mechanic of being able to swap typings and other properties by wearing different masks doesn’t feel super novel after the Scarlet and Violet base games introduced modular typings with the Terastalize mechanic. Nonetheless, its story makes for an interesting cultural touchstone that helps fill out this new region.
The Teal Mask’s low stakes feel like tablesetting for The Indigo Disk, which appears to be delving further into the hanging threads left by Scarlet and Violet. Even so, Teal Mask harbors darker undercurrents that leave me more looking forward to that DLC we don’t yet have. But Teal Mask and Indigo Disk have been marketed as a two-parter, so that’s not terribly surprising, and I did find a lot to love in the ground-level conflicts and relationships in this opening chapter. The final scene of the DLC, which I won’t spoil here, did at least hint that these smaller stories may soon escalate into something larger, and given how well Scarlet and Violet’s writing has handled stories of trauma, especially that felt by children, I’m really eager to see how Game Freak concludes this story in the next download.
But goddamn, getting to it is so rough. Walking through Kitakami’s open world is an absolute slog, with me and my Raichu trying to walk through pretty barren environments peppered with only a few civilians. I’m not sure why The Teal Mask gave me even worse performance issues than the main game, but whatever the reason, its framerate drops are even worse than Scarlet and Violet’s. The wild thing is, I know this is how Scarlet and Violet were. I’m keenly aware that despite my love of those games’ final hours, this was what I experienced for 25-30 hours as I made my way through Paldea to get to Area Zero. So why was it so surprising to witness The Teal Mask barely holding itself together as I sauntered through a GameCube-looking environment?
Maybe it’s because there had been so many patches between Scarlet and Violet’s launch and now that I thought I’d see some improvement—or maybe it’s because I’m also playing Cyberpunk 2077’s 2.0 update that I’m reflecting on how a once-broken game can get its act together—but it just seems like after all that time and lip service, Scarlet and Violet are still the same technically hobbled games they were nine months ago. They have a lot of great qualities; the world-spanning co-op is a childhood dream of exploring the Pokémon world with your best friends realized; the stories they weave are some of the best the series has ever had; and there’s a lot of interesting competitive interplay that will now get some new wrinkles with all the new (and returning) Pokémon the DLC is adding.
But it’s also still this. Scarlet and Violet already showed major signs of technical stress, and the bulging seams are even more apparent in The Teal Mask. As much as I enjoyed this DLC, it remains disappointing that some of Pokémon’s best stuff is being dragged down by a game engine that feels like it’s just a slight breeze away from falling apart.