The Teal Mask is a short, sweet reminder of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s real potential

- Published: 22 September 2023
A front-facing selfie of a human child wearing a green jinbei, and standing with two dog-like creatures.
A trainer taking a selfie with a Houndour and an Okidoggi. | Nintendo

The Pokémon games may be in their open-world era, but Scarlet and Violet’s new DLC proves that a little bit more focus on smarter, more linear gameplay can work wonders.

As unintentionally glitchy as Pokémon Scarlet and Violet often felt at launch, their introduction of a massive, truly open world felt like a major step forward for the core franchise, and the promise of DLC made it seem as if Game Freak might have a solid plan to evolve the titles even further. Unfortunately, The Teal Mask — the first half of Scarlet and Violet’s announced DLC drops — doesn’t bring any of the sorely needed bug fixes that players have been begging for since the games debuted earlier this year.

But as lacking as The Teal Mask is in the way of fancy new features and major graphical updates, it adds a solid new chapter to this generation’s story and — surprisingly — demonstrates how Scarlet and Violet could benefit from a bit more linearity in the future.

Though some of The Teal Mask’s smaller additions end up carrying over into Paldea, the DLC transports players to the new Kitikami region as part of a cultural exchange-focused school trip. Rather than sending you off to Kitikami with the friends you make in the core game, The Teal Mask puts an emphasis on meeting new people and pokémon in Mossui Town just in time for the local Festival of Masks.

Collectively, the three utterly forgettable Paldean classmates who arrive in Kitakami with you are about as interesting as Scarlet and Violet’s draw distance is impressive (which is to say: not at all). But what your fellow Naranja / Uva Academy students lack in personality, The Teal Mask more than makes up for with new characters like Carmine and Kieran, a pair of Kitikamian sibling trainers from sister / rival school Blueberry Academy, and their teacher Briar.

Kitikami — a sparsely incorporated and rural expanse whose verdant fields and orchards are often difficult to appreciate from afar due to the game’s draw-distance issues — is relatively small compared to Paldea. But that physical smallness lends itself to a distinct sense of focus as The Teal Mask’s story kicks in, and you begin learning about Kitakami’s traditions, its local fauna, and the legendary origins of the mask festival you’re invited to participate in.

Somewhat similar to Scarlet and Violet’s core stories in which you become friends with other students and their entangled dramas, The Teal Mask gives you free rein to explore Kitakami as you hunt for treasures. In this case, those treasures are the answer to a rather straightforward mystery and a variety of wild pokémon returning from previous generations like Milotic and Changelure. But whereas the Paldean stories put more emphasis on crisscrossing the region to complete battles and play far too awkward mini-games, The Teal Mask’s unfolds in a much more linear fashion that actually ends up making Kitikami feel like a more memorable place.

Even though the Paldean wilderness is teeming with monsters, one of Scarlet and Violet’s biggest persistent issues is how empty the region itself feels, both because of how a lot of its towns are designed and because of how they bop from one concurrent plot line to the next.

Scarlet and Violet giving players the ability to dip in and out of storylines and take on gym leaders in (mostly) whatever order they wanted were bold changes to the classic formula that definitely felt like steps in an interesting direction. Those steps also often made it hard to appreciate Paldea as a fully fleshed-out assortment of cities, and one of the most unexpectedly pleasant things about The Teal Mask is how strongly it establishes Kitakami as its own distinct space that exists within the larger world.

Playing through The Teal Mask, I kept coming back to the idea that, while I might not go so far as to call Kitikami a full-on “region” like Hisui or Galar and its Isle of Armor, it felt a lot like what I wanted for Scarlet and Violet’s individual cities — both in terms of distinct design and cultural uniqueness.

Teal’s the word, but Kitakami’s a pointedly green filled with grass-type living candy apple monstrosities, and festival goers sporting deep jade jinbei and masks evocative of some of The Teal Mask’s new legendary pokémon. Even though you’re only experiencing Kitikami during one special season, it’s a vibrant one that makes it feel like it has some real history to it that isn’t as threadbare as Paldea’s. And the DLC makes sure that a solid chunk of that Kitikamian culture is impressed upon you as you dig into its story.

Quite notably, along with a slew of new pokémon to catch, The Teal Mask also introduces a variety of new clothing options, hairstyles, and emotes that bump the games’ trainer customization option up… a bit. Similar to how Paldea’s towns tend to feel like places that weren’t designed with living people in mind, Scarlet and Violet’s customization features are still woefully lacking when you compare your trainer to some of the game’s more detailed monster models. Tiny UI fixes like the UI bug that left a substantial lag while you were scrolling storage boxes are welcome additions, as is the way you can easily travel between Kitakami and Paldea from your Rotom Phone by switching maps.

The Rotom Phone itself receives a small update that lets you match the theme of its UI to the look of its physical case (and there is a new handful of those as well). But the Rotom Phone receives its biggest upgrade by way of the new Roto-Stick, a regular selfie stick that lets you take photos at a bunch of new angles that already should have been possible given that the phone can canonically fly because it’s possessed by a ghost.

While the Rotom Phone’s improved photo-snapping capabilities still leave a lot to be desired, The Teal Mask’s camera-centric mini-game is one of the DLC’s highlights, even though it plays like a half-baked New Pokémon Snap. The Teal Mask’s connecting Scarlet and Violet to Pokémon Arceus is one of its most intriguing — if small — facets, but the most exciting thing about the DLC as a whole is the way its plot gestures toward some promising things about the games’ future.

Along with laying the groundwork for The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero’s second half, The Indigo Disk, The Teal Mask also drops some fairly heavy-handed hints about what’s on the horizon for the Pokémon franchise.

Again, The Teal Mask doesn’t solve many of Scarlet and Violet’s core gameplay issues, and people hoping for a drastic overhaul are going to be rather disappointed. But playing the DLC at a time when the rumors about a Switch follow-up have shifted into “it’s getting serious” territory is especially fun because you can see clearly how beefier hardware could really work wonders for Scarlet and Violet and how the more Kitikami-like approach to design might be what makes next big Pokémon game shine.