Pokémon Scarlet & Violet didn’t necessarily need “more,” but it certainly needed “better.” The Teal Mask, Scarlet & Violet’s first DLC chapter of the Hidden Treasure of Area Zero expansion, undoubtedly brings “more” to the table. As a result, however, its strengths—and weaknesses—mostly overlap with the base game’s.
Among The Teal Mask’s strengths are its story and characters. While it isn’t the strongest the Pokémon series has seen, The Teal Mask’s control over narrative gives the adventure a chance to stand alongside the base game’s memorable points. Scarlet & Violet’s base game succeeded by having a nonlinear experience unique to the series. The Teal Mask, on the other hand, opts for a linear approach. Only one story-progressing objective appears on the map at a time, with the singular exception of one set of boss battles. As welcome as Scarlet & Violet’s open-world change was for the series at large, The Teal Mask’s linear approach is effective in combination with the smaller scale of the Kitakami map and intertwined characters.
The Teal Mask’s characters also get to stand out through their interactions with each other. While Scarlet & Violet’s characters benefitted from staying in their own storylines and thus not feeling intrusive, The Teal Mask’s rivals Kieran and Carmine are strengthened by appearing together. The characters change drastically throughout the storyline: the meek Kieran grows more argumentative, and the antagonistic Carmine becomes more supportive. These major turns are not only intriguing to observe, but they’re exemplified because these two differing characters can directly interact with each other.
In addition, The Teal Mask takes a page from Scarlet & Violet’s book and makes the story’s central Pokémon into full-fledged characters of their own. Ogerpon’s backstory and saccharine behavior during its time with you make it one of the most endearing Pokémon the series has seen to date. The Loyal Three also get their chance to impact the story and directly oppose Ogerpon. Unlike Scarlet & Violet’s Treasures of Ruin, a legendary quartet that has no story relevance at all, Ogerpon and the Loyal Three are instead much more naturally integrated into The Teal Mask’s story, and meaningfully help fill in Kitakami’s world.
In other areas, however, the world of Kitakami feels particularly empty, a trait shared with the base game’s Paldea, in which the environments’ appearance and scale are impressive but largely uninteresting. This is mainly due to a lack of engaging one-time and repeatable side-quests. The ability to scale walls, swim, and fly at no cost whatsoever also exacerbates this issue. When it’s incredibly easy to go anywhere at any time, the fact that there’s no worthwhile place to go to becomes even more obvious. There’s also no intrinsic motivation to explore when exploration as an activity isn’t interesting. The act of exploration doesn’t get easier as the game progresses—you simply either can or can’t scale cliffsides, ride across water, or fly through the air based on your unlocked upgrades. Unlocking these exploration methods happens exclusively in the base game, but the problems with their execution seep into The Teal Mask all the same, since your method of transportation remains either Miraidon or Koraidon.
Other issues from Scarlet & Violet’s base game also return in The Teal Mask, including the lack of an overworld indicator for the appearance of shiny Pokémon, and wild Pokémon dogpiling you whenever you open a menu. These problems can even stack upon each other, since if you do manage to see a shiny Pokémon and choose to save in front of it, the shiny Pokémon can run and clip into you while you’re still in the menu. If this happens, there’s a chance the shiny Pokémon won’t respawn if you need to restart the game.
One reason why you may need to restart could be if your single special Poké Ball fails to catch the Pokémon in question. Like Scarlet & Violet, The Teal Mask’s mechanics exist to encourage players to prioritize catching Pokémon over breeding for them. Some of these features are a net negative on the game, including a very unappealing breeding system that doesn’t allow you to hatch Eggs while receiving new ones. Other features are incredibly welcomed for the ways they make competitive Pokémon creation more accessible, such as the Mirror Herb teaching fully-grown Pokémon Egg Moves. But essential facets of this process are still neglected, including the availability of specialty Poké Balls.
You can only catch a Pokémon once, and the Poké Ball you choose to use can make quite a statement. It’s a simple but effective piece of player expression, and the closest thing to a fashion item equivalent for our Pokémon. Yet in The Teal Mask, players can only earn a measly four Apricorn Poké Balls, which isn’t even an entire set. It’s baffling how there still isn’t a reliable source to provide extras of these Poké Balls when the base game and DLC so strongly want players to catch Pokémon instead of breeding for them.
Another baffling choice is the continued absence of an opposite to the Bottle Cap items. The Teal Mask introduces Mochi, which are essentially free Vitamin items. Some say time is money, however, so the fact that you need to play the new Ogre Oustin’ minigame to receive them may not make them so “free.” But the Mochi are a step in the right direction when it comes to competitive Pokémon creation, especially the Fresh-Start Mochi. This single item can clear all of a Pokémon’s EVs at once, which is a massive improvement over the only other option: the 10-at-a-time EV-reducing berries. But there’s still no way to reduce a Pokémon’s IVs to 0, despite the steps forward made for EV training. These very steps forward are proof that improvement is warranted and possible. Yet, with each passing game and DLC expansion comes more and more exasperation over the fact that such small but crucial portions of the competitive Pokémon creation process continue to be rolled out at a needlessly slow pace.
Improvements to Scarlet & Violet’s camera system haven’t been neglected, however—in fact, The Teal Mask makes great use of the player’s camera. While Kitakami lacks a quest system—and quests in general—one quest serves as a major boon to the chapter: tracking down the Bloodmoon Beast. To find and capture a special Bloodmoon Ursaluna of your own, you must complete a string of tasks. The most notable is taking photographs of different Pokémon during a foggy night in the region’s forest area. This entire segment is relaxing but challenging, as you have to sneak up on most Pokémon to take their photo—and be close enough that the Pokémon is clearly visible. The photography survey is a charming experience that I wish I could replay—or that there were more surveys like it throughout Kitakami.
Once you’ve completed the survey, you get to battle Bloodmoon Ursaluna raid-style, which means you’re guaranteed to capture it once you defeat it. The same goes for Ogerpon—and this is actually a majorly positive outcome. The Teal Mask may not give the player many special Poké Balls to use, but the guaranteed catch rate on Bloodmoon Ursaluna and Ogerpon means players can use whatever Poké Ball they want on them without worry. The item distribution may still need work, but this method of battling and capturing special Pokémon is definitely a significant improvement over past titles’ standard battles, and one of the things The Teal Mask does quite well.
Based on what The Teal Mask does well, it should have been a great piece of DLC expansion. Unfortunately, it is unsurprisingly held back by the same issues that detracted from the base game. While The Teal Mask certainly manages to provide more of what made Scarlet & Violet fun, it also includes more of what held it back from greatness, resulting in an experience whose enjoyment is even more fleeting than the base game’s. The Teal Mask’s story cliffhanger has got me looking forward to The Indigo Disk, but the gameplay leaves me anticipating it in a less positive way.