The main games in the Pokémon franchise have always been considered critic-proof. It doesn't matter if the critics universally praise or pan the title; if a Pokémon game is released and isn't a spin-off, you'll have a large cache of die-hard Pokémon fans champing at the bit to get their hands on the game. It's a guaranteed money maker for Nintendo and, considering the quality of the previous releases in the series, it has worked hard to earn the reputation of being an excellent title.
With the release of Pokémon Black and Pokémon White, fans lined up and picked up the games in droves. This review isn't for them, as they wouldn't bother to read any reviews in favor of trying to catch and train every Pokémon. This review is for the gamers who haven't played a Pokémon game for a while, if at all, and are wondering if this is as good a place as any to start.
The story, for the most part, is something you've seen many times before if you've played any of the older core games in the series. You're a young boy or girl in the Unova region, and the time has come for you to start your journey in the world of Pokémon. After selecting your first Pokémon (fire, grass or water type), you'll go on your quest to fill in a Pokedex so that the professor can have a better idea on the various Pokémon in the land. Along the way, you'll meet up with various gym leaders, stop the schemes of an evil organization, and ultimately become a Pokémon master.
As far as plot goes, the enemy group Team Plasma provides one of the more daring story choices yet for the franchise. Like the enemy organization Team Rocket back in the original games, Team Plasma's goal is to liberate you from your Pokémon. However, their underlying motive is that of freeing the Pokémon from your oppression, arguing that the creatures only resort to fighting because you tell them to and that they don't really benefit from the process. Of course, they try to convince you of this in the most unappealing manner possible, but it seems that their members are fanatical about the cause instead of simply being evil for evil's sake. While their motives don't exactly deepen the story to the degree you'd see in games like BioShock, it weakens the argument that the series is made up of kids' games. The same can be said of N, the other trainer you meet who believes in Pokémon liberation. His presence and arguments make for some refreshing, thought-provoking questions about the things you've been doing since the inception of the series.
Gameplay, like the story, hasn't had much changed at its core. Your Pokémon will always do the fighting in turn-based battles. Their moves are limited in terms of how many times they can perform them, and each Pokémon can learn up to four moves before it has to forget one in order to make room for another. You can only have up to six Pokémon at a time before they get transferred to a storage facility. Capturing Pokémon requires you to weaken them before using your Poké Ball to do the trick. Defeating Pokémon is the only thing that lets you gain experience, and only wild Pokémon can be captured. Finally, each Pokémon is classified by a type, and it's up to you to figure out which types are stronger or weaker against another type. In short, it's a simple system that doesn't get needlessly complicated as you progress.
There are plenty of differences with the game this time around, and it isn't just limited to the new region and new Pokémon you'll meet along the way. The time change from Pokémon Gold/Silver returns in this game as is governed by the clock on your DS system. It's reflected in the game's graphics and can help determine which Pokémon you're more likely to catch in any given area. Seasons also come into play this time around, with a seasonal change occurring after every month in the calendar year. While these changes don't reflect the type of Pokémon you'll catch, they determine when you can access certain items on the map, which side-quests are available, and the look of a few Pokémon in some areas.
Double Battles return, with two Pokémon from each side being simultaneously sent out to battle. Two new fight types also make their debut. Triple Battles are simply three-on-three versions of normal fights, while Rotational Battles have you bring out three Pokémon and let you switch out the fighting between them without using up a turn. Finally, combo moves are given to Pokémon of the same type who go into battle together, giving you a huge reason to pair up similar Pokémon for these new fight types.
One big difference concerns the Pokémon you'll be meeting throughout your journey. Unlike past core games, you won't meet up with any of the Pokémon introduced in earlier games. If you were expecting to run into a Zubat or Horsea at some point, for example, prepare to be surprised; the only way you'll run into them is if you beat the game and import them from your older DS carts. It's a big change for veteran fans, but it ensures that every Pokémon you run into will be new.
For the uninitiated, the difference in colors usually means that there are certain Pokémon, such as the ones depicted on the covers, which only reside in one color cartridge. The same mechanic is also present here, so owners of one color, either black or white, cannot complete their collection unless they interact with someone possessing the opposite-colored cart. There are also a few other differences unique to each color cart. In terms of battle types, White contains more triple battles while more rotational battles are seen in Black. On the other hand, Black has a city area filled with more trainers who are willing to do battle while White has a more rural area full of wild Pokémon to capture. That aesthetic difference between rural and urban areas can also be seen in a shared town, and there are a few differences in terms of characters and their side stories. Those last two bits don't dramatically change each game, but they combine to help make each version more different than before.
Multiplayer has been at the heart of the franchise since its inception, and it isn't surprising to see the new title continue that trend. You can only access the multiplayer option after obtaining the C-Gear item in the game's quest. Your activities with other people are completely dependent on which communication type you use. Using the cart's built-in IR system, you can directly trade with another player or engage in battle, with everyone's Pokémon set to base level 50 for the duration. The IR is essentially the fastest way to get trades done, but because the range is short, it is only reliable if you and a partner don't move until the transaction is completed. Local wireless play lets you do all of this at a wider range, making it the optimum solution in crowded areas. It also allows for more options, such as the ability to hold private chat rooms and go into another person's game to assist in special co-op missions. It's a good feature that helps the game become more of a community title than a solo affair. Finally, you can go online via Wi-Fi to trade and battle with others — both with and without the use of Friend Codes.
Online play involves more than just the ability to fight and trade with total strangers on the Internet. If you've exchanged Friend Codes with someone else and you both have a DSi or DSi XL, you can engage in video chat with that person. It won't put more dedicated video calling solutions like the iPhone 4's FaceTime on notice because of the low quality of the cameras, but it is a neat little feature to use. More importantly, though, is the ability to enter the Dream World with a sleeping Pokémon. Sending a Pokémon to the Dream World opens up a wealth of possibilities, such as meeting up with other Pokémon earlier than usual, cultivating berries for use in battle, and exchanging items for berries. You can even build up a house and decorate it in the Dream World while your sleeping Pokémon learns new abilities. The catch is that you can do all of these things through the Web site, which lets players continue training and playing while away from their DS, further deepening the addictive nature of the game. For those who also enjoy watching instead of participating, you can go online to view videos of some good Pokémon battles and see photos of Pokémon participating in minigames.
To be honest, there aren't many complaints you can find with the gameplay. Some of the issues you will find, though, aren't exactly unique to the series. You'll still have to do a bit of grinding to have your Pokémon be powerful enough to take down any gym leaders. Switching out Pokémon during battle always means your new one is subject to attack. Even though random battles are only supposed to occur in tall grasses and dark areas, the abundance of trainers running up to you for a fight means that battle is a constant thing in the game. Again, most of these are small complaints and can easily be levied against most modern RPGs, but those who aren't familiar with the genre mechanics will see these as big enough negatives to not try the game.
The audio received little to no change as time passed by. The music is still a great mix of whimsical and adventurous, with sprinkles and remixes of old Pokémon tunes mixed in to help reinforce those ideals. Time will tell if these new pieces remain as memorable as the classic ones. The effects, for the most part, haven't changed, and neither has the fact that the Pokémon still refuse to call out their own names during battle.
The controls, like the sound, show how much things haven't changed. Just about everything in the game can be controlled with the d-pad and face buttons. The A button selects menu options, the B button cancels menu options, holding down the B button and a direction on the d-pad makes the character run, and the X button brings up a menu to manage things like your items and Pokémon placement when fighting. Even during battle, when the touch-screen can be used to issue commands, it becomes optional since you can accomplish the same thing with button presses. Those who choose to use the touch-screen will find that they won't need the stylus since the virtual on-screen buttons are big enough to read finger presses. Since the game doesn't require good reflexes, the on-screen buttons work well enough.
The graphics are an interesting combination of both new and old elements fused together to create a unique style. The environments are now in full 3-D and have a more toned-down color scheme. It still looks great when compared to other RPGs on the system, but the engine really shines when you see the camera zoom in as you enter buildings, rotate to show you where the doorways are, or move in low to show you a vast landscape.
The characters and the Pokémon retain a 2-D pixel look with a brighter color scheme than the environment. The characters in the overhead view still keep the big head, small body form of the classic games as opposed to the more proportional look seen in the Pokémon Ranger series. It'll be comforting for fans of the original to see the human's proportions become normal during battle sequences. The Pokémon, however, suffer the most from being 2-D since their sprites haven't been touched up during those battle sequences. It isn't apparent when viewing the opponent's Pokémon, but you'll notice how pixelated your own Pokémon look during skirmishes. The attack animations are just as minimal as before, though it seems that a few more frames have been added, and now each Pokémon has idle animations. It's refreshing to see them act more like live creatures than static images, and special recognition has to be given for the fact that all 646 Pokémon, both old and new, now possess idle animations, making you really want to catch them all to see those animations in action.
Pokémon Black is what a sequel should be. While the underlying formula of the game remains enticing and addictive, the improvements to both the gameplay and the multiplayer components make this a strong entry in the series. The title does a great job of introducing new players to the gameplay mechanics. The fact that importing old Pokémon can't occur until you've completed the game ensures that veterans won't breeze through the story quickly, but it also means that new players won't be overwhelmed by opponents wielding high-level legacy Pokémon. Pokémon Black is highly recommended to both newcomers and veterans, and it is certainly up for consideration as a classic game on the system.
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