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Pokémon White Version

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Action
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: March 6, 2011


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NDS Review - 'Pokemon White'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 30, 2011 @ 6:30 a.m. PDT

Introducing a new storyline and the next generation of Pokémon, the new releases feature the Legendary Pokémon Reshiram (Pokémon Black Version) and Zekrom (Pokémon White Version) on the game covers worldwide.

In Pokémon White, you play as a young boy or girl in the Unova region who is gifted Pokémon by a local professor. You're given a Pokedex and set out on an adventure to catch 'em all. The thing that varies somewhat from the previous titles' rather rigid plot formula is the addition of Team Plasma, who, unlike the other evil Pokémon teams, isn't about simply stealing Pokémon. They believe that humans abuse Pokémon and should be separated forever. To do this, they plan to use a legendary dragon belonging to an ancient hero to threaten all trainers into freeing their Pokémon. Your character is thrown into conflict against this dangerous group and must find a rival dragon to stand against them. It's a fairly straightforward JRPG plot, but it stands out among the usual Pokémon trappings.

One of the odd things about Pokémon White is that it shines a light on some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the franchise. Team Plasma correctly points out that your goal is to capture a bunch of sentient creatures, shove them in a box, and forget about most of them merely to complete your Pokedex. Unfortunately, this gives the game a rather weird and somewhat disjointed feel because, for obvious reasons, they don't delve further into the consequences. Instead, Team Plasma veers between scheming cartoon villains and occasionally lampshading some of the nastier aspects of the Pokémon universe. It's usually something one can ignore, but it feels weird when the game points out these things and then promptly ignores them. While it's nice to have more effort put into the simple plots compared to the previous generation of Pokémon-snatching bad guys like Team Rocket, it probably would've been better if Pokémon White hadn't questioned the premise.

One of the biggest changes to the formula in Pokémon White is that you won't encounter any of the previous Pokémon during the course of the main story. The Unova region is separate from the previous regions and contains entirely new Pokémon. There's not a single Zubat or Geodude to be found anywhere in the main quest, so every Pokémon you encounter is a new face with new abilities, new evolutions and new gimmicks. More than a few feel like slightly altered versions of existing monsters, but there are enough new and interesting things to discover that you can overlook some familiarity. Each area feels like it contains something new and exciting, especially when you take into account that seasons change and new Pokémon appear during different seasons. It's almost a disappointment when the classic Pokémon begin to show up. After you finish the main story, you'll unlock new areas where Pokémon from previous generations begin to show up as wild encounters. These areas feel less interesting and fresh when compared to the rest of the game. There's a lot of fun post-game content, but wandering through endless crowds of classic Pokémon isn't as exciting as finding something new around every corner.

In most respects, the Pokémon battle system has been left largely untouched from the previous games. There are a number of small, but significant, tweaks to the combat system that should please longtime fans. Several moves and abilities have been reworked to make them more useful in combat. For example, the Sturdy ability used to cause Pokémon to be immune to one-hit kill moves. Since those moves were notoriously inaccurate and rarely used, it was a worthless power. In the new game, the Sturdy ability allows a Pokémon to survive a single attack that would normally defeat it in one hit. It's a minor difference, but it makes it significantly more useful. A lot of these changes are going to be pretty indistinguishable to players who don't look too deeply at the mechanics, but they are there.

There are two new kinds of fights in Pokémon White. The first is Triple Battle, where each trainer sends out three Pokémon at once. This functions very similarly to the Double Battles from earlier games, but with one major difference. In Triple Battles, the Pokémon on the left and right sides of the screen cannot attack the Pokémon on the opposite side, so the far left cannot attack the far right and vice versa. To attack that enemy, you'll have to devote a turn to switching two of your Pokémon locations. There is also Rotational Battle, which is similar to Triple Battle, but only one Pokémon is on point and you can "rotate" the three Pokémon at will. The problem is that during the main story, these battles are practically nonexistent. I encountered a couple of Triple Battles, and Rotational Battles weren't available until the post-game, at which point they were still quite rare. This is pretty disappointing, as they were an interesting deviation from regular combat. The rarity also damages the usefulness of some moves. Certain abilities demonstrate special attributes in these battles, and they're pretty worthless because the Triple Battles come up so rarely.

While the game is mostly unchanged, there are some small but significant differences in the overall formula. One of the most noteworthy is the drastic change to the Technical Machines (TMs). In previous games, TMs were special items that taught your Pokémon a move, and you could only use the TM once. In some cases you could buy another TM, but other cases involved a ridiculous amount of grinding or trading to get another one. This discouraged players from using them, since new Pokémon came along so often that you'd never be sure if the Pokémon who learned Ice Beam would remain a part of your team later on. In the current generation, TMs are harder to find, but you can use them as many times as you'd like. This encourages a lot more diversity to your Pokémon lineup because there's no fear of running out of these consumable items. It's a minor change that does a lot to make the game more accessible. Instead of sticking with a small team and never changing for fear of losing valuable items, you can switch Pokémon without feeling like you're losing something important.

One of the few frustrating things about Pokémon White is that it continues to be held back by some outdated mechanical decisions from older generations. For example, Hidden Machines, which are identical to Technical Machines, are unchanged. Although TMs allow you to freely switch out abilities, you're still trapped with a Pokémon learning an HM move that is undeletable until you can drag it to a Move Deleter. It's a minor complaint, but it's an example of a residual mechanic from previous generations instead of one that makes sense for the current game. There are also a few examples of features introduced in the last bunch of games, Soul Silver/Heart Gold, which are missing from the current iteration. Some of these are relatively minor, such as the option to set your characters to always run instead of being forced to hold down a button. Others, such as the option to have Pokémon following your character around, are more noticeable for their absence. I can't complain about the lack of following Pokémon considering there are over 150 new Pokémon, but the ability to force your character to default to run would have saved a lot of time.

Pokémon White seems to be geared toward newcomers to the franchise. Many of the more complex mechanics are kept to the wayside or held back until later in the game. The game takes less time to get to the action and provides more detailed tutorials for a lot of the basic gameplay mechanics. It's also a lot friendlier, including helpful Pokémon Doctors who will completely heal you. Even the final fights of the game are handicapped in your favor. The final enemies are fought with a convenient chance to go back to a Pokémon Center and resupply and refresh beforehand, and you even get a powerful addition to your team and a full heal before each round. The game also goes out of its way to give you items to make things easier. One of the most valuable items in the game, the experience-doubling Lucky Egg, is given to you as part of the plot. The same goes for the speed-increasing bicycle or several other valuable items. Pokémon White feels like one of the easier games in the franchise, making it a perfect introduction for young gamers. Longtime Pokéfans may find it too easy for their taste but should find plenty of new content to keep them interested.

Pokémon White is more visually impressive than any previous game in the franchise. Each of the over 600 Pokémon now bounces and moves around with some incredibly charming animations. Character designs that seem ugly at first glance become quite adorable once you see them in motion. It makes the collectible animal seem like it has more personality. The sprites even change depending on what occurs in combat. Their eyes close when they're sleeping, or they'll droop slightly when they are badly injured.

The environments are much more impressive when compared to the previous generations. The game takes advantages of the DS to create some cool environments with a sense of scale that's unmatched in the franchise. When you first reach the New York-inspired Castelia City, it's surprisingly impressive. The city streets are filled with people who chatter as they walk by, and you get a real sense that this is a busy, thriving city. It's minor but really lends a feeling of life to a normally empty RPG world. The soundtrack isn't too bad, but it seems to contain fewer memorable songs than Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. The lackluster Team Plasma theme is disappointing when compared to the excellent Team Galactic theme; it's a darn shame, considering how much you'll be hearing it.

Pokémon White didn't reinvent the wheel. Aside from a few minor changes here and there, it sticks almost unreasonably close to the tried-and-true Pokémon formula. It's a testament to the addictive power of the Pokémon games that despite this, it remains interesting and fun. The fact that not a single recycled Pokémon shows up until after the end of the game does a lot to keep things feeling fresh and exciting. There are plenty of new moves, new places to explore, and new people to meet. The friendlier single-player game makes it a great choice for younger kids who might be overwhelmed by the complexity in previous titles, but it's deep enough that older fans will find a lot to like. In the end, Pokémon White is really more of the same, so if you're looking for more Pokémon, you'll get exactly what you expect.

Score: 8.0/10

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