Massive expansion to Unova region; New Habitat Pokédex; Unova Link features
Not bringing back features from old titles; Pointless minigames; Multi-version fatigue
I think we were all taken aback when Game Freak announced that it would be developing a pair of direct sequels to Pokémon Black & White instead of the expected third version with added features. Of course, the first two adventures reinvented many aspects of the Pokémon series, so why not redo the entire game release formula at the same time? That said, we’re returning to Unova after only a short wait of about a year and a half, so what does Black & White 2 bring to the Pokémon universe to make it worth another trip?
At their core, Black & White 2 are nearly identical to their predecessors in terms of gameplay. Players run around, catch Pokémon, battle gym leaders, fight bad guys, save the world, and take part in any number of games and activities along the way. We know how the Pokémon formula goes. It’s been the same since 1996, but it’s just as well that it’s still loads of fun to play, and in Black & White 2, the changes are more in the world of the game than how it plays.
For the first time, we’re able to experience a region we have been to before with fresh eyes. The adventure in Black 2 & White 2 begins two years after the previous games in a completely new area of Unova. I won’t spoil all the surprises, but expect to find five brand new towns, three brand new gyms, and tons of new routes and tunnels to explore plus nearly every area from the original games too. The amount of content in terms of game area is really unprecedented in a Pokémon game, and players like myself who have combed through Black & White for hundreds of hours will have loads of new places to explore. A couple new places worth mentioning are the Pokémon World Tournament, where you can battle past gym leaders from every region, and Pokéstar Studios where you can make Poké-films. Making films is a fun little pursuit with a bit of depth, but the appeal doesn’t last too long.
PokéStar Studios replaces the musicals from the previous games and sees you fight off against a giant robotic Tyranitar.
Of course, with new areas comes new content, and perhaps one of the biggest innovations these games have is its connectivity. Trainers can now communicate with each other in dozens of ways, although not all of them are very useful. We see the return of the Pokémon Global Link and Dream World in addition to the seldom-used (at least by myself or anyone I know) C-Gear features from the original Black & White, and we now have Funfest Missions in the Entralink, minigames on the Xtransceiver, and the new Unova Link feature. The Funfest missions are mingames that involve running around towns and routes seeking certain items before your friends do. They’re quite forgettable and honestly don’t serve any purpose except for netting you some items, and the same goes for the Xtransceiver minigames as well. Why play these mediocre games with your friends when you could be battling or trading Pokémon?
The Unova Link, on the other hand, is undeniably cool. This feature allows players to share keys between their copies of Black 2 or White 2 to unlock a whole host of different features. The first is an easy or challenge mode for the main game. This is a first for the Pokémon series, and the trainers in the challenge mode are really quite aggressive and will definitely put trainers’ skills to the test. Another Unova Link feature allows players to communicate with the recently released Pokémon Dream Radar for Nintendo 3DS. It’s not too exciting; players are simply able to transfer Pokémon caught on the 3DS app over to their Black 2 or White 2 save file. It’s not quite a true 3DS Pokémon yet, but we’ll get one before long! Also worth mentioning with the Unova Link is the ability to do a Memory Link with a completed version of Black or White. This will cause certain characters to refer to events from the first games, and sometimes even call your old character by name! This is a cool way of referencing the older titles and improves its sense of continuity.
Speaking of the story, Black & White 2 continue to raise the bar for the Pokémon series. The prequel games had a robust and interesting plot with themes of truth and loyalty, and the sequels really build on this. Team Plasma has split into two faction in the intervening years, and you’ll see both sides of their feud. I enjoyed hearing what motivated each of the characters to battle, and the storyline brought up some quite morally ambiguous issues. For instance, do Pokémon really deserve to be trapped inside of balls? To what cost would some go to see them freed?
Of course, Black & White 2 also raises the bar with the size of the regional Pokédex, which has now doubled in number since we last visited Unova, including many Pokémon from past generations as well. I really enjoyed the diversity, and the Dex expansion really gives trainers and gym leaders a much more varied repertoire of fighters to choose from. What’s more, the new habitat feature in the Unova Dex makes tracking them all down even easier than ever before, as it records every species that appears in each area of the game. It’s nice to see Game Freak catering to Pokédex completionists, as I have had many a struggle in previous versions trying to track down where certain Pokémon lived while building my own Dex.
Besides all of these big changes, Black & White 2 also quietly added some little new features. For instance, if you’re using a repel and it runs out, the game will automatically ask you if you want to use another one. Likewise, Pokémon holding items can now simply move their items to other party members, and your bag now has an empty compartment that can be filled with whatever items you want for easy access. There’s also a new achievement system, and completing certain tasks– anything from saving a lot to using only normal types to take out the Elite Four– will earn you medals. These are cool to have, but sadly they don’t offer any advantages other than bragging rights.
The new Marine Tube underneath Undella Bay is one of the most visually impressive areas in each game.
However, there were certain things I couldn’t help but notice that Black & White 2 did not have, such as the ability to turn on auto-run. The PC box system, while better than Black & White, could also be more intuitive, and swapping Pokémon out of boxes still takes more time than it should. My biggest annoyance, however, is the fact that we’re forced to stare at the C-Gear on the bottom screen once again. I wish it could be turned off in favor of the one-touch menu options that were in HeartGold and SoulSilver. I also feel like Black and White 2 are somewhat bloated by all of the minigames and connection options. Varied content is great, but it doesn’t seem to be there for any other reason than simply cramming in as much stuff as possible. It also begs the question as it whether it’s really necessary to have two sequel versions. All of these new changes could have easily been implemented into a single, stand alone game, and releasing four versions of what’s effectively the same game within such a short time just seems a bit overkill, even for a series such as Pokémon.
Despite my small grievances, I still welcome the new return to Unova with open arms. Game Freak have really pulled all it could out of the now eight-year-old DS hardware, making Black & White 2 easily the best Pokémon games since HeartGold & SoulSilver. The sheer amount of new content and the addition of “new” Pokémon means there’s dozens if not hundreds of hours of fun to be had, and the details in the environment and the animated sprites of the Pokémon in battle look especially rich and colorful. The sometimes jagged and awkward looking 3D structures from Black & White have also been cleaned up considerably, and the soundtrack has been remixed and improved from the original games as well. These Pokémon adventures will likely be the swan song of the ageing Nintendo DS system, so I’m glad to see it go out on such a high note. Whether you’re a Pokémaniac, a rookie trainer, or a nostalgic Red & Blue fanboy, Black & White 2 are must-play games.