Most original, story driven and exciting Pokémon adventure in years.
Some features currently unavailable and the new camera angle leaves a lot to be desired.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that video game journalists are nothing more than particularly verbose gamers. Underneath our alleged “objectivity” (and pessimistic antipathy of anything that isn’t Ocarina of Time) we’re just as passionate and excitable as the next player, especially over the release of massive video games. When it comes to the likes of Mario or Zelda, there’s a certain buzz amongst the Nintendojo staff. When a new generation of Pokémon games are set to be released, we generally descend into what can only be described as PokéFever.
Although the rest of the staff may individually argue that they care for Pokémon more than I do, my proven and dedicated adoration of the series far excels them all. And that’s why I squealed the second I received Noah’s email asking which of us would like to write the review, speedily banging a reply out of my Blackberry so fast that it momentarily became a fire hazard. When I finally found out that it was to become my responsibility to critique one of the top games of the year (several agonizing hours later), I promised myself that this wouldn’t a self-serving, gushing fanboy take on Pokémon Black. I was going to be critical. And objective. And then Oshawott turned out to be really cute and objectivity momentarily flew out the window.
When I finally stopped squealing in giddy affection and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult, I discovered that not only do Black & White conform to every traditional aspect of quality you’ve grown to expect from the Pokémon franchise, they go beyond them and break the mould. While parts of this game feel so relatable and familiar, other parts will surprise you, catch you off guard and make you feel like a newbie to the series once again. Black & White recapture those feelings of discovery and excitement many of us felt from Red & Blue during our childhoods (or adulthoods) and combine them with everything Nintendo has learned since then. You’re not looking at Diamond & Pearl 2.0, that’s for sure.
The first thing about Black & White you’re likely to recognize is that there’s nothing recognizable in this game. This is clearly a reset button on the franchise in many ways, as you start off as a new character in a new region that is completely unconnected with past regions such as Kanto, Johto or Sinnoh. The Unova region is so remote to past Pokémon adventures that the routes are renumbered and only brand new, completely foreign Pokémon are initially visible. That means before you defeat the Pokémon League, you can only raise the indigenous Unova species– no more falling back on Pikachu or Zubat this time. This completely fresh start offers both new challenges and opportunities to all players; veterans no longer know which Pokémon are the best bets right off the bat while new players to the series are right there with them, discovering it all as they go.
The likes of Pidove, Audino and Roggenrola play similar roles to those of Pidgey, Chansey and Geodude back in ole Red & Blue. Ah, nostalgia.
It feels like your first Pokémon adventure again, when everything was mysterious and exciting. More than that, the game’s designers have used the opportunity to go back to basics and recreate some of their favorite Pokémon in slightly different guises. Liked Machop and Geodude back in the glory days? Well then you’re sure to love Timburr and Roggenrola in Black & White. Just to be sure to trade them to a friend to evolve them into their final evolutions now (yeah, that’s how similar we’re talking folks!). Pidove, Patrat and Audino also seem to share certain comparisons with Pokémon of the past, though no new creatures in this game are related to any pre-existing ones. In a first for the series, a whole new, separate ecosystem of Pokémon has been presented to players to escape, as if it were, a forgotten world in the clustered kingdom of the franchise.
And going beyond leveling the playing field with a new catchable cast, Black & White also reaches out to beginners and gives it best effort to explaining the rock-paper-scissors typing system the game operates on. While previous Pokémon masters have only had a bespectacled NPC explaining how different Pokémon are strong or weak against one another, the Unova region dedicates the entire first gym to walking through this system to give players the best chance of understanding it. While Pokémon was a game that I faithfully studied as a child, it was only with the aid of a variety of guides, walkthroughs and charts that I stood a chance of becoming the very best (like no one ever was.) Black and White are definitely Pokémon adventures for the casual player, for the beginner, for the person who doesn’t feel the urge to furiously scour every inch of this game just to enjoy it.
And yet for the hardcore, these are easily the most nostalgic and exciting Pokémon games in years. That long-forgotten feeling of excitement and unexpectedness is finally back. Furthermore, the game mechanics of the series have been shook up enough in Black & White to keep players well and truly on their toes. Not only has the method of leveling up your Pokémon been shook up, as different levels of Pokémon receive weighted shares of the points, but the introduction of stronger and more competitive wild Pokémon offer a stiffer challenge to elite players (complete with new “double grass” on every route that will send all but the toughest of trainers scurrying off.) Even minor tweaks such as making TMs infinitely re-usable in the game, largely removing the need for HM moves, allowing for more exploration of the general region throughout the game and finally adding a version of the Item Finder/Dowsing Machine that actually works will make this game feel special to players who have long grown accustomed to Pokémon always working in the exact same way.
While new entries in the series will always offer new Pokémon and a slightly tweaked gameplay system, Black & White also attempt to bring some genuinely fresh ideas to the table. Not only does the franchise (perhaps begrudgingly) take its first steps into the realm of 3D, but two central and somewhat stunted formats of past entries in the series, narrative and connectivity, take leaps forward.
While previous Pokémon adventures have been somewhat light on the story (a young trainer with true convictions and an honest heart overcomes great struggles to become Champion and save the world from evil, fin), your journey through the Unova region is far less one of mindless level-grinding and much more an exploration of the morals of owning Pokémon. While the likes of Team Rocket and Team Galactic simply wanted to rule the world (I mean who doesn’t want to rule the world in Pokémon?) Team Plasma’s grand goal is to see citizens across Unova releasing their Pokémon back into the wild, ending generations of oppression. Their adolescent leader, N, speaks with all the belief and conviction of a rebel leader and even though the organization is firmly rooted in “Team Bad Guy,” it’s hard not to be swayed by their case at times.
Outside of your usual saving the world duties, you’ll never feel alone in Black & White. A charming ensemble of characters will invariably keep you busy as you travel from town to town, testing your friends and meeting the most friendly set of gym leaders you’ll ever come across. For the first time in the series, this game’s narrative is pacey, ongoing and involving. You’re never more than a Hoppip, Skiploom or Jumpluff away from running into your rivals Cheren or Bianca, a video call with Professor Juniper or a inspirational meeting with Champion Alder.
The only issue you may face is the feeling that no one will actually leave you alone. But this could very well be the ambition of Black & White, as connectivity and community are pushed firmly to the forefront with the implementation of the C-Gear. Handily taking up the entire bottom screen and demanding to be launched every time you turn the game, this in-game device aims to keep you connected with players nearby and around the world by informing you of who’s around you and the activities of the the game’s internet section, the Global Link.
Or that’s the plan, anyway. The whole concept seems like a bit of a non-starter to me, a lethal drain of my DS’s already waning battery life. I’m sure in fairly built-up areas such as school playgrounds, Times Square and all of Tokyo, you’re more than likely to run into a few people also playing Black or White but the likelihood of the C-Gear picking up any fellow players when I’m sitting on my bed at home is about nil. Add this to the fact that the Global Link’s features, which include match rankings and the online “Dream World” environment, aren’t currently available to players and you may be wanting HeartGold‘s touch-screen menu system back instead.
“Lillipup, I don’t think we’re in Pallet Town anymore.” Regretfully, the game’s camera refuses to offer up such a picturesque view of Castelia City and instead forces you to run around like an ant on the sidewalk. Not fun.
Aside from Black & White‘s push on connectivity between players, the game has already tried to sell itself with the game’s pseudo-3D graphical style. While the games are at the immediate disadvantage of running on the same hardware as their predecessors, Black & White‘s low-angled camera works well to create a real sense of depth in the traditionally blocky world of Pokémon, teaming this with impressive building design and amazing 3D set pieces such as the crossing of Skyarrow Bridge that will make your jaw drop. However, as impressive as it can look, it can just as often feel and look remarkably uncomfortable to the player when used incorrectly.
The aforementioned camera angle that adds depth to the game-world comes at the price of making everything in the foreground look incredibly pixelated and unpleasant. So if you audaciously decide you want to walk to the back of the Pokémon Center to heal your Pokémon, then you have to spend the entire time having your view somewhat spoiled by the mildly-disturbing, blocky and confusing face of a NPC standing by the chairs halfway down the room; off-putting at the best of times. Elsewhere, the camera occasionally decides to go on a merry jaunt for no real reason, veering wildly round corners if you decide to go into an awkwardly place building or zooming out so far that you become a blip on the landscape for no valid reason. Sure, Pokémon’s graphics have never been anything to truly write home about, but these alterations have taken a workable and pleasant enough system and added issues to it out of nowhere. Veterans of the series could very well be irked.
Pokémon Black & White may not be exact carbon copies of previous entries in the series but that’s exactly why you’ll fall in love with them. The mere fact that this game has the power to rekindle those early feelings of PokéBliss in even the most seasoned-Pokémaniacs is a testament to its freshness and originality. And the best part of all is that this still feels like Pokémon. With Black & White, Game Freak has proven that the success of this franchise is not based upon past glories but the technical and creative potential of the future. Hats off to Pikachu, yet again.