Coming less than a year after Heart Gold and Soul Silver graced the handheld, The Pokémon bandwagon comes to town – and the DS – once again in the form of Black and White. With a new region to explore and over a hundred-fifty new pokémon to collect and a list of minor changes and improvements to the system, have the two newest games in the franchise got enough new features to keep in the black?
Like every other entry in the main series, you play as a young boy or girl who has just received their first pokémon and is about to start their journey to become a pokémon master by travelling throughout the region capturing pokémon, training them, battling other trainers and facing the eight gym leaders, all whilst single-handedly stopping an organisation. This time said organisation is Team Plasma, a pokémon liberation movement who intend to convince others to release their pokémon from their man-made pokéball prisons, by force if necessary and is intend on separating man and ‘mon forever.
While the story hints at something more serious, with the liberation bend of this team a bit more refreshing than the typical nefarious teams of prior titles, it never really goes anywhere more before rethreading much the same old yarn of prior stories. The story itself, while much the same as before will take around 40 or more hours to complete, with a massive over world to explore, filled with caverns, forests and secrets to discover – let alone collecting all the pokémon – that can easily triple that time.
Pokémon Black/White’s biggest feature is that is offers pokémon novices and veterans a fresh start, with 156 completely brand new pokémon to discover (making for an insane 649 pokémon in total), and no old faces until after you’ve beaten the main campaign.
New creatures, while it sounds good in theory in practise it is somewhat a case of different monster, familiar role. For example, Zubats, the nuisances that plagued the caves of every previous title are replaced with Woobats, Geodudes with Roggenrola’s. Pokemon veterans shouldn’t have too much issue with figuring out the particulars of the pokémon they come across along their journey. That said there’s little way to know – outside of looking through internet guides – just what the new monster you’ve just come across is capable of doing until you’ve spent some time raising it.
The majority of battles are still random one-on-one affairs, with trainers issuing each pokémon to use one of its four moves per turn that plays to an elaborate rock-paper-scissors mechanic of 16 varied types. It’s a tried and true formula and that lends itself well to the unknown nature of the new critters. The game is extremely forgiving, with signposts explaining what types are needed to beat the Gym Leaders, and whilst the game is quite keen to teach players the basics of elemental match-ups, there really needs to be something in the game to tell new players about the more exotic types like steel and dragon.
The way experience is dolled out on victory has had the most beneficial tweaking. Now sending a lower level pokémon to face a more powerful opponent will result in the critter receiving more XP than a higher level pokémon. This change means that while grinding levels is more or less the same as before, new additions to your party can be up to scratch and pull their own weight, much quicker than ever. The random battles you engage in throughout the game occur far too frequently, with occasionally one step being all it takes to go from one opponent to the next without the aid of repellents brought from shops.
Pokémon Centers and Pokémarts are now in the same building, a useful change that cuts down having to go to one then the other; the animation routine for healing is still far too long for its own good. However, in many of the more inhospitable areas you’ll be able to find a nurse or a doctor who will be happy to heal your pokémon for you, after an initial battle upon meeting them. These medics cut out the tedium of having to return to the Pokémon Center to fully heal the pokémon.
Unlike prior games in the series, TMs – external, teachable moves for pokémon – can now be used as many times as you desire, a much needed change, which leaves room to experiment with you pokémon’s move sets; the flipside is that obtaining some of them is more laborious, it’s a fair trade.
Multiplayer has received the biggest overhaul, in prior games it was isolated to areas inside the Pokémon Center, and while the same is true for online connectivity, local play allows up to 4 players to meet up, via infrared or wirelessly or through Nintendo’s Wi-Fi network to battle, trade and engage in other multiplayer excursions outside of the Centers. C-Gear is the game ‘s always-on wireless mode, allowing the DS to pick up info from other live Black and White carts and go straight to multiplayer functionality, however having C-Gear enabled will quickly drain the batteries.
In some ways Pokémon has received the most attention, and the least success regardless in the presentation. Whist the 2D sprites are on par with the series, the 3D buildings don’t tend to gel well with them. The game’s polygons also use simple geometry and flat textures which do little to help sections that the game tries to use as its showpieces. We noticed some degree of slowdown in the game, particularly whilst going up hills, though nothing that takes away from the whole.
The 2D sprites themselves are as well done as they’ve ever been, and some of the pokémon are the best designed in a while (others, like a floating ice-cream less-so). Yet while the images themselves are fine, the use of sprite scaling, especially during battles, is terrible. Pixelization problems are a consistent issue, either due to sprites being blown up, making each pixel overly notable; or else shrunk down, resulting in lost details, like their pixel thick outlines disappearing. Like the hit and miss 3D, these issues only weakens the overall visual presentation in ways that previous titles that stuck more closely to a pure, fixed-view 2D style did not.
While prior games have had a touch of animation at the start of a battle, the pokémon sprites themselves have pretty much been static images. Black/White features battles with pokémon in constant motion, and though it’s dependent on the old animation trick of cycles, it does help to breathe some much needed live onto the once torpid critters. The animations for moves remains much the same as before, and they can still be turned off on the options, if you so desire.
Musically, the game fits right in with its brethren with a new mix of the traditional battle theme, most of the music is appropriate for the genre, though a few tunes feel little more than just ambience. Old standbys, like the Pokémon Center’s theme are the most memorable, if only through rote memorisation from exposal to past games. The pokémon “voices” are still the same 8-Bit tunes that are standard, and while a few at least try to mimic the real-life counterparts of the pokémon they resemble, the quality is still lacking.
It is a testament to the formula that Pokémon endures as well as it does despite being released with only minor changes to the fundamentals with each new entry. And while Black/White offers the biggest shake ups since Gold and Silver back on the Game Boy Color, it is still pokémon at it core. Many of the same issues that hamper the series are still present and correct, while others have been ironed out.
In many way Black and White make the most improvements to the series in its long history; let dozen of hours in, it still feels like the same old series with many of the same holdovers, and while its still great fun, and offers a great deal of content for the asking price, Black and White are not that much different from prior games to warrant purchase unless you’re a newcomer to the series, or are a long time fan who hasn’t yet had their fill of pocket monster based training.
originally published in 2011 on gamingtilldisconnected