Review: Pokémon Black & White (DS)

Review: Pokémon Black & White (DS)

Yes, there is a set of new Pokémon games. I’m sure you’re shocked to hear this. Once again children of all ages will be crowding outside Gamestop in order to get their grubby mitts all over Black and White carts the world over. And a few long-time fans like me will be among those children, grabbing a copy and talking with our other friends who still manage to not stop playing these ridiculously addictive titles.

That said, after reading this, I don’t expect anyone to change their minds about the series, or even rush out and buy these titles. But I can’t stress enough: the series has finally improved itself, and it would be a shame if you missed out on these games.

So I ask you, what is one thing you’ve always disliked about Pokémon? Was it how everything in the series seems to be aimed at children? Perhaps the ultimately lackluster story? Maybe the shallow characters? Or how about the mind-numbing grind? Well, I can tell you that all of those things have been fixed through some pretty brave steps by Game Freak and Nintendo.

Firstly, this game is definitely geared towards a higher age bracket, probably mid-teens. The vast number of genuine issues it touches on, the complexities of the story and the dialogue itself seems to really want to grow up; one of the key themes of the game. Your character appears older than in previous iterations, as do your two friends Cheren and Bianca, who embark simultaneously on their separate journeys. But what really sets it apart is this chapter in the story, and how it has carried the franchise to a new plateau.

The new region for Pokémon Black & White, called Unova, is modeled after New York City.

Essentially, we have the new Team Plasma, dressed in their pseudo-medieval European “armor,” attempting to liberate all Pokémon. No, they’re not trying to steal them. They are literally trying to free them from the cruel trainers who beat them to near death in the wild, then cram them in a ball in order to be used in glorified cock fights. They’re abolitionists, freeing slaves from their cruel taskmasters. You know, you, the player. You’re the bad guy. Well, it at least seems that you are for about half of the game. It wouldn’t be right if you were considered a slave owner throughout most of the game, as this is still directed at children. However, what we’re looking at here is something Pokémon has been ridiculed for for over a decade, and the game itself is begging the question, “is this right?”

There is something unique about this approach that makes me actually wonder if the player is genuinely a villain in these games, and most of it stems from the new villain/(maybe)hero named N. You meet him fairly early on, and every time you encounter him after that, he always asks you a genuine philosophical question in relation to Pokémon. Some of it boils down to, “are Pokémon your friends or your tools?”, but occasionally he asks something like, “you think it’s right to take these creatures from their native habitat so that you can pit them against other creatures and make them fight for your own goals?” Those are the times when I had to step back and genuinely ponder, what the hell kind of game am I playing?

It may just be a game, but it is literally a series about animal cruelty. And N has only brought that to the forefront. Sure, near the end of the game you’re pretty set on defeating Team Plasma and making sure their plans don’t come to fruition. But there isn’t a single moment where I knew for certain that this was the right way to be. Who expects moral ambiguity from a Pokémon title?

Tough discussion aside, the game has also improved mechanically in a number of ways. Several items can now be mapped to the Y button at once for quick access, TMs no longer are consumed after use, battles are faster and prettier and the world itself is using a sort of 2½-D thing, where sprites are two-dimensional while the world is three. Further, the grind has been lessened quite a bit from its predecessors, what with the Lucky Egg item that increases experience gained after battle, the level-variable experience gain (lower level Pokémon gain more after each defeating a higher Pokémon) and the ability to get into double battles in the wild. And the meta-game still maintains its endless complications, with thousands of potential builds for nearly every Pokémon, with added depth from the vast area of new items and the 156 new Pokémon (that’s now 649 total).

The starting Pokémon for Black & White. From left to right: Snivy, Tepig and Oshawott.

My biggest concern with the game at launch in the serious lack of online features, which wasn’t made apparent until launch date. You cannot currently access any of the Global Link capabilities including the Dream World and Global Battle Union, which severely limits what you can actually do online. Sure there are numerous battle modes for friends recorded in the Pal Pad, but really Nintendo? It took you this long to release the game outside of the Japan and it still isn’t ready? Those capabilities have been available since launch for Japanese gamers, and we have to wait until March 30. It’s just silly.

But beyond that concern, there are only a few minor annoyances I could find. The grind can still be quite obnoxious, even with the various enhancements made. The game also slows down immensely around the 5th badge, where progressing to the next town means a very, very long journey through a cave filled with nasties or tall grass where every two steps is a Pokémon you don’t care to catch. Actually, I loathe the tall grass. It makes going places obnoxious. I much prefer the normal grass patches, especially with the new “shaking” grass that always contains a rare Pokémon. But enough about grass. The game could also do with a button to toggle running, like that used in Soul Silver and Heart Gold. But that’s only a concern until you get your bike. Still, feels slightly lazy. But these are hardly reasons to avoid buying the game. You really should.

Like I said, I’m not expecting to change anybody’s mind about the series with this review, but if you have been avoiding the series, now is the best time to join in on capturing them all. Or trying to. 649 is way too much for me to catch.

Review

ProsCons
Compelling story, characters to care about, dozens of mechanical improvements while still remaining a Pokémon gameLimited online features at launch, slow progression halfway through the game, minor gameplay annoyances, #%@! tall grass
Rating
95 out of 100
  • What’s with the numeric review?

    • Ben

      Its a new system we’re using for all reviews. Expect to see it more often!

      • Bah I say! Numeric reviews are silly and I do not care for them.

      • Bah I say! Numeric reviews are silly and I do not care for them.

  • What’s with the numeric review?

    • Ben

      Its a new system we’re using for all reviews. Expect to see it more often!

      • Bah I say! Numeric reviews are silly and I do not care for them.

  • I am a closet fan of Pokemon. I got hooked playing the Blue version when it first came out. Black and White are the only other Pokemon games I have wanted to buy.

  • I am a closet fan of Pokemon. I got hooked playing the Blue version when it first came out. Black and White are the only other Pokemon games I have wanted to buy.

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