Pokemon Black and Pokemon White feel like what a DS Pokemon game should be. Of course, it has the ultra-deep battle mechanics that Pokemon is known for, coupled with the series' most beautiful graphics and sound to date. And with a new region and now over 600 Pokemon to collect and train, there's more content in B&W than in most (practically all) full console games. No doubt, Pokemon B&W is absolutely a fantastic game. If it were the first entry in the series, instead of a game built upon the shoulders of its predecessors, it would be the easiest 10/10 to award.
The big question though, is whether or not enough significant upgrades have been made since the last DS generation of Pokemon games to justify Black/White's existence. To find out, let's start at the beginning.
Obligatory explanation of the Pokemon series
Pokemon is like an RPG with over 600 playable characters to choose from. You play as a Pokemon trainer who adventures around a region filled with cities and wilderness, catching various Pokemon and then using your captured Pokemon to battle other Pokemon. Besides exploration, the core gameplay mechanic has two main components: collecting and battling.
The collection aspect ("gotta catch 'em all!") is what Pokemon is most well-known for, and rightly so. What elevates Pokemon's collecting mechanic into compulsive addiction territory, besides the imaginitive designs of the Pokemon themselves, is that every Pokemon is literally unique. You can rest assured that your Snorlax is in some way different than anyone else's Snorlax, from his IVs (individual values determined at birth that affect his stats – like Pokemon genetics), to his EVs (effort values that affect his stats based on how you trained him), to his nature (a value that effects his strengths and weaknesses), OT (original trainer) and so on.
Above: This is my Wobbuffet, not yours
So much data goes into each Pokemon that it essentially constitutes a sort of DNA, and many complex values work in conjunction to create differences among Pokemon that range from subtle to extreme. Even if you're not familiar with the details of how everything works under the hood, you can still see the results as your Pokemon grow in various ways, and it's why properly training a Pokemon by battling it with other Pokemon can be so rewarding.
But you don't need to know any of this to enjoy Pokemon. The true brilliance of the series is that it can be played on a wide array of levels from shallow to the deepest of the deep. On the surface, it's a basic, turn-based RPG that's simple enough that even a fairly small child could grasp it and successfully play through the story campaign. Delve deeper into the game mechanics though, and you find an unparalleled level of strategic depth, with infinite possibilities for training and battling Pokemon. And you don't have to play it on one end or the other – Pokemon players fall everywhere on the spectrum because the game allows for however much depth you're willing to explore.
What's new in Black & White?
Where to start? Like in previous generations, B&W adds a lot of little new features and improvements that add up to give it an overall evolved feel. The most immediately noticeable improvement is in the graphics – this is a showcase for how absolutely beautiful sprite graphics can be. The pseudo-3D visuals perfectly show not only how timeless sprite art can be, but at the same time show how it can be updated to look modern and fresh. B&W truly looks worthy of the DS hardware while maintaining the beloved aesthetic of the series.
Gameplay-wise, in the single-player, our favorite addition is definitely the seasonal changes. Exploring a new region is one of our favorite aspects of playing a new Pokemon game, and the seasonal shifts add a dynamic element to exploration that we haven't seen in the series since the real-time day/night cycles introduced in Gold and Silver. Seasons also have a real-time component, but they cycle through by calendar month rather than by real-life season, so Spring is in real-life January, Summer is in February, Fall in March, Winter in April, then Spring again in May and so forth. The day/night cycle and days of the week still exist too, and days are even longer in Summer and shorter in Winter, which is a cool touch.
Seasons aren't just dynamic visually either – they actually affect the gameplay and your ability to explore the environment. Winter has the most pronounced changes, where ponds freeze over so you can't fish or surf, but piles of fluffy snow form below cliffs, so you can walk up the gently sloping snow to access a previously inaccessible area. And of course, some wild Pokemon encounters vary by season too, depending on the Pokemon's particular habits. All together, the seasons go far to make Unova feel like a living, breathing world that you can explore at length and continue to discover new things even when revisiting previously explored areas.
And of course, there are 150+ new Pokemon to discover, catch and train. Some of them are clearly inspired by Pokemon from previous games, like Woobat, who shares some common traits with Zubat from the original 151. Most, however, feel fresh and new, with creative visual designs and many with new type combos. Ultimately, it's going to come down to personal taste whether you like the new Pokemon, and as always some are obviously cooler than others, but overall it feels like an inspired bunch that's about on par with Pokemon introduced in generations past.
But does it feel new enough?
Yes and no. Much ado has been made over Game Freak's decision to exclude previous games' Pokemon from the main story campaign of Black and White, and it does help alleviate the tedium of yet another Pokemon game full of Geodudes, Zubats and the like. Still, it kind of feels like switching one for the other, as soon enough, if you spend too long in any one cave, you're going to grow weary of the local flora and fauna.
The biggest factor contributing to the sameyness of B&W is that it conforms to the same paradigm set by the previous four generations – the main story quest consists of earning eight gym badges and going on to defeat the elite four and league champion to become the region's new champion. We all expected this to be the case, and it's not necessarily a huge negative, but it would be cool if someday a Pokemon game retained the core battle mechanics but mixed up the single-player campaign a bit more so that your quest was something other than defeating gym leaders.
Despite the story feeling similar to previous Pokemon games though, B&W's single-player does change things up in two notable ways. The first is less significant but perhaps most surprising, and it's that the story is actually quite good compared to previous games. Without getting too specific/spoilery, the basic gist is that Team Plasma wants to liberate Pokemon from their human oppressors by stealing them away and separating humans and Pokemon to protect them from each other. Their leader, N, is an idealistic young man who loves Pokemon and hates to see them suffer. He's the most nuanced and truly interesting character ever introduced in a Pokemon game, and it's refreshing to face an antagonist who's more than just the villain who's secretly(-but-not-really-secretly) evil.
At times, because of the obvious parallels to the topic of animal welfare, the story does feel a bit uncomfortable, since the Pokemon trainers who are analogous to being supporters of vicious dog fighting are the good guys, and the animal activists who want to stop them from forcing their Pokemon into battle are the bad guys. The story is not always what it seems though, and people on both sides are shown to have their good and bad sides. And while it's not absolutely groundbreaking, it is definitely the first main story in a Pokemon game that presents moral gray areas and comes close to eliciting an emotional response.
The second addition that's even more important to fans of the series is that there's absolutely tons of post-game content. It's a common wisdom amongst the Pokemon community that a Pokemon game really begins when you beat it, and that's certainly true of Black and White. Not only is there a large portion of the map left to explore, including the version exclusive areas of White Forest and Black City, but you're even presented with new quest post-game. It's great to see Game Freak really acknowledge that the bulk of most Pokemon fans' playtime hours are spent after the story is over.
Also one last new point to mention is that Pokemon Black and White also work in conjunction with the Pokemon Global Link (PGL), which is part of the official Pokemon website and can be found at www.pokemon-gl.com. When you create a PGL account, you can sync up your game with the site to access leaderboards and even obtain Pokemon and items you can transfer to your game.
It's not available outside of Japan yet, but it's scheduled to release elsewhere in spring. If it mirrors the Japanese version of the service, it will feature two primary components, the Global Battle Union (GBU) and the Dream World. The GBU is an online leaderboard that lists the global battle rankings of all players with a PGL account, and we've been told it will be used to seed the official Pokemon tournaments in real life. The Dream World is a flash site where you can earn Pokemon and items through various minigames. From what we've played of the Japanese version, the games themselves are nothing too exciting, but it's a nice way to pad out your Pokemon collection, especially when you're bored at school or work.
For many fans though, the true meat of the post-game is in the multiplayer.
Despite Nintendo's multiplayer-crippling, stodgy stance on family-safe security, Black and White manages to offer a remarkably multiplayer-friendly experience. In fact, there are so many multiplayer features that it isn't practical to cover them all in-depth here, but here's a brief rundown.
In place of Diamond and Pearl's Poketch (which was rather forward-thinking, wasn't it?), Black and White introduces the C-Gear, which sits on the bottom screen and acts as a hub for multiplayer. The infrared (IR) connection makes trading and battling locally an absolute breeze (you can even access your full PC while trading now!), and you can automatically exchange friend codes without having to enter any numbers. Via local wireless you can also use the Xtranceiver through the C-Gear, which allows video chat with up to three other players.
The other big local wireless feature is the Entralink, where you can sneak into another player's game while they're playing and leave treats for them to find or give them power-ups that last for a limited time. For example, if you see your friend is online playing, you can see where he or she is on the map, warp there and talk to them to give them a "Pass Power" that gives them a discount on all shop items for 30 minutes, for example. The more you complete these friendly, helping-hand missions, the better Pass Powers you'll have access to. The Entralink isn't a huge deal gameplay-wise, as each mission only takes a few seconds, but it fits well with the spirit of friendship that Pokemon's multiplayer has always sought to foster.
The Union Room and Wi-Fi options return within each Pokemon Center in B&W, and now the Global Terminal can be accessed from any Center too. Not only is it more conveniently accessible, but the Global Terminal also has some new features for both trading and battling. The new GTS Negotiations option allows you to join up with a random player across the globe and peruse each other's Pokemon and negotiate a trade. Random battle matchups also have both unranked and ranked modes now, so you can either play casually or for realsies. In ranked mode you have a battle ranking that goes up and down depending on your wins and losses, and you're matched with other players of similar ranking.
The brand-new triple and rotation battles have the biggest impact on multiplayer too, since they help to level the playing field a bit between unevenly matched players. Both triple and rotation battles involve each player having three Pokemon on screen at once, but the rules are quite different. In triple battles, three Pokemon on each team fight at once, but the Pokemon on the left and right sides can only hit the two closest Pokemon on the other team, whereas the one in the middle can hit and be hit by everyone. It's basically the same as a double battle, but triple.
Rotation battles are a little different though. You still have six Pokemon on the field at once, but each team's Pokemon stands on a turntable that you can rotate however you want each turn. Only one Pokemon can move each turn, and it's largely up to luck how the battle goes, because you never know which way your opponent is going to turn the dial, meaning you can't plan out your moves and strategy as well as you could in a normal battle. In this sense, Rotation battles are great because they provide a more casual approach to multiplayer, without the inanity of silly minigames. Remember the Wi-Fi Plaza minigames in Platinum? Yeah, we don't need any more of that.
Black version vs White version
For the first time in Pokemon history, hardcore Pokemon fans can easily justify buying both versions of the game. While the overall game is the same at heart, Black and White have significant differences that go beyond a handful of version-exclusive Pokemon. Firstly, each game has a different aesthetic feel in certain areas, and overall Pokemon Black has a more high-tech, futuristic vibe, whereas Pokemon White has a natural, rustic feel. Each has an exclusive area too – White Forest in White is a place that's geared toward collecting Pokemon, and Black City in Black is more about trainer battles. Overall, the majority of the content in both games is still the same, but the differences aren't entirely token this time either.
Above: Whichever version you choose, pick the girl trainer. She's way cooler looking than the boy this time
Is it better than…?
Pokemon Diamond / Pearl?
Yes. We miss the Poketch, but Black/White offers a more robust experience overall than Diamond/Pearl. The graphics are superior, it has more multiplayer support, and it has way more post-game content. It feels like what Diamond and Pearl could have (or should have) been – a Pokemon game that stays true to the series while fully utilizing the DS hardware. In retrospect, Diamond and Pearl wasn't quite there despite its numerous advances.
Pokemon HeartGold / SoulSilver? Yes, mostly. It's hard to beat the sheer volume of content in HeartGold and SoulSilver, since it contains two full regions and therefore essentially two full games (Gold/Silver plus Red/Blue). Even with the improvements made to the remake though, some of its clunky menus show its age.
The PokeWalker is great though, isn't it?
Pokemon Red / Blue? Yes. Red and Blue will always have a place of honor as the duo that started such a brilliant series, but Pokemon has made giant leaps since then. Anyone who says that the Pokemon series is too stagnant should go back and play the original games to see what a vast transformation it's had over the generations. Graphics aside (which can't be helped), even the core battle mechanics have improved so much since then, and additions like natures and abilities have enriched the uniqueness of each Pokemon.
Just for you, Metacritic!
It may not break the Pokemon mold, but Black/White offers enough new content coupled with the series' classic, deep battle mechanics to make it endlessly playable. If you could only play one game for the rest of your life, this would be a wise choice.
Mar 4, 2011