Pokemon Black and White – Staff Review

From Pokemon Gold and Silver onward, each new generation of Pokemon has improved on the basic formula of the series, refining the execution bit by bit. Pokemon Black and White continue follow this tradition, although the improvements are nowhere near as huge as the shift between the GBA games and Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Primarily a shift in interface and presentation, the core mechanics of the Pokemon series continue largely untouched from the previous cycle of Pokemon games, while the series’s habitually scattershot interface and connectivity receive the lion’s share of attention. Overall, it’s not quite the geological shift of Diamond and Pearl, but changes Pokemon Black and White introduce have been a long time coming, and they are most welcome.

Perhaps the single largest area of improvement is the game’s story. Where the plot of previous Pokemon games have been mostly throwaway, with the whole of the story easily summarized in a few quick lines about a kid who randomly decides to become the Champion, Black and White features a story that, while still fairly simple, uses themes which, for Pokemon, are downright philosophical. The plot contains musings about the morality of capturing Pokemon, questions about the nature of every Trainer’s quest to become the Champion, and a nefarious villain able to see past the unique blind spot that so many in the Pokemon world have where it comes to using the nasty little critters against actual human beings. That being said, there are still a few bothersome parts of the story. The main character is still a child whose motivation for going out into the world is largely unexplored, and there are a number of plot threads left hanging at the end. It is entirely possible that these hanging threads will be addressed in a sequel, but for the moment, the story ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note.

The changing of seasons in-game results in some impressive alterations to the landscape.
The changing of seasons in-game results in some impressive alterations to the landscape.

The combat system of Pokemon should be well-known to most gamers by now: a gigantic turn-based game of elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors between no less than 649 individual critters of a whopping 17 different elemental types, with players trapping critters that evolve and learn new moves as they level up. It’s a fairly basic setup with a rather complex execution. One only has to look at the competitive battling scene to see how twisted battles between players can get, and yet the game manages to keep things fairly simple within the confines of the mainline plot. The end result is a game that caters to a wide variety of players, from those who breed the little monsters into rampaging engines of destruction to players only interested in mauling the in-game trainers with an electric flying squirrel.

Pokemon Black and White introduces a few interesting new modes of play, such as Triple Battles, which are basically the same as Double Battles with one extra ‘mon per side, and Rotation Battles, which are far more interesting. Rotation Battles put three critters from each side onto a rotating platform on the battlefield. Only the Pokemon in front is considered to be “in play,” and players can rotate to a new critter without using up a turn. Players can also expend a turn to swap a Pokemon in from their party, which is good, since all of a Pokemon’s stat changes and status effects remain as long as it is still on the rotating platform. It’s a fresh and unusual take on the normal Pokemon combat setup, but it really could have used more exposure. Both Triple Battles and Rotation Battles appear only a handful of times over the course of the game, so the main bulk of these combat modes only occurs in player versus player mode.

Thankfully, player versus player combat got a major boost in Black and White, along with practically every other way that Trainers interact with each other. Not only is there a new random matchup mode that allows players to battle each other without exchanging Friend Codes, but the Global Trade Service has been expanded with more ways to search for Pokemon trades, and even a new mode that matches players up with randomly selected trading partners. Communication in these random modes is a bit stunted, unfortunately — the random trade feature in particular could have used more than just a handful of emoticons for communication — but overall, it’s a massive jump forward from Diamond and Pearl.

A big way Pokemon Black and White encourages players to interact is the C Gear, which is essentially a suite of interactive tools and minigames that connects everyone playing the game within local WiFi range. Players can use the C Gear to initiate a wireless battle, take a survey, trade Pokemon, or even have a quick video chat using the DSi’s built in camera. The C Gear’s default state is on, and on the one hand playing the game and suddenly having someone walk by and pop up on the Gear is an extremely neat experience. On the other hand, however, the constant use of wireless is battery draining, and unless you live in a particularly densely populated area, chances are the C Gear won’t be seeing all that much use.

A big part of Pokemon’s push for interactivity is, or rather should have been, the Global Link service. The Global Link is a website that provides a meeting place for Trainers outside of the confines of the game and is a big part of many in-game features, including a Ranking mode for online battling, a GTS tracking service, and the entirety of the Dream World. Unfortunately, the Global Link site is unavailable, and it will be until the end of March. Thankfully, this doesn’t leave a huge gap in service, but it does seem kind of odd that such a major part of this game would be completely missing for almost a month after its release.

On a more basic level, Pokemon Black and White achieves something that the series has been striving after for a long time: a fully functional interface. Ever since Red and Blue, fans have complained about things like inventory management, Pokemon storage, and even some aspects of basic movement. Even as late as Heart Gold and Soul Silver, some aspects of the interface were still clunky and difficult to manage. However, Pokemon Black and White offer an interface as smooth as silk. Item inventory can be organized with the touch of a button, multiple items can be set to the Y button for quick usage, and almost every page of the inventory has a quick exit button, allowing the player to zip back into the game without having to exit out of half a dozen windows. Pokemon storage is still a bit cumbersome, and the way the game handles party and box shortcut window placement takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a vast improvement in both speed and function on previous titles. Just about the only dark cloud on the horizon is that Pokemon games tend to backslide a bit in terms of interface in between entries of a single generation, so it remains to be seen how well these improvements will be retained.

Sound, on the other hand, is one area where Pokemon has seen steady and continuous growth, and Pokemon Black and White certainly continues this trend where quality of composition is concerned. The sound quality hasn’t grown quite as much, but thankfully this isn’t exactly a huge issue given that the sound quality at least meets the high standard set by Heart Gold and Soul Silver. Overall, the music is more or less what we’ve come to expect from Pokemon over the course of the last two generations, with very modern sounds and instrumentation, though its usage is far more dramatic. Music often changes mid-scene to better fit events, particularly in battle. For example, the obnoxious bleeping which played every time your Pokemon hit critical HP has been removed, replaced with a very excellent piece of music that cuts in at the appropriate moment. There are also unique tracks for a Gym Leader’s final Pokemon, and so on. Sound effects have improved a bit as well, but for the most part, it’s not a huge change.

Players can transfer Pokemon from old games to Black and White, but it does require two DSes, something not everyone has available.
Players can transfer Pokemon from old games to Black and White, but it does require two DSes, something not everyone has available.

Pokemon Black and White makes some improvements to the visuals of the series, but again, it’s not the leap of Diamond and Pearl. The game still uses bright, bold colors, and highly geometric monster design, with the big changes being reserved for combat and the various environments. In battle, the mostly static combat sprites of Pokemon have been given animated replacements, and although they aren’t quite as responsive as we might like — there is only one main “idle” animation per Pokemon, with only a small amount of variation for attack animations — they do give Pokemon a great deal more personality than they had before. Watching Blissey bob and squish, for example, gives a much better impression of its nature than the simple two-frame bounce we got in previous games. Similarly, environments are now much more expressive, with the typical squareish room made of tiles replaced by fully polygonal environments that rotate and spin around the player as they move. Spiral staircases, for example, are now fairly common, with the camera twisting around to follow the player as they move. On a basic level, the visual style is still fairly similar to that seen in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, but the improvements in animation and dynamic camera angles makes the game feel much more organic, and definitely improves its visual appeal.

One of the most major improvements that Pokemon Black and White has over its predecessors is in the basic balance of the game. Where Diamond and Pearl had serious trouble with a shortage of certain types of Pokemon, and Heart Gold and Soul Silver had trouble keeping the levels of enemy Trainers and wild Pokemon consistent, Black and White presents a smooth path through the game with a large variety of options of elemental stripe. That does make Pokemon Black and White a bit easier than some recent games, but in all honesty, a game being easy because it offers a lot of options to players isn’t a terrible tradeoff. Black and White is also slightly shorter than average for a Pokemon game, with the mainline plot taking only about 30 to 35 hours to complete, though of course the series is famous for its extensive and time consuming postgame content.

With each new iteration of the series producing new and better things for Pokemon fans, it’s tempting to simply crown Black and White the new kings and move on. And the fact of the matter is, this game is probably the best in the series so far, with more dynamic visuals and sound, a far more complex and entertaining plot, and interface improvements players have been requesting for years. That having been said, there are still areas in which the series could improve: for example, giving the protagonist some sort of motivation; using an enemy organization which breaks the “stupid and bumbling” archetype; and making Pokemon sprites more responsive, both in combat and out. On the whole, Pokemon Black and White is an excellent title, and one that makes a solid jumping-on point for the series, but where the series goes from here will be a point of great interest.

This game was played to completion, and reviewed using a retail copy of the game.

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