Review by Breaking_chains

"Definitely signs of improvement here."

Here we are – it's the fifth generation of Pokemon. After Diamond and Pearl, I didn't have high hopes for Black and White – but I bought Black anyway, and was pleasantly surprised. Gamefreak actually seems to be working at it – trying to raise the series to a new level instead of just churning out whatever they can to squeeze out some more money from the Pokemon franchise. I'm seeing better quality here, more variation, better design, artistic flair, freshness and creativity. The game has it's low points, but overall, the effort shows, and results in a worthwhile game. Here's the rundown:

GAMEPLAY: 7/10. The gameplay is mostly the same as usual. You will catch Pokemon, carry six at a time, and use them to defeat opponents; you'll rely on type advantages and items; you'll collect eight gym badges and head to the Pokemon league. This basic system has been kept because it works, and has worked for five generations.

As always, though, there are also some new additions. The scenery changes with the "seasons", which change once per real-time month. Along with the terrain, there are two Pokemon which change their appearance based on these seasons, which is a cool touch; more would have been awesome, but probably a lot to ask for from the art department. Various Pokemon increase or decrease in rarity based on the seasons, and the weather changes as well.

HMs and TMs have been changed. TMs can now be used repeatedly. They're also a whole lot more expensive to balance this out – but now that they don't break after one use, you have a lot more freedom with choosing which moves to teach your Pokemon. HMs no longer require a gym badge to be used outside of battle – they can be used the moment you acquire them. However, the number of terrain objects such as boulders, trees, etc. that you can interact with has been greatly reduced. Most HMs are not even necessary to get through the game – I did not count a single skinny tree that I really needed to cut down to progress. Several cool and useful bonus areas are blocked off by HM-interactive terrain, but they're still almost absent from regular gameplay.

The menus are a point against the game. I found them to be clunky; you no longer have the main menu laid out for you on the bottom screen like in Heartgold/Soulsilver, and travel through the menus themselves is slow and cumbersome, with too few items per screen and sluggish movement. This gets annoying when you need to switch out the items your Pokemon are holding, or are using your dowsing machine and suddenly need to grab a potion, then have to go digging for the dowsing machine and turn it back on again. The usefulness of assigning items to buttons has been arguably reduced – now you only have Y to work with instead of both Y and Select, and if you assign multiple items to Y, it brings up yet another slow menu prompting you to choose which you want. The main problem seems to be the C-gear, which is a confusing online-play menu that lays claim to the bottom screen even when you specifically choose not to use it. If we had something like the Pokenav from D/P, it would have been easier to deal with – the C-gear could have been one of a number of apps and the bottom screen could have been available for whichever app you chose. Instead, we're stuck staring at the C-gear through 35 hours of gameplay.

Another negative point: the encounter rate is sometimes ridiculously high. There were a number of times when I took three steps and had three random encounters. This can become extremely frustrating, greatly slowing down your travel between towns. If you aren't actively searching for 'mons, and/or you want to actually get anywhere, then Repel is your best friend. Fortunately, the game coughs up enough money after battles that you won't be struggling to stay stocked up on it.

For the first half of the game, the difficulty level seems much higher than usual. The gym leaders can be tough to beat and even the trainers you meet on the road may give you some trouble, although as always this will vary depending on which starter you choose, how much training you do, and how many Pokemon you have to work with.

GRAPHICS: 8/10. The terrain is one thing this game got right. Instead of being a mere gimmick, the 3D now ads genuine depth to many areas, from a vast cliff by the sea to a spiraling quarry full of rickety wooden platforms. The graphics are still blocky and stylized, but this doesn't prevent areas from looking downright pretty, and the sprites seem to blend in well. The environments are all quirky and memorable, with each town having a distinct flavor to it.

Pokemon battles look great. The Pokemon each have a small animation they cycle through, throughout the battle. For the new Pokemon species, these are all well-drawn, well-animated, and natural. The Pokemon breathe, blink, wiggle feelers, jump, and stomp – and it all looks good, adding new life and energy to battles. Unfortunately, there's a noticeable drop in animation and art quality when you reach the Nationaldex – which is to be expected, since doing an individual animation for 700+ Pokemon is a monumental task. Still, it's all an improvement on certain past generations, where the Pokemon just rotated, stretched and squashed in awkward and forced ways upon switchout, then remained still.

What takes points off this section is this: some of the new Pokemon are extremely badly-designed. Some are stupid or nonsensical, like a sarcophagus with four wriggling black hands (Cofagrigus) or a giant walking trash bag (Garbodor/Trubbish). Still others are retreads of concepts we've seen before (Emolga is cute and appealing, but at the end of the day, it's still the obligatory electric rodent with cheek pouches).

Still, a few bad apples haven't spoiled the whole bag. Many of the designs are good or great, especially the legendaries – and they've hit on some type combos they haven't touched before, such as ghost/water or bug/fire, with solid results.

Overall, they seem to be being at least somewhat careful with the quality of their new designs, which is excellent to see – because the Pokemon's designs, and the resulting "cooool" factor, are always the heart and soul of this series.

SOUND: 8/10. No complaints about the music. Many of the tunes are awfully catchy; a few just fade into the background, but none of them are grating or tiresome. The various town themes are all fitting and well-composed, and the overworld theme has the perfect air of adventure to it. You might just end up pausing the game just to stop and listen. The battle themes are mostly just okay, but the music changes to sound panicky when your Pokemon's HP bar turns red, which is a nice touch.

One thing I found surprisingly impressive was the Pokemon's cries. In previous generations I barely noticed them, but this time they are varied, vivid, and giving a clear picture of how that Pokemon vocalizes and even it's demeanor (Victini sounds hyper and cheerful, Mandibuzz sounds vicious and wild, Musharna makes a gentle echoing sound, etc.) It's actually fun to just go through your 'dex and listen to the various cries. The Pokemon from R/S/E and prior still sound buzzy and electronic, which is understandable given the sheer volume of work it would have been to redo them; but eventually, I'd love it if they re-recorded them in future generations, given the quality of the sounds we see here.

STORY: 9/10. I know what you're thinking: "Hey, it's Pokemon. You get badges. You make your critters shoot fireballs at each other. You become the best trainer ever. How much story could it possibly have?"

That's how it's been for four generations, but this time, Gamefreak has taken some baby steps. Your enemies: Team Plasma – a Pokemon liberation movement. Y'know how the internet has been making jokes for years about how Pokemon battles are "animal cruelty"? Well, Gamefreak has taken that notion and made their villains run with it, hard. For maybe the first time, you're facing a team with a genuinely sympathetic point of view, and the game asks the same question over and over – how ethical is it to make Pokemon train and battle? Team Plasma says “It's not, stupid,” and they aim to disband the Pokemon league, make battling a thing of the past, and get every trainer-owned Pokemon in the world released – whether peacefully, or by force.

Complicating matters is a fellow only known as N – a trainer with unknown motives and a shadowy past, who may or may not have any connection to Team Plasma and who you'll encounter and battle repeatedly. You also have two other rivals, your best friends from Nuvema town – the intense and intellectual Cheren, and quirky Bianca, who is trying to find her purpose in life.

Unfortunately, around the second half of the game, the story gets downright preachy. It's attempting to hammer home the "moral of the story" – but does so in a scatterbrained fashion, as if it doesn't even know what the moral is supposed to be, but keeps bluffing anyway. It eventually comes to the point where literally every trainer you meet is patronizing you with some bit of fluff about how you should be at peace with all creatures, respect nature, respect others' viewpoints, share your toys and always change your undies. This becomes very heavy-handed, cloying, and distracting, and detracts from the game overall. The story was already interesting enough – we don't need to have it emphasized over and over. With more natural dialogue and less lecturing of the player, the story would have gotten a 10.

OVERALL: 8/10

~ Graphics are good. Design work is often good, but inconsistent.
~ Gameplay has been improved in places. Difficulty seems uneven.
~ Sound and music is excellent.
~ Story has become more sophisticated but also more heavy-handed. Dialogue is quite bland in places, saccharine in others.
~ Longtime fans will probably appreciate the game more than newcomers but it should be accessible and enjoyable to both.

The game has a few points against it, but also some serious improvement and obvious effort. Gamefreak is starting to push some new territory, but as they do so, they're doing their best to keep quality as high as possible. This attempt feels just a little shaky, but has some promising new directions and solid design work. It could have used a little more polishing – but overall, the future of the Pokemon series is looking bright, and I would definitely recommend this game to anyone considering purchasing it.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/14/11

Game Release: Pokemon Black Version (US, 03/06/11)


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