Review by AK_the_Twilight

"Division of Powers"

To everyone who's ever called themselves an RPG lover, whether it be Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls, know this: Pokemon will always be your guilty pleasure. You love Pikachu. You love Charizard. You love them all, and you want to catch them all. It's been over 15 years for Nintendo's monster collecting and battling leviathan, but still they churn out game after game in the series, inching forward in nuances as time dashes by. It's become commonplace for Nintendo to rely more on the nostalgia or charm of the game's premise instead of making grandiose steps forward for the series, but for the Nintendo DS's swan song, Game Freak has managed to release two new portable outings for one of the biggest and most addictive franchises in Nintendo's history. Remarkably, Pokemon Black and White represent generations of progression from humble beginnings, but they still could've been a bit more daring in their final production.

Pokemon's story is an epic tale of a wandering Pokemaniac shunned from society…nah, just kidding. You play as another up-and-coming Pokemon trainer who's out to begin a journey in the new Pokemon world, Unova. By catching Pokemon in the wild and raising them, the player must conquer the eight gyms of Unova, defeat the Elite Four, and claim the title of Pokemon Champion. While this might seem familiar to anyone who's been playing a Pokemon game since 1996, there are a few new twists in this Poke-chapter. The player now has two rivals who spontaneously appear throughout their journey, each one with their own aspirations in the land of Unova. Also, Team Plasma (a criminal organization similar to the Team Rocket, Magma, Aqua, and so on) is out to “liberate” Pokemon from their “enslavement” by humans. The story's theme on division of powers is actually rather sophisticated for Pokemon; thinking of Pokemon as servants to humans isn't really something that's been explored in the Pokemon narrative. Pokemon Black and White hold what is probably the best story seen in a Pokemon game ever (then again, that's not saying too much).

If you're new to the Pokemon craze, it's probably best to just throw up your arms and face your fate of being exposed to this handheld juggernaut. Pokemon has always been about catching, raising, and battling a tremendous collection of monsters against other Pokemon trainers. You get to choose a starter from Grass, Fire, or Water elements and then you can begin training them to catch more Pokemon. By finding wild Pokemon and weakening them, you can capture them and enlist them in your team. Pokemon can be raised to earn new moves, or evolve into different forms entirely. Selecting move combinations, prepping stats, and finding that team niche among the 600+ creatures' skillsets is as comprehensive as it's always been. If you've been following Pokemon since its humble Kanto days of old, Pokemon Black and White will feel familiar, for better or for worse.

Pokemon Black is an enormous game, but some discreet changes end up making a huge difference. The overall battle is faster paced. Battle animations are quick, but manageably visual, making the Pokemon scuffles much more engaging. In fact, the game seems to overall be a much faster one. Experience can be gained much quicker when fighting wild Pokemon, special items are introduced much more frequently, and the entire story pushes you further and further ahead at a forceful, but comfortable pace. The game only lets you catch new Unova Pokemon, with the ability to transfer Pokemon from past titles only being available later on. This really lets the player involve themselves in Unova, even though many of the “new” Pokemon designs feel stagnant and rather sloppily constructed. Still, Pokemon Black and White's quicker pacing and feeling of purpose shown throughout Unova make a big difference. Despite being generations later in the Pokemon release history, Black and White feel like a fond throwback to the older Pokemon games, where the entire design forces you to start over and relive being in a new world.

Pokemon Black and White also introduce some clever, but ultimately underwhelming changes to the core gameplay. The introduction of seasons makes some graphical differences, but aside from a few events and Pokemon that change during the seasons, this concept feels tacked-on at best. Triple battles are about as self-explanatory as it can get, but are really just a bigger double battle. Rotation battles shape up better, as three Pokemon battle on each side with different attacks having different effects based on position in the rotation, but still feel like minor additions instead of full-on modes. These changes, at the end of the day, feel like desperate attempts to recapture fans' attention instead of ways to truly advance the Pokemon formula. They're fun for a while, but they're not what you came to see.

The multiplayer component remains one of the most prominent reasons to revisit Unova, thanks in part to the same addictively competitive battle modes and robust trade options. Pokemon Black and White take advantage of a number of wireless features in the DS hardware, thanks to the complexity of the C-Gear item. The C-Gear allows players to interact with friends, passersby, and online rivals with a tap of the DS screen, seamlessly integrating the multiplayer into the main game without hassle. It's easy to jump into and actually feels fluid, making past multiplayer setups obsolete. The biggest step, however, is the introduction of the Dream World, where players connect their Unova profile with the Pokemon website, allowing for Pokemon to learn new abilities, gain experience, and more. Though it isn't the major massive step that fans have been clamoring for, the Dream World connection shows that there's still fresh ground to explore in the Pokemon universe.

Pokemon Black and White's presentation is nothing new in the slightest. The sprites are well-animated, the attacks solid, but the more metropolitan city design is a true twist from past games in the series. It's just a shame that the rest of the game follows the same template that Pokemon's built for over a decade now. Fields, forests, mountains, caves; it's all been done before over and over. The sound is just as underwhelming, with the same chirps from the Pokemon, redundant battle music, and overused themes. The DS has visual and aural potential that the Pokemon series seems dead-set on avoiding. It's not awful looking by any means, but at the tail end of the DS lifecycle, Pokemon Black and White don't do a thing to represent the legacy of the system's capabilities in any way other than stagnant and unchanging.

Pros
+ Battle system is just as simple and addictive as always
+ Much faster-paced and accessible than past installments
+ Robust wireless and Wi-Fi options add some depth

Cons
- Boring presentation
- Core gameplay remains unchanged
- Many of the new Pokemon designs feel repetitive and lack creativity

Pokemon Black and White are robust, content-packed RPG's that prove (once again) that Pokemon has a wealth of longevity and depth beneath its colorful menagerie of pocket monsters. The integration of anytime multiplayer gives the series new life, while the fond throwback to starting a brand new journey helps the game feel just that: brand new. Still, you can tell that Nintendo is running out of Pokemon design choices, as many of the newest creatures are either plain and generic or ridiculous and quirky. A stagnant and dated presentation doesn't help either. The faster pace is a welcome addition, and even though the game may seem like it's shoving you forward instead of leading you along, it really is about getting to the open-ended team design, bonus quests, and robust multiplayer suite. With the Nintendo 3DS taking the reins of Nintendo's handheld future, Pokemon Black and White show that there's still ways to make the old feel new again, even if the hardware capabilities aren't used to their fullest. Nintendo's latest monster-catching duo of RPG's may not be the best looking or sounding role-playing games in the DS library, but thanks to tremendous content count and some subtle, but logical progressions in gameplay, they show if anything that Pokemon can continue to prosper more than 15 years since its inception, and it doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/21/11

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


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