Another year, another duo of Pokémon games. But wait! Black and White… those are the kind of basic colour labels we’ve not seen on a game starring the pint-sized critters since the series’ inception in 1996. If you got the idea that stripping back the increasingly ambitious set of precious metals and shiny stones is a statement of intent by Game Freak, you may very well be right; if there was ever a Pokémon release for the confused and new, Black/White is most certainly, calculatedly, it.
Something, after all, has had to be done about the series’ increasingly convoluted progress. Releasing countless iterations of a game which looked near-identical on the surface, no matter the veritable poetry going on under the hood, was only going to appeal to two distinct groups of Poképeople; the impressionable kids who’d buy anything with a Pikachu on it, and the hoary, wizened old Trainers sagely slotting the new cart into their handheld in calm anticipation of how to uniquely exploit each new monster’s hidden spreadsheet of potential.
By the release of HeartGold/SoulSilver, it felt difficult to qualify why any but the most seasoned Pokémaniac need apply, and it’s to that group in the middle – those who appreciate a darn good RPG experience without needing to attend a special club every weekend – that this review need appeal. The rest of you will probably already have imported it anyway, your fluency in Japanese honed by your annual pilgrimage to Tokyo’s Pokémon Center.
Forget everything you ever learned, then. Though the series has built up an impressive collection of 493 collectable beasts, Game Freak’s made the sensible decision of locking each and every one of them away from players’ access during the main game. Black and White, then, effectively stand as a reboot, and the excitement as you go through those familiar motions of meeting the Pokémon Professor, picking if you’re a boy or a girl, and finally being shrunk magically to chibi proportions and dropped into your house in the town of Nuvema is simply, more exciting with the knowledge there’s nothing too familiar to fall back on.
Of course, you still know exactly what’s going to happen next; an inane wander just outside town with your friends, some sort of contrived opportunity to pick up one of three cute ‘starter’ Pokémon from the prof, the gift of a Pokédex, and off you go – to see the world, come of age, and along the way discover weird and wonderful creatures, and the people who train them. But this is an-new world filled with more quirks and surprises than ever before.
In fairness, Game Freak’s not taken a massive amount of risks with the new monster loadout, the misty-eyed pining for who’s not going to pop out of the long grass quicky replaced by creatures and abilities that all but replace them wholesale. A pigeon, after all, is always a pigeon, no matter if it looks a little more like a dove, and eventually evolves a wattle. And those that aren’t just happy counterfeits of their predecessors can often scrape the barrel in new and incredibly irksome ways. Take the dreadful Vanillite, which is basically an ice cream with a face, or the hideous Scraggy, a childish line drawing of something resembling a yellow lizard whose trousers fall down every few seconds. If ever the time was ripe to make apologies for Mr. Mime and Jynx, it was now.
Still, there’s a fair share of classics brought to the table, too. Starter Tepig is a cute piglet who goes on to become an incredibly angry giant fighting boar, developing a Fighting type as he evolves where the other two stick to pure Grass and Water types. Then there’s the excessively creepy Munna, a small, levitating balloon of a creature with sad, bloodshot eyes. It has control over dreams but, unsurprisingly, soon develops the skill to turn its enemies’ enforced slumber into nightmares.
Anyway, the relative stupidness of some of the monster designs can be easily overlooked this time, because Black and White represent the point when – finally – the series has made impressive attempts to embrace its presence on a console capable of complex graphics.
Battle screens, which, after all, you’ll spend the majority of your game time sitting through, have been overhauled in a way that proves exciting and infectious on almost each and every occasion. Using fast-paced sprite scaling, a roving camera follows each Pokémon’s move in battle, zooming into each of its newly-animated techniques and status changes. The effect, while it’s effectively just clever post-production of what’s still essentially two drawings of weird animals facing one another, is actually incredibly immersive, and in an action-packed fight gives a great sense of physical weight, verging at times on genuine brutality, which subtly increases the sense of connection you slowly build with your team of beasties as you cheer at their successes or cart them off to the nearest Pokémon centre should they fall.
The world itself, meanwhile, is nothing short of a visual triumph, almost doing for the DS what Red and Blue did when they drew such an unfeasibly huge world on the lowly Game Boy. Unova is a beautiful, dramatic place, its suggested New York influences allowing for all manner of quaint metropolitan razzle-dazzle. Elevated highways loom overhead as you cross deserts, while massive polygonal bridges appear on the horizon. Additionally, the game’s absolutely unafraid to hijack control of the traditionally fixed overhead camera; it follows your course through hulking cities in a third-person shift, trained on your character’s back as you deftly sidestep apologetic businessmen or enter skyscrapers, before pulling back to show you a mere speck stepping into the elevator.
These new ventures into 3D are brought into play excellently in the game’s epically-designed Pokémon gyms, too, as you find yourself hurtling down huge slides fashioned from ice or solving intricate spatial awareness puzzles to navigate multiple, cavernous floors. More than a shallow addition, this marked improvement on the graphical side of the game keeps the interest levels high, especially in those repeated grinding fights in the long grass, neatening off some of your squad’s levels in skirmishes with countless, randomly encountered birds and insects.
In comparison to these fantastic visual embellishments, alterations to the gameplay rather bring up the rear. And if that sounds like a direct criticism, it really isn’t; the basic tenets of Pokémon are so worn into time itself that to change anything too much would be a veritable sin. The usual nips and tucks, of course, are apparent, balancing efforts including a fairer smattering of ‘Dark’ moves for the new Pokémon to help keep Ghost types firmly at bay, and a boost in power for multi-turn moves such as Bind or Wrap, making them now genuinely viable options rather than one-way tickets to fainting hell.
The much-vaunted three-character battles, meanwhile, are an interesting diversion, but carry little weight as major innovations. Coming in two flavours, the standard Triple Battle allows your team of three only to attack monsters adjacent or opposite to them, and this becomes especially interesting when you discover some moves can hit more than one enemy at once. It’s all in the positioning or, more likely, in the hoping for the best and powering through regardless.
Rotation Battles meanwhile, against the AI at least, often degenerate into real stabs in the dark, as you and the opponent can change which of your three selected ‘mons is in the fray by rotating them on a large wheel. The enemy can do the same, however, so picking, for example, a fire attack as their measly bug Pokémon cowers in fear will be scuppered as they rotate and produce Mr Rock. While intimate knowledge of every Pokémon’s type from sight alone may help you pick the best catch-all solution, simply doling out neutral attacks isn’t a bad tactic either.
While the single player game has a couple of isolated areas in which these three-way shenanigans can be competed in at will – particularly useful for fast levelling as your three competitors all earn individual XP – the idea is never widely utilised in the story, feeling almost as if Game Freak just didn’t want to rock the fan boat with an untested concept. Still, there are even more deft additions apart from these, one of which is the next sensible evolution in the series’ traditionally clock-watching inner workings; Unova now functions around four defined, real-time seasons.
While they only change once every month as opposed to the real-life three or so, the seasons still represent (DS internal clock-fiddling aside) a very real and viable reason to keep coming back long after the Elite Four have bitten the dust. As well as new monsters (or even forms of ones you’ve seen) to be caught at different times of the year, the passage of time can also open new routes through the world. All this, and the differences between Black and White now run far deeper than monster availability. As truly parallel universes, towns and cities feature completely different visual designs between the two versions.
Even previous games’ ‘talent contest’ side-quest gimmick has been given a pleasant reworking, your favourite fighting pets now encouraged to take part in musicals. Until you’ve seen a Pignite doing backflips in a top hat and false moustache while confetti rains from the ceiling, you probably haven’t lived.
And underpinning all this catching, fighting and simple time-wasting is a story that, while unlikely to go down in history as one of the RPG greats, feels far more worthy of investment than earlier iterations. The opposing force bothering the world this time around is known as Team Plasma. Perhaps knowledgeable of the failure of its predecessors in Team Rocket, Team Galactic, et al. Plasma has a unique agenda for the wholesale theft of Pokémon, and that’s to persuade people that trapping and fighting these defenceless beasts is – shock – a potentially immoral course of action. Wandering into a new town and discovering a rally of supporters for a silver-tongued speaker talking Trainers into freeing their monsters purely out of guilt is rather progressive for a Pokémon game, giving Unova a greater sense of a deeper social existence beyond each and every inhabitants’ single-minded obsession with talking about their Pokémon.
Your characters’ two friends, Cheren and Bianca, also exist for more purpose than simply being ‘rivals’. Becoming caught up in several set-piece-driven plots throughout the game, their hopes, dreams and fears as wannabe Trainers are embedded enough into proceedings that you may actually begin to care for them.
At the end of the day, Game Freak artfully treads a tightrope between several very different, very savvy audiences with Pokémon Black and White, and there’s more than enough here to please everybody. While die-hards might still prefer the more expert-friendly features of HeartGold and SoulSilver, the fresh approach and fiercely impressive visuals, draped over a tried and true frame of addictive, highly nuanced battle and customisation, make Pokémon Black/White the defacto catch-all solution to monster collecting on the venerable DS.