Critics are quick to slam Nintendo’s formula-centric approach to game development, and however much you love the company, it’s not hard to see why. At a glance, all of the firm’s major franchises rarely deviate from the tried and tested: Link will always have to go grab a bunch of triangles from dungeons, Metroid fans are all too used to having their powers arbitrarily taken away within the first few minutes, and poor Mario must be sick of hearing that the princess is in another castle. And even more so than the rest, Pokémon is a series that seems to have changed little in over 15 years – grab one of three cute things, make it hit loads of other cute things, then put these new recruits in balls and do the same with them. But under the bonnet, Pokémon has evolved more than pretty much any other franchise its age, and where once was a simple kids’ game now lives a devilishly complex yet supremely accessible pinnacle of JRPG goodness.
So while it might seem like not much has changed to the untrained eye, veterans will be quick to spot some fairly major changes. For one, Game Freak has done away with Black and White’s core hook of having just new monsters until after the credits. While it certainly helped mix things up and make the adventure a little more exciting, these sequels offer far more variety by having monsters from all five generations live wild as one. There’s a welcome shift towards letting trainers get their hands on genuinely useful Pokémon fairly early too, especially if you’re willing to go exploring. Each area now plays host to a wider variety of monsters, so if you’re keen enough to weather painfully low encounter rates on the rarest critters, you can have the makings of a dream team before the story has even started to hit its stride.
It’s not the only move to pull some of the better content out of the endgame and put it in front of more players earlier on, either. All manner of extracurricular opportunities pop up as the story unfolds rather than after, as is so often the case in the series. PokéStar movie creation, which is effectively a cunningly disguised set of battle puzzles, along with an achievement system of sorts with the Medal Box and even a host of new Extralink multiplayer challenges all come into play within the first few hours, to varying effect. PokéStar, for one, could be a lot better, and while the puzzle aspect of movie-making is awesome, the statistical nature of Pokémon’s battle system means that it’s not exactly the best fit. All your hard work can be undone by an unlikely miss or a jammy critical, after all.
But in its core mechanics, Pokémon has never been stronger. Battling, for many the heart and soul of the experience, comes in all flavours imaginable, and the huge variety of Pokémon available makes it impossibly unlikely that you’ll ever have the same duel twice. Single, double, triple and rotation battles all require different teams and strategies to get the most out of them – a hell of a lot of work for even the most devoted trainer. Monster availability and growth has been tweaked as well, making connectivity more of a necessity, just as it was in the pre-Wi-Fi link cable days, though this is both a good and a bad thing.
You see, as much as we loved the concept of the Dream World – the new browser-based method of catching and training Pokémon introduced in Black and White – the execution was sloppy at best. Dodgy mini-games and laborious grinding were once the only way to find monsters with their hidden abilities, though these are now far more widely available in the regular game through both trades and the new Hidden Grottoes – secret areas that house special creatures only a true explorer will ever find or catch. While this mitigates the rigmarole of jumping between DS and PC, with lengthy save and transfer times not making matters any easier, it also renders the system almost worthless. We’d far rather have seen improvements to the forward-thinking Dream World than just having it swept under the rug.
It’s a good-looking DS game as well, slick new presentation and more emphasis on cut-scenes and 3D visuals making this an obvious transitional title on the series’ inevitable march towards the 3DS. It’s plain to see why Game Freak hasn’t arrived on the 3D handheld just yet, though – Black and White 2 are designed to be as cross-compatible with the original games as possible, and a change of platform would either mean significant alterations to the formula, likely at the expense of compatibility, or lashings of abuse for releasing the same game again.
And there’s the thing. If Nintendo was the kind of lazy, formulaic developer it gets so much stick for being, a quick 3DS port of the DS games with a couple of extra areas is exactly what this would be. Instead, we get a true sequel – a game that cleverly and tactfully revisits the old while skilfully introducing the new, and the highest point in a franchise that already has many neck-craning peaks. As with so many modern follow-ups, having experience of the original games is a benefit rather than a necessity here.
But whether you’ve somehow never played a Pokémon game, you’ve only recently dived in or you’ve been around since the start, the vast world of Unova welcomes you equally.