It’s hard for me to imagine my life without Pokémon. I’ve been collecting, battling, breeding, and training the adorable little buggers just about since they were released into the wild of North America, a little over thirteen years ago. Given the fact that I am nearly 30, that means I have been playing Pokémon for almost half of my life. Now before you come rushing over to my apartment with cases of BENGAY and Metamucil (FYI my favorite flavor is orange), just relax for a second so I can turn up my hearing aid and we can talk about the real topic here – Pokémon Black and White. The two newest games in this insanely successful video game franchise are about as close to a reboot as the series has ever gotten, and it is a much needed refresher considering how often this series is accused of being stale. It is for that reason that this review attempts to look at Pokémon Black as a standalone title. Please don’t think any obvious comparisons were omitted due to my feeble, old mind breaking down!
If you’ve ever played a Pokémon game before, this will sound a little familiar. If not, be warned that a few spoilers may follow. You are a pre-teen who doesn’t seem to have a father, and is living in the smallest town in the entire region of Unova. Your town is also home to Professor Juniper, the most accomplished Pokémon researcher in the area. She sets you on a journey to see all of the Pokémon in Unova in order to complete her electronic index of Pokémon, or the Pokédex. In order to aid you on your quest, the professor gives you a familiar fire/water/grass type Pokémon. Along the way, you will encounter dubious Pokémon trainers known as Team Plasma who seem hell bent on snatching everyone’s Pokémon. You will also, as has been par for the course over the last decade and a half, discover there is a legendary Pokémon that will either destroy or save the world.
Aside from an adorable monster to aid your quest, you also have two friends that will travel with you. Bianca is a little older and has some daddy issues. Cheren is a boy who shares your goal of becoming Unova’s Pokémon League Champion, and is perhaps ambitious to a fault. The three of you begin your journey together, but eventually take different paths and discover you have varying ideas on what you’d like your lives with Pokémon to be like. Also along the way, you will discover that Team Plasma doesn’t exactly just want to steal Pokémon, but they in fact seem to want to liberate them from their lives of slavery to trainers. This is a heavier subject than younger PokéFans are used to dealing with, but unfortunately the idea is never fully realized. If more time had been spent exploring the idea of Pokémon being mistreated slaves, then Pokémon Black could have appealed to a more mature audience, but perhaps at the expense of loosing the younger following the series has enjoyed for its entire life cycle.
At its core, Pokémon games are sort of an elemental version of “paper-rock-scissors”, and this hasn’t really changed much at all over the last thirteen years. Each Pokémon has one or two types assigned to it which designates what kind of Pokémon they are strong or weak against. Fire trumps grass, water, beats fire, and so on. Once getting the knack for what types trump what other types, the basic turn-based RPG gameplay seems pretty standard, but there are hidden intricacies that will keep older players occupied once they figure them out. All together, 18 types of Pokémon, but this generation brought us some new combinations, such as Golurk the Ghost/Ground type Pokémon. This and the other interesting new type pairings are sure to create some interesting teams in the competitive battling scene. Also, with the introduction of reusable TMs, trainers can try out many different and unorthodox move combinations on these new Pokémon.
Entering a gym can be stressful even for the most seasoned of players.
This generation also has the addition of Triple Battles and Rotation Battles. Each of these types of battles utilize three Pokémon on each side, but that is really where the similarities end. In a Triple Battle, players pick a move for each of their three Pokémon The tricky aspect of these types of battles is that the Pokémon on the ends can only attack the Pokémon straight across from it or in the middle. You may swap a Pokémon’s position on your turn or choose an opponent to attack. Rotation Battles are quite different and will require a lot of strategical thinking in order to be successful. Each trainer’s three Pokémon are placed on a rotating platform, and only the Pokémon in the middle may attack or be attacked. Before you make your move you can choose to rotate the platform to the left or right. The rotation happens first, then the Pokémon attack in turn based on their speed stat. What makes these battles so challenging is you have no way of knowing which Pokémon your opponent has rotated into your line of fire, so it could easily be one that will resist or even completely absorb your attack.
Visually, Pokémon Black has brought a lot of new things to the table, despite the fact that it looks like it’s running on the same graphical engine as its DS predecessors. A huge change comes in the way of more advanced camera work. The camera’s angle seems to have been shifted down a few degrees which give the entire world a more 3D feel. Also, the camera is no longer in a static place; it shifts around to show different angles occasionally, like when entering buildings or traveling up a tower’s spiral staircase. During a battle the camera moves to create a more dynamic feel. Pokémon sprites and their attacks are more animated than ever before, and when combined with the updated camera, creates a brawl that looks and feels as much like Pokémon Battle Revolution as we can expect on the DS. Unfortunately, there is a drawback to all these new graphical bells and whistles — the camera now zooms in on Pokémon and other sprites quite frequently, giving them a pixelated look that can make the game feel a lot more outdated than it is.
The game’s soundtrack is great and sounds up-to-date. Some areas even have songs that vary with the game’s seasons, which change each calender month. New in-battle themes have been added to indicate when gym leaders are on their last Pokémon, or when your own Pokémon is low on health. Sadly, the same 8-bit screeches and electronic roars that have been assaulting players’ ears for the entirety of the series have somehow sneaked their way back in and sullied would otherwise be a perfectly passable auditory experience.
You'll be seeing the world of Pokémon from a whole new persepctive.
It would be easy to gush about Pokémon Black simply due to the amount of my life that has been spent playing these games, but when everything is said and done, this is just a great game that has the capacity to keep any player with even a remote amount of interest occupied for a very long time. A small attempt was made to mature the story, and the game’s creators stuck to their rock-solid turn-based RPG formula that can literally appeal to players of all ages. There is plenty of newness to draw seasoned vets back into the fold, but the game is still approachable by people who have been living in a cave on an isolated island and never heard of Pokémon until today. Don’t let a few graphical and sound shortcomings deter you from picking up this game, because Pokémon Black is a game worth strapping on your adult diapers and bib for. You’ll need both to keep you clean and tidy for the hundreds of hours it is bound to take you to “catch ’em all”.
[review title=”Pokémon Black” pros=”Pokémon Black stays true to the widely accessible turn based RPG roots the series was built upon. New gameplay mechanics and scores of new Pokémon will keep the game interesting for players both new and experienced.” cons=”Certain aspects of the graphics and sound seem dated, elements of the story are stale or not fully realized.” verdict=”Catch ’em all. No really, I mean it.” score=96]