POKEMON BLACK & WHITE (2011) – GAME FREAK
I think it would be fair to say that coming into the start of last year, the Pokemon franchise had become a bit stale. The games were still international best sellers, but the fourth generation of games (Diamond, Pearl, Platinum) had a pretty lazy roster of new monsters, and these were followed up by remakes of the second generation games Gold & Silver, which while good, were essentially rehashed games from the last decade. Pokemon needed a serious kick up the arse to keep itself relevant.
Enter the fifth generation of Pokemon, in the form of Black & White. These games brought 150 completely original monsters into the fray, and introduced a number of new features designed to get a whole new generation of children into Pokemon. Now the advertsing must have been pretty effective, because in November last year I actually went out and purchased a DS to get back into Pokemon after a five year hiatus, picking up a copy of Pokemon White in the process. After a modest 160 hours of game-time, I feel well placed to give my thoughts on whether Black & White have done the trick, and made Pokemon interesting again.
One thing that is immediately noticeable is that there is a far greater emphasis on storyline this time round. Set in a brand new part of the world called Unova, you take control of a new protagonist (who can be male or female at your choosing) and set out to do what every aspiring youngster wants to – capture wild monsters and make them fight to the death against other Trainers (its surprising that animal rights protestors have never been up in arms over Pokemon when you come to think of it). Accompanying you at times on your journey through Unova are two childhood friends, Cheren and Bianca, who will offer support and take you on at various points in the game. Also featured prominently in the game are Team Plasma, a group under the control of a mysterious green haired boy called N who is looking to set all Pokemon free. And of course, in time honoured tradition, there are eight Gym Leaders to defeat along the way as you aim to become the Pokemon League Champion.
Now the new focus on plot is very welcome; however it isn’t exactly the most engaging storyline in the world. There isn’t the same sense of antagonism with Cheren and Bianca as there was with the great rivals of the past such as Gary and Silver in the first two generations – more to the point, after you have ripped their teams apart they often give you presents to make your life in game that much easier. Team Plasma are also very woolly and don’t appear as much of a threat at all. The worst part of it all is that the game ends pretty poorly in my opinion; having fought and hopefully captured one of the two legendary dragons (Reshiram or Zekrom, depending on whether you have Black or White), you fight N and then he buggers off never to be seen again. Once N is gone, the only thing left worthwhile is defeating the Elite Four and the Champion (who is pathetic) again and again. Here’s hoping for a more satisfactory set of events at the end of the recently announced sequels.
The more important matter at hand is how the game plays – and the honest answer is, not much has changed at all. The main objective of the game is to capture all the Pokemon you encounter in wild grass, deserts, caves and in the sea and fashion an ever increasingly stronger team for yourself to progress through the game. In battles, the classic four options to Attack, use items, change Pokemon or flee are still present. Underneath the familiar system however, there have been some big changes made. For example, Pokemon abilities now flash up in battle when they come into effect via an unobtrusive message, so you are constantly in the know as to what is going on. Alongside a day/night cycle, the fifth generation has also introduced new seasons, which rotate every three months and affect the wild Pokemon in different areas and also allow access to new areas. Perhaps most noticeable is the aforementioned new 150 critters running around the Unova region – in a very bold move, you cannot use any of the 500 or so Pokemon from the previous generations before you complete the main story, meaning essentially you have to create a brand new team and train them up. Ironic though it sounds, for the first time since the original generation you have to actually play Pokemon and experiment with moves and new monsters to get the best results. A few god-awful designs notwithstanding, the new cast of 150 are pretty fun to use, and you will quickly find your new favourites. In particular, the ancient Egyptian flying monster Sigilyph, the afro sporting bull Bouffalant and electric unicorn Zebstrika stood out for me.
The biggest and best change however is the C-Gear system – a short while into the game, you are given this little toy, which operates on the bottom screen of your DS. Once activated, it allows you engage in infrared connections to battle and trade (which is so much simpler than in previous generations that you wonder how you dealt with wireless connections and link cables), and can also be used to see what other real life Pokemon players in the nearby vicinity are up to. It also allows you to enter the Entralink and the Dream World….and what is the Entralink and Dream World I hear you ask? Well depending on which version of the game you have, you have access to a special area once you have completed the main story; White Forest (a big…forest where you can capture a selection of Pokemon from earlier generations) or Black City (a huge metropolitan areas filled with very strong Pokemon). Using the Entralink, you can invite other players over to your forest or city and do missions that will reward you with new items, or more Pokemon and trainers respectively to capture and fight. The Dream World allows you to sync your game up to a minigame played on the Pokemon Global Link website, where you can find new Pokemon with special abilities and send them back to your DS. It’s a very nice idea, but in practise getting an internet connection to a DS is a fiddly process, and I suspect many players of Black and White have simply ignored the Dream World as a result.
What Game Freak have given with one hand however, they have snatched away with the other. For example, the Pokewalker device that you got with Heart Gold and Soul Silver has no use in Black and White. There’s also no VS Seeker, so once you have fought a trainer, that’s it – although there is are two stadiums which you can visit in one city where each day you can fight a number of trainers for money. Pokemon Musicals, the replacement of contests in this generation, are completely and utterly useless. Even more depressingly, the new gimmick battles for this generation, Triple Battles and Rotation Battles, feature so sparsely in the game that you wonder why Game Freak even included them in the first place. By far the most detrimental element of the game however is that once you complete the storyline for the first time, you can then transfer in all your old favourites from past games, and many older Pokemon now show up in wild grass – it seems counter productive to me to have a blanket ban on the old monsters and then remove it, as the new Pokemon for the most part quickly get forgotten in favour of the far stronger old breed.
I also have reservations with the graphics in this game. For one thing, the 3D sprites are really starting to show their age on the DS, and there is a noticeable difference between the smooth animations of the new Pokemon when compared to the old Pokemon that are brought into the game. Also, there are a few points in the game when the game attempts fancy 3D effects, such as crossing the Skyarrow Bridge going into the cosmopolitan area of Castelia City; and quite simply, you are left thinking ‘what’s the point? Why not just eschew the fancy graphics and make the bridge shorter so I can get where I want to go?’ – one gets the feeling that Pokemon will not be sticking around of the DS beyond Black And White 2. On the sound front, there is a pleasant collection of songs that sound quite impressive coming out of the DS’s speakers, although the best songs such as the Team Plasma theme and the fights with N are only heard on the first playthrough before they disappear completely. Aside from this, I have a small chuckle every time I encounter an older Pokemon because they have kept the cries from the older games.
I cannot exactly say that I have regretted picking up a copy of White and a DS – it certainly kept me amused over Christmas time when I was taking a break from ploughing through Skyrim. It’s also still a great laugh to play your friends via infrared and wireless, capturing some of the playground spirit over the original games. And in truth, Black and White have done what was required of them and given Pokemon a desperately needed shot in the arm. I honestly can’t think however how Game Freak are going to keep casual fans of Pokemon like myself interested into the next generation – certainly I was caught off guard by the announcement of direct sequels to Black and White, and the jury is still out on the whole fusion matter, but as Black and White demonstrate, adding a plot can only take you so far. If like me you are looking to get back into the franchise, then I would recommend Black And White; just don’t expect them to give the same thrills as the old days.