Game: Pokémon Black
Developer: Game Freak
Available on: Nintendo DS Only
Forget about the god-awful, poorly animated dreck that is the Pokémon television series, the very fact that it won a Guinness World Record for “Most Photosensitive Epileptic Seizures Caused By A Television Show” should be enough to ward you off, and forget the frantic early 90s card-collecting game so beloved of playground bullies, and also a passport into early adolescent obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Forget about the annoying, aggressive pseudo-squirrel Pikachu, his red cheeked face staring at you from the rucksack fashioned in his image, or the animatronic toys that carry his caterwauling screech.
Because the real legacy of developer Game Freak is the staggeringly successful, astonishingly playable series of monster collecting role playing games that have been released over the years for successive Nintendo consoles. Gaming fans the world over continue to clamour for more and more chances to add to their Pokédex, which brings us to the next dual RPG instalments in what is the fifth generation of catch ‘em all shenanigans, Pokémon Black & White. These are, unbelievably, the fifteenth and sixteenth Poké-related titles to date for the DS. Can Game Freak improve on their beloved series? GodisaGeek is there for you, as always, to answer that question!
STORY: When it comes to Pokémon games, the actual story can usually be considered secondary to the very linear monster collecting goodness inherent in the series. Each game follows much the same pattern, a fledgling Pokemon trainer, coming up in the game, has to bust his chops capturing a selection of feral Pokémon and training them up, before taking on a series of challenges in the many “gyms” dotted around whichever fantastical monster inhabited setting the action takes place in. Along the way, there will usually be a kindly Professor named after a variety of tree who will take you under his wing and school you in the dark arts of creature baiting. There will also be a shed-load of NPCs, and a team of antagonists that your young buck will be expected to defeat along the way.
Lo and behold then that Pokémon Black is no different and follows this exact blueprint. This time around you play a teenage whippersnapper, bidding to become a Pokemon Master in the land of Unova, which oddly seems to be based upon New York City. This time, Professor Juniper is the scientist who has got your back, as you select one of three “starter” Pokémon (which, as is par for the course, are based around fire, water and grass) and attempt to conquer eight gyms, snaffle their badges and become the top dog in Unova. Add into the mix Team Plasma, (this season’s pantomime villains) a squad of rival trainers who dress like the Knights Templar and seek to “liberate Pokémon from human oppression”, and you have yourself a suitably bonkers, and equally irrelevant plot, which takes a back seat to the largely excellent turn based combat and exploration elements of the game.
GRAPHICS: Unova and its denizens represent undoubtedly the best looking handheld Pokemon world yet. Whilst the human characters are still fairly basic facsimiles of those seen in the past, they are well animated and perfectly adequate. As usual, the many different Pokémon are superbly designed, no mean feat when you realise that the 150 monsters on offer are all brand new,with none of the familiar faces from the past making a reappearance. There are whizzy new 3D cut scenes and all of the battle sequences now come adorned with better animated Pokémon and some cool new camera effects. The cities and buildings are now rendered in 3D, and there are some beautiful backdrops, which change in accordance with the game’s cyclical seasons. Although this is among the very best looking DS games, there is no disguising the fact that the old girl is lacking in technical muscle, and you cannot help but look forward to what Game Freak will be able to accomplish in the future given the advent of the excellent new 3DS hardware. But moaning about anything graphically when it comes to a Pokémon title is largely pointless, as the series began on the lowly Nintendo Gameboy and was still hugely enjoyable and packed full of playability.
SOUND: Game Freak have their own in-house composers, including Junichi Masuda and Go Ichinose, who have contributed to many of their titles over the years, and get involved once more here. What this means is the usual mix of high tempo J-pop fare, some orchestral stuff for the grand swooping moments, and some jingly, low key ditties for the more reflective moments. The array of Pokémon squeak and make all manner of crazy noises, and everything is very familiar if you have played any of the preceding games in the franchise. Sonically, Pokémon Black version is not doing anything new, but to be honest it doesn’t really need to.
GAMEPLAY: As per usual, you begin your adventure with a single Pokémon, and,using Poké Balls, attempt to capture new creatures which you can use to battle NPCs and other Pokémon Trainers in your quest to conquer the eight Gyms, kick Team Plasma’s ass and smash the Final Four to become Pokémon Master of Unova. There are some big differences this time around, however, and Pokémon Black version feels like a real progression.
First of all are the Pokémon themselves. In a bold move by Game Freak, the series mainstays, your Bulbasaurs, your Squirtles, etc, have been abandoned, meaning the 150 critters available in Black & White are completely brand-spanking new. This obviously makes the whole experience fresh and exciting, as whether you are new to the series or a seasoned campaigner, you literally have no clue what to expect when you are confronted by a wild beast on your travels, let alone what the hell they are going to evolve into once you have played around with them for a bit.
There are now real-time seasons, each with differing weather and terrain to contend with, and these fit in nicely alongside the day/night mechanic which was introduced in the Gold & Silver incarnations of the game. The seasons, and indeed the times of day, will affect the Pokémon you encounter, and also determine whether or not you can access certain areas.
The turn based combat has also been given an overhaul. There are new additions such as the Triple Battle, a three-on-three scrap which drags the series into line with other RPGs that involve parties of characters doing battle. There are also Rotation Battles where you select three beasties that can be switched around over the course of a dust-up. The new monsters can also be taught Combination Moves; super powerful attacks that can chain more than one ability together to dish out some extra punishment. It is tremendous fun putting together your team, and easy access to the tools in order to do so makes it a pleasure, not a chore. Traipsing around to find Pokémon Centres and Marts is a thing of the past, as they are both housed under the same roof in one place; similarly it seems that it is now much easier to heal your wounded Poké-soldiers, with healers placed far more generously around the landscape than ever before.
In addition to the standard storyline progression through the game, and the compulsive leveling up that has long been the staple diet of the intrepid Pokémon Trainer, there are side quests and mini games to enjoy, including the bizarre Pokémon Musicals, a side game that replaces Pokémon Contests from earlier titles and sees you, amongst other things, dressing the poor little things up in costumes and flaunting them on stage. Maybe Team Plasma have the right idea, after all.
The implementation of the new “C-Gear” system on the lower screen of your DS means that connecting to other players, transferring Pokémon from previous games, and accessing all of the other well-realized tidbits of online functionality is better than ever before. You can collect info from other DS owners as you pass them in the street, enter into random battles with other fans around the globe, and trade rare items with your buddies. It really is the ultimate marriage of Pokémon and the internet thus far, and before long you will feel like you are just a red and white baseball cap and a team of annoying hangers on away from morphing into an actual Pokémon Trainer.
LONGEVITY: Pokémon Black & White are both absolutely huge in their scope and both offer well over a hundred hours of gameplay each. There are a plethora of new Pokémon to find, and many side games and quests to occupy your time. As is de-rigueur for the franchise, there are also Legendary Pokémon to hunt down, and in Black’s case it is the fearsome, fire-spitting Reshiram. Like football sticker albums when you were a kiddy, catching all of the damned monsters is incredibly compulsive and once you become hooked you can expect to become fully immersed in Unova for some time to come.
VERDICT: There have been enough changes made here, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay, to warrant the tag of “best Pokémon games ever”. The gameplay is deeper, looks great, has a wonderful new set of multiplayer and online functions, and introduces a killer new bunch of fantastical pocket monsters. Unless you are obsessive about completing your Pokédex, it is hardly essential to purchase both Black & White, which is why I would wholeheartedly recommending Black Version as a standalone purchase.
This could be one of the last big-gun releases for Nintendo’s beloved touch screen handheld, as we move into the world of 3DS. As a kind of swansong, this is one of the best games the platform has to offer, and testament to why we can’t keep our hands off the Poké Balls, some 15 years after Game Freak unleashed it’s addictive collect-a-thon upon our consciousness.