March 14, 2011
Plot wise things haven't really changed, and if anything the game has become a little more direct in letting players know exactly where to go and how exactly to play the game. In fact, much of the game's starting areas are based completely around showing the player exactly how the more complex aspects of the series are to be handled. Weaknesses such as fire, water, and grass types are run through, while aid is actively given to the player prior to every gym battle (such as letting you know which type of Pokemon the gym leader uses). This sort of linearity is very handy for players new to the series, but veteran player still have a lot to look forward to as well, mainly in creature design.
Black/White had me at the first moment I entered a cave, and I didn't have to fight a Zubat. In fact, through most of the game players will find (until the opening of the 'international' Pokedex) that the cast and ensemble of this title is absolutely refreshing compared to prior games. The art design has really been taken up a notch, partly due to the significant graphical upgrade the series has seen, and also partly in credit to the team's creative art direction. Pokemon now move on screen between attacks, actually change animations when hit by status ailments, and are far more personable then they've ever been before. The variety of Pokemon players encounter is pretty impressive as well, as where prior titles had a pretty rigorous trend of 'when' it was time to capture a particular breed of creature, Black/White tosses an impressive variety of creatures at players rather quickly.
The result is a game that feels far more balanced, and a lot less grind oriented. When players would get easily stuck in prior titles it was just a matter of running around in the tall grass knocking out woodland animals until enough levels had been acquired; now players should not only have enough variety to get the job done, but level design also provides enough support that players should not feel lost and searching for spare trainers in order to battle. Every town is now treated very much like a hub which players can use to further plot points, gain experience and items, capture new types of Pokemon, and train quickly before facing the next badge trial.
While some of this hand-holding and rule reiteration may feel very unnecessary for new players, the game makes up for it in quite a few ways with some extremely handy game design. Tall grass (or the taller grass than normal tall grass) in prior games was simply grass that could not be passed through with a bike, but now it features single and double 'wild' battles where players can potentially level up more than one Pokemon at once. Likewise there are more opportunities for players to rest their Pokemon on the fly, as nurses and rest stations are more liberally sprinkled throughout the world. The result is more time in the field battling trainers and levelling up rather than running back and forth between towns or spending an excess amount of cash on potions or revival items.
Of course, Pokemon would be nothing if not for the social aspect of the game which encourages players to trade, battle, or just generally show off the Pokemon they've obtained. Given to players earlier on is the C-Gear, which enables the Wi-Fi communications that Pokemon has become so well known for as of late. Friend codes still work largely the same, however swapping them has become much easier than the old days of writing down a large random number/letter sequence and then trading over the phone/internet. Now players can connect wirelessly using the local IR, or take advantage of the game's pretty solid online features. There's even a button that can be pushed to swap friend codes locally with someone, which is a godsend in its own right.
This means that naturally (much like every other Pokemon title) the game really has an almost limitless potential for replay. Dream World lets players explore a different style of gameplay where Pokemon bring new and different abilities to the table, beating the game in itself is fun, and casual players may find themselves having a wonderful time just completing the Pokedex or just levelling a well loved team to max. Pokemon's darkest secret however, has always been its competitive scene. EV stats are still heavily integrated in the series, and those looking to enter more serious Pokemon tournaments should find quite a bit to do between breeding for ideal natures, stats, and levelling against the appropriate opponents.
Graphically Pokemon Black/White has made the most improvement in the series, not just in combat, which now features some pretty fun attack graphics in addition to more lively Pokemon sprites, but in world design as well. Seasons, more dynamic looking towns, and just generally more interesting world design makes the region of Unova both familiar and unique. Everyone knows the familiar symbols which have made the game series so iconic, and Game Freak has done very little to change their meaning, a lone tree representing something that can be Cut for example, but artistically everything have been given a much needed facelift. Cutscenes show up now for special events, and where the game previously focused 100 percent on sprite design, characters will now actually be able to see character faces in some talking sequences. It's not the most impressive game on the DS, but for a sprite title it's really hard to ask for anything more.
Sound wise the game also succeeds in trumping the last, offering a soundtrack that's far more engaging than most DS titles really have to offer. Never once did I really grow tired of the soundtrack, save for perhaps the battle music, but even that will change depending on the HP level of you Pokemon, so it's hard to really complain. A far cry for the prior titles for sure, but looking at the big picture the developers really did do a solid job of making a soundtrack that's both fresh and yet quite nostalgic; an absolute delight from start to finish.
So overall is Pokemon really that different than its predecessors? In some ways no, like most JRPGs, Pokemon has changed very little over the years. Perhaps however, those small refinements to an overall successful equation is what makes the series such a success. Pokemon is not a title that sets out to impress with a deep and meaningful storyline, or a game that is supposed to deliver a challenge around every corner. It's meant to encourage socialization amongst children, to promote strategy, good sportsmanship and perhaps even to encourage some sort of consumerism socialist disorder from trying to find all those damn shiny ones. In that, Pokemon Black/White succeeds beyond any shadow of a doubt, making it single-handedly the best installment in the series to date.