I'll be the first to admit that I'm a little obsessive when it comes to Pokemon. I've totally completed my Pokedex in each of the four preceding generations
. The series hooked me when I was young and impressionable, and the obsessive completionist in me means I'm probably stuck for life.
That said, I'm not generally the sort of fan who'll blindly love everything about a series I enjoy. I went into Pokemon Black and White with cautious optimism: knowing that my obsession would drive me to complete the game no matter what, and hoping that it would be good enough to be enjoyable along the way. In the end it took me 53 days and almost 180 hours of playtime to complete my Black Version Pokedex
; over the last six months I've played the game out pretty thoroughly.
For those who've never played Pokemon games, there's not a lot you'll need to know before getting into Black and White. Pokemon is, on the surface, a pretty simplistic RPG. As a "Pokemon Trainer" you raise a team of monsters which can be used to defeat other Trainers in direct competition, or weaken wild Pokemon in order to capture them and add them to your team. As you make your way through the game, you defeat Gym Leaders to earn badges demonstrating your prowess, and your ultimate goal is to beat the Elite Four and become the Pokemon Champion, the best Trainer in the land.
Each Pokemon can learn a limited number of techniques, and your team has a limited number of Pokemon, so some strategising is involved - but while the game mechanics have unimaginable depth for those interested in competing against other players, very little understanding of those depths is required to play through the games themselves. Avid RPG fans can painstakingly breed and train perfect monsters; those just looking for a bit of fun can level up a team of whatever looks cool and get by with a minimum of strategy.
Black and White make a great starting point for new players. All Pokemon games offer an introductory sequence to explain the basics of the game to beginners, but Black and White go out of their way to demonstrate the importance of gameplay aspects like elemental weaknesses. No Pokemon from older games are encountered until after you've completed most of the storyline, putting new and old players on equal footing with respect to the monsters available.New Features
Black and White versions have made several changes from previous generations, some bigger than others. Obviously there are new Pokemon: 156 this time, bringing the grand Pokemon total up to a whopping 649. There have also been a bunch of technical upgrades: pseudo-3D graphics, fully animated Pokemon, and new WiFi features. There have been some alterations to the in-game mechanics. And for those that are into the deeper battling mechanics, although no real changes have been made to typings or the EV and IV systems, there are of course new moves and abilities, and quite a few modifications to old moves, all of which should have some interesting effects on the online metagame.
First I need to say what a fantastic idea it was to make none
of the old Pokemon available until after you complete the game's main storyline. Although many fans have been upset that there are no new evolutionary connections to the old monsters, this decision really helps make playing Black and White feel like a new, fresh game rather than just an expansion of the older ones. In terms of the new Pokemon themselves, as always, leaked pictures on the internet have met with responses varying from professions of undying love to livid outrage. Even, bizarrely, threats of lawsuits from Nintendo
. But overall, my impression has been positive. I've liked the majority of the new monsters; some are outright adorable or very cool. Of course there are a few that left me scratching my head, but every generation has its Jynxes and its Probopasses. The guys over at Smogon have of course already gotten well into discussions of competitive potential
, but even in-game I've been enjoying playing with new type combinations - finally having a Dark/Dragon is just cool
All the old WiFi options, such as trading, battling and the GTS, are still present; in fact the GTS is now accessible from every Pokemon Center, and has new options for random battles and "negotiated" trades. The biggest new addition to online play is the Pokemon Dreamworld, which is a browser-based flash game to which you can upload Pokemon from your game cartridge. While exploring the Dreamworld you can collect and grow Berries, obtain various items, and catch Pokemon that don't appear in the DS games. The Dreamworld minigame selection is limited and gets old fast, but the ability to unlock new areas and rarer Pokemon by collecting Dreamworld Points offers a big incentive to keep playing, and being able to see how you're ranked in competitive play is pretty nifty.
Visually the games have seen some big improvements. Firstly, the environments in Black and White have a pseudo-3D look which gives the handheld Pokemon world a more three-dimensional feel than ever before. Once or twice changes in perspective made it confusing to figure out what to press to move in a given direction, but literally only once or twice. The 3D-styled areas are in general very straightforward to navigate.
The other big visual upgrade is that Pokemon are now constantly animated in battle. While this seems like a pretty superficial change, it actually makes a huge difference to the atmosphere of the game: the moving Pokemon have far more personality than any static sprite ever could, and battles simply feel more dynamic overall. Battles in older games feel far less alive by comparison when you go back after spending time with Black and White.
Finally, for those of you who have lovingly raised battle-ready Pokemon in previous games, there is
a way to transfer them over to Black and White. Even better, unlike the Pal Park transfers between Third and Fourth Generation games, there is no limit to the number of Pokemon you can transfer daily with the new PokeShifter. The only real downsides are that you need two DS consoles to make transfers, and that held items can't be transferred over. (Neither can Pokemon with HM moves, as always.)Gameplay
The gameplay in Black and White versions follows the same rough outline as always. You can still carry six Pokemon, still use them to battle other trainers and wild Pokemon, still teach them up to four moves at a time, etc, etc.
One noticeable difference is that in general, the Pokemon you encounter along the way are more powerful than they have been in the past. Battles with other trainers can be a decent challenge, making each route much tougher to navigate. In order to prevent this from becoming too frustrating, most routes now include someone who will let your Pokemon "rest" along the way (and heal them completely). I found the spacing between places to heal was just about perfect: close enough that you didn't have to waste too many recovery items or backtrack to the nearest Pokemon Center too often.
Black and White also introduce two new kinds of battle styles, rotation battles and triple battles. Rotation battles are 3 vs 3 matches, with your Pokemon set up on a rotating field. Only one Pokemon is actually on the field and fighting, but there's no penalty for rotating between different Pokemon, which makes for some interesting strategising as you try to guess which Pokemon your opponent might switch to and attack with next. Triple battles work similarly to the double battles of the fourth generation games, with three Pokemon taking the field against three opposing Pokemon simultaneously. (And speaking of double battles, it's now possible to encounter pairs of wild Pokemon and fight double battles with them.)
Interestingly, there's been a big change in how Exp distribution works. A Pokemon now gains more or less Exp depending on the level difference between it and its opponent. That is, if your Pokemon is ten levels lower than the opponent, it will earn a lot more Exp than if it is ten levels higher than the same opponent. (In the older games, defeating a given opponent would always give out the same amount of Exp.) This has a significant effect on gameplay: it makes it much harder to level grind by defeating low-level Pokemon over and over.
Effectively, this means Black and White versions punish players who try to overlevel one or two monsters and blast through the game by brute force - but at the same time, they make it much easier to maintain a team of similarly-levelled Pokemon. The handicapped Exp distribution applies to all Pokemon who gain experience from a battle, even those who switch out or use Exp Share. So if you see a lower-level Pokemon you like halfway through the game, you can quickly level it up to join the rest of your team. The only real downside here is that some new Pokemon undergo their final evolutions at very high levels indeed, and grinding to reach those levels can be a pain.
Some other minor changes include a much easier-to-use Itemfinder and an Autosort option for items in your bag, both of which are very welcome indeed. For those of you who do a lot of breeding, the Daycare guy actually now calls out and stops you in your tracks as you cycle past, whenever he has an egg for you. And TMs are reusable - finally! But I was disappointed that the option to "lock on" your Running Shoes from HeartGold and SoulSilver is gone. And the encounter rate for wild Pokemon seems much higher than in previous titles - great if you're looking for a rare monster, frustrating if you're trying to actually get anywhere.
Overall, the majority of tweaks have been good rather than bad.Storyline
To be honest, the storyline has never been one of the main draws of Pokemon for me. Possibly because it's always been fairly simplistic: try to become the Pokemon Champion while beating some bad guys along the way, and dealing with your friend/rival every now and then. But this time around, I was pleasantly surprised.
The storyline in Black and White is much improved. You'll notice very quickly that NPCs have significantly more involvement in your progress through the game. Your childhood friends, Cheren and Bianca, often show up to chat, give advice, or challenge you to a battle. They keep in touch regularly enough that you actually feel like they are
your friends. Professor Juniper plays a role beyond simply handing you a Pokedex, and all
of the game's gym leaders get involved at various points along the way, making them into actual characters rather than just obstacles to your journey.
Even the motivation of the bad guys, Team Plasma, is more interesting than we've seen before: they believe that all trainers should release their Pokemon, as it's wrong for humans to exploit Pokemon. Of course it gets more complicated than that, but I won't spoil anything major here. I'll just say that the mysterious "N" turns out to be an interesting character indeed, and that even the typical Elite Four challenge has been mixed up a bit.
Finally, the game doesn't just end once you defeat the Elite Four like in previous Pokemon titles. A full third of the map is inaccessible until after you defeat them, bringing with it a few extra plot points and access to a whole slew of older Pokemon.Verdict
Overall I'm pretty happy with Black and White versions. Playing through them was enjoyable, filling the Pokedex is still satisfying, and I find myself wishing I had time to train a team and get into online battling. If you're a Pokemon fan you're probably buying Black or White no matter what I say, but in my opinion they're well worth looking forward to.