It’s been a long time since a Pokémon game has come on the scene with any real level of anticipation from fan-sites.
The last iteration of the insanely popular franchise was a remake, and the Diamond/Pearl generation before that was released over four years ago. So, here we are. Faced with a new adventure and 156 new pocket monsters to battle, evolve and capture in mysterious balls.
Set in the new world of Unova, Black/White offers something remarkable right off the bat. Every Pokémon you run into for the majority of the game is brand new. Not wanting to mince their intentions as they did in Gold/Silver and again in Diamond/Pearl, developers Game Freak have landed you in a continent solely populated by new, never-seen-before Pokémon. What this means for the hard-hearted Pokémaniac is a thrilling feeling of things being fresh and new.
For the first time in a while I had a really difficult and thought-consuming time selecting my team to roll through the game. Rather than picking a starter and sticking with a tried and true Pidgy/Geodude/Pikachu combo until something more powerful arrives on the scene, in Black/White you get to experiment. If you want it, there’s a strong Dark-type lurking in the bushes just outside your home. Never seen that wacky blue duck before? Nope, neither had anyone else until now. Catch it, try it out. Truly, finding out what each new creature is capable of is a real joy.
The start of the game is familiar to anyone who’s played Pokémon before. You’re a 12 year old kid whose single parent has decided it’s time to kick them out into the wild world of adventure. The tiny town you live in has a world-renowned Pokémon expert lurking in it, and she’s ready to arm you with one of three new friends of the fire, water or grass type.
The good thing about Black/White’s implementation of the same old shtick is the speed at which it gets you on your way. No carrying a parcel to the next town and back this time around, you’re loaded up and battling your rival as quick as you can. A pair of running shoes from Mum and some laughable dialogue is exchanged and you’re well on the way to badge number one. The whole game feels streamlined, a saving grace for veterans sick of being continually shown the ropes.
The typical storyline in Pokémon games is never Pulitzer winning stuff and follows a fairly distinct pattern. Kids chase down bad guys, defeat their gang and save the day. Nothing much has changed here, although it is an enjoyable ride. As the bad guys in Black/White are especially pompous and self-righteous, it feels good to give them the boot. Some parts of the story have you feeling a little guilty for being a Pokémon Trainer, as the nefarious Team Plasma really resembles a kind of hopped-up PETA style organisation out to free the enslaved Pocket Monsters. Toward the end of the main saga is an actual twist that keeps things interesting and serves as a plausible vehicle for the semi-religious plot to come to an end. It’s still sticking to a tried and true formula, but expecting anything else would be misguided.
Perhaps it’s a result of stretching the same paradigm over more than a decade of revisions, but the writing in Black/White feels fairly dated and incoherent. It’s spiced up by some hilarious translation work from Nintendo of America, as well as the fact the text-delivery portion of the graphical interface has been sped up, so battling the kid who can’t get enough of wearing shorts comes on nice and quick. The seemingly endless encounters with your rival/friend and the screeds of text from assorted professors, gym leaders and people on the street make the game feel more linear than it really is and can tend to divert you from hunting down the item or Pokémon you’re searching for.
Earlier iterations of the game gave you more time to muck around and explore, something that makes the plot of Black/White feel a little rushed at times.
With evolution being a central theme of the Pokémon world, there is an expectation that each new game in the series has become more refined and fit for purpose than its predecessor. Thankfully, Black/White has a raft of changes and tweaks that make it more rational and playable than earlier incarnations. Firstly, the Pokecentre has been equipped with an in-built Pokemart, so you can heal your team and stock them up with medicines on the same stop. Simple, but a little puzzling as to why it took five generations of the game to sort this one out.
Another change is the behaviour of Technical Machines, or TMs in the game. TMs are used for teaching Pokémon their fighting moves outside of a evolutionary path and have previously been one-shot devices. With the advent of item trading the developers have decided to make TMs multi-use, which helps remove the frustration associated with crafting the perfect Pokémon for taking on the post-endgame bosses, or fighting tough matches online.