It’s not often that a long running series has the capacity to surprise. Pokémon is one of the older franchises around to still be cranking out original content, with more Gameboy and DS titles available than can be counted on both hands. The Pokémon series has followed an established pattern: a new generation of game is released to a baying audience, and then followed up with a mid-generation special edition. It's a system that has been followed since Yello was released all the way back in 1998.
These special editions rarely offer anything more than a little fan service, adding a couple of cosmetic flourishes and the odd bit of extra content to help sooth the hardcore Master into buying another version of the same thing. It could be seen as cynical, but hey - you gotta catch ‘em all... To have Pokémon White/Black Version 2 show up as a mid-generation title that is also a proper, direct sequel is something of a surprise - and a welcome one at that.
Two years ago in the timeless, ever-shifting Pokémon universe, a hero rose to prominence by defeating the nefarious Team Plasma, a modern re-working of the series’ original bad guys, Team Rocket. While Team Rocket were up to no good in the hopes of raking in riches, Team Plasma had a more environmentally aware PETA kind of vibe to them. The philosophical questions that rack every 12 year old Pokémaniac’s brain were brought to the forefront of the game’s central plot - is it ethically right to trap small creatures in a magical ball-shaped prison in order to pull them out and make them fight to utter exhaustion?
The answer players of Pokémon Black/White got was “probably?”. As the storyline twisted and turned in its shallow attempt at reconciling morality and slavery, the mysterious character named ‘N’ played devil’s advocate and served as the game’s ultimate boss, enough of a change from the earlier generations level grinding to take down the Elite 4 mechanic to earn the game widespread praise. As a sequel, Black/White 2 expands on the questions raised in the first, bringing extended Poké-law into consideration as the player bumps and mangles Pokémon across the newly renovated land of Unova.
The core of any Pokémon RPG is still the battling, and while nothing has changed since Black/White, it must be said that the balance still feels fair as long as the player comes prepared. As in the past, the world’s newest Pokémon trainer - with the most trusting, or negligent, mother on Earth - sets off on a perilous adventure with one of three starter pocket monsters. Choosing the grass type presents the easiest challenge early on, while water and then fire-type are the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding. Catching, training and fighting Pokémon is business as usual, although Game Freak’s strange fascination with making the player compete in double or triple battles continues to take up game time with no real purpose. While a triple battle is a novelty to play through, they’re not commonplace enough to plan ahead for by teaching Pokémon multi-battle specific moves in favour of more powerful single focused alternatives.
Additions to the Black/White formula in Version 2 range between the inspired and the insipid. First of all, Pokémon Black/White Version 2 has a rudimentary achievements system, whereby the player unlocks medals for completing various tasks. It might not seem like much in 2012, but simply adding a modicum of recognition for crawling another dreary cavern or pulling off a heroic battle makes the game feel less cold and disinterested. Adding an unlockable increased difficulty mode for seasoned Pokémasters is an excellent new addition, while letting the player import their save game from Black/White adds an extra dimension to the story telling. There are parts of the game that could have been left out entirely, like the depressingly drawn out Movie Studio subplot, the fashion accessorising that’s impossible to quit and the oddly suggestive ferris wheel rides with a lonely companion. It must be a Japanese thing.
As the graphics engine remains the same, players might expect to see much of the same 3D modeling incorporated into the top-down 3D world as they did last time - and they're right. There isn’t much in the way of technological improvement on offer, although the world of Unova has been tweaked and polished to give the player the best looking and most richly detailed Pokémon environment to date. Things feel familiar to the previous titles, as they should - this is a Pokémon game afterall. The sound design is much the same, although there are instances where actual spoken English ‘lyrics’ can be heard in the backing music, something which seems oddly out of place and off-putting in the cocooned in-game world many long-time fans of the series are accustomed to. It’s a minor change, but something that stands out the first time a player experiences it. Battle animations and indeed the sprites for the Pokémon themselves are still dreadfully rough and simplistic, keeping in line with the rest of the game but something that Game Freak sorely needs to sort out in the 2012 world of anti-aliased Flash games and their smartphone equivalents.
The online component of Pokémon remains an unfinished symphony for Nintendo. The DS has had the Internet lurking onboard the entire time, and as Pokémon has a heavy focus on battling other players as well as trading and comparing teams, it’s a surprise that getting online is still so clunky at this stage of the series. There are multiple ways to experience multiplayer, over ad-hoc wireless, bluetooth or the Internet proper, but each feels tacked on to the core of the game, requiring arduous saving, configuring and swapping of friend codes in the extreme. With the current crop of games from AAA console titles to dodgy smartphone apps having persistent online capabilities, Pokémon feels antiquated and obtuse. Battling and trading online revolves around the Pokémon Global League, a web service that’s partly aimed at fans of the anime, other parts for the Pokémon card game and, finally, the DS titles. It’s all a bit slapdash, the complexity of the front-end mixed with the numerous annoying steps will possibly turn many a casual gamer away - a shame.
Pokémon Black/White Version 2 is the most advanced of the series. The game itself is large, and what it lacks in replayability is made up for by the long running time, a completionist's playthrough will take around 60 hours. The user interface still doesn’t make the best use of the DS’s hardware, setting the touchscreen aside for essentially useless multiplayer menus for most of the game is a strange move. Game Freak has made some strides towards making the world feel more connected and responsive with the medals, unlockable elements and online play, which are all geared toward bringing the series into the 21st century.
While it might not be revolutionary, there is a surprising amount of new content and old fashioned fun to be had inside the cartridge, which is all one could hope for from a mid-generation Pokémon release. As the series continues to evolve (excuse the pun), its audience continues to age, something the added sophistication of the storyline reflects. For the next iteration of Pokémon to be a greater success, Game Freak is going to need to up the level of interaction, connectivity and maturity even further - but for now, this is as good as it gets.