Review: Pokémon Black & White

In light of how Pokémon Black & White Version 2 are set for release in Japan on June 23, Crystal and Mel of Gaming Bus have decided to review their predecessors, Pokémon Black & White. The games were billed as something of a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of the Pokémon series and to that end have improved and refined many of the features from the previous games. It’s been well over a year since the release of Pokémon Black & White, which has given players the world over a chance to reflect upon the changes made to the usual Pokémon formula. Mel and Crystal provide their two cents on the games below.

For the record, Mel played Pokémon Black Version while Crystal played Pokémon White Version.

Pokemon Black VersionPokemon White VersionPokémon Black & White
Systems: Nintendo DS
Developers: Game Freak
Publishers: Nintendo
Release Date: March 6, 2011 (NA)
MSRP: $39.99

 

 

Game Mechanics

Mel Ngai: One of the first things I noticed when I first began to play was how much faster the battles flowed compared to Pokémon HeartGold (and the other Generation IV Pokémon games by extension). Everything from the animations themselves to the rate at which they changed from one action to the next was sped up to a degree that it seemed like they were moving as fast as I could tap the touch screen or hit the buttons, and the speed goes up a notch if you turn the animations off. The rate at which your Pokémon gain experience is also much faster, so having to grind to strengthen a weaker member of the group doesn’t take as long as it used to. I very much appreciated the tweaks because it didn’t feel like a chore to sit through battles anymore.

The balance throughout the game also seemed pretty good. I think I did less level grinding in Pokémon Black than in Pokémon HeartGold thanks to the faster experience gain I mentioned before—and that’s a good thing for someone who’s sick to death of long, tedious sessions of level grinding. It’s not completely gone, but it’s far more tolerable than it used to be. No opponent felt either too overpowered or too easy by the time I fought them; the challenge felt good enough throughout. I found as I went along that Pokémon I’d pass by on a given route would be helpful against the upcoming Gym Leader, though I could use different strategies to help me win the battle if I so chose. For example, the Ground-type Sandile appears on the route leading to Nimbasa City and its Electric-type Gym. To defeat Elesa and her Gym buddies, I instead used my Blitzle and his Motor Drive ability to see me through mostly because I didn’t feel like level grinding a new Pokémon at the time. I liked this small degree of flexibility; I didn’t have to be pigeon-holed into one particular strategy to win any given battle. Also, the last battle of the main game was challenging enough to make me think on the fly to counter some unforeseen moves and outcomes even though I won on my first try.

One of the new battle methods the games introduced was the rotation battle. They weren’t bad, actually, as they offered an interesting battle dynamic for the three-on-three match up and a degree of strategy you wouldn’t find in the other forms of combat. The more basic three-on-three battle appears all of once, and I didn’t find it quite as interesting as the rotation battles. I suppose my biggest disappointment with either of these three-on-three battle variants is in how infrequently they occur; I can count all the rotation battles I had on one hand, and only one of those spots is renewable. Heck, I almost forgot they existed. It makes me wish there were a few more places to fight a rotation battle and on a more regular basis, especially in the post-game section. It seemed strange for the advertising to emphasize these new battle styles and then incorporate them in just a couple of places.

Sadly, I had no opportunity to see how the game balance was in the online multiplayer, so I can’t say one way or another how it fares compared to the main game. I’ll expand on this a bit more in another section further below.

Crystal Steltenpohl: I really feel like Pokémon is improving with the way the game plays out. Grinding is a lot more fun in these games than in past iterations. I feel like they’ve tweaked the experience system to a point where it’s far more effective and worth your time than in the other games. When I first heard about triple battles, I felt that maybe the company was going a bit too far, but it turned out to be a good experience in the end. I have to say the same about rotation battles; it’s more strategic than I thought it was going to be initially.

I appreciate some of the other differences that they’ve put in. I’m thankful for the fact that you can use TMs more than once, for instance, and the Pokétransfer system makes life easier for those of us who own other main series games. It’d be nice if they worked a bit more with the PC system, though, as I still think it’s a bit annoying to deal with if you’re someone who liked to customize boxes like me. Why is organizing your Pokémon such an involved task? Goodness gracious, guys, let’s clean some of that up. While you’re at it, let’s simplify some of the menus, shall we?

My favorite improvement here would be that there seem to be more trainers as you play this time around, which has always been one of my favorite experiences with Pokémon. I’m not really a fan of grinding via running around in grass for hours, so being able to find whole new routes that I’d missed and finding a lot of trainers was really exciting for me, and shaking grass was also a nice addition. The only feature I would’ve liked to have had would be the ability to rebattle old trainers after they’ve grown stronger. They made up for this a bit by including the stadiums in Nimbasa City and various NPCs you can battle like Morimoto and your two rivals, but a Vs. Seeker would’ve been a nice feature to have.

I agree with Mel on her point about having different strategies to defeat Gym bosses. I kind of chuckled that you’re always at a type disadvantage with the first gym, as I remember picking Bulbasaur a lot in Red and Blue to make the first two Gyms easier. In any case, that you could choose a number of ways to achieve your goal became apparent early on in the game. In my most recent playthrough, I tried sticking with a core team until I got a Pokémon I really wanted to switch in. I found that provided a nicer challenge than my usual strategy, which is to have type-advantaged Pokémon catch up level-wise before Gym battles. I did think it was weird that Gym Leaders had less Pokémon than I remember their having in previous installments of the games, however.

Story and Game Flow

Mel: The story begins much the same way it has in the previous games: the regional Pokémon Professor narrates a brief introduction to the game world before you see the prompts asking for your gender and name. Nothing seems to stray from the norms too much even after you’re introduced to your two rivals, but the lowdown on the basic details to look out for in a given Pokémon game are given at a much quicker pace; e.g. you learn everything from how to catch Pokémon to how the Pokémon Center and Mart work in the span of maybe five minutes. With the introduction of Team Plasma and N, though, the story becomes much more involved. Put another way, the villainous team plot doesn’t feel as tacked on as it did in the previous Pokémon games—far from it, in fact. This came to me as a pleasant surprise, especially since I grew fond of almost everyone except for the last person you fight. Then again, that one was set up to be hated, and wonderfully so, which works out in its own way. I was also surprised that the story went ahead and addressed the whole trap-Pokémon-in-Poké-Balls thing—the very foundation of the series’ game mechanics—and actually provided good answers to some of the old questions by just giving more details on how the world of Pokémon works for everyone involved.

Due to the increased influence of the plot, the flow of the game becomes fairly linear. Perhaps the most complex areas to navigate are the Relic Castle’s numerous basement floors and Victory Road. Every other place is easy to reach because the paths are very straightforward. While there’s still some room to explore here and there, getting lost is the last thing a player would wind up doing. I found every location with a minimum of fuss, which wasn’t bad but also wasn’t anything that excited me. While I understand making the game so linear was intentional, I feel like there could’ve been a few more places to explore or cut loose (as much as one can cut loose in a Pokémon game), particularly in the post-game section.

At least I don’t have to worry about distributing a ton of HMs among my team or relying so much on an HM slave to navigate most of the region. That was really annoying in Generation IV.

Crystal: I tended to focus on the differences between White and previous generations, and I think over all there are some major improvements with how the game plays out. I like having two rivals, as it answers the question of what happens with the remaining of the three starter Pokémon, and I like that they’re so different in personality. I didn’t think the relationship between Bianca and her parents translated well to an American audience—it comes off as borderline abusive—but other than that, I have no problems with how the story starts out. I’m especially pleased that Professor Juniper is not only a woman but also more hands-on than other Professors; seeing her at random times during the game was pretty exciting, actually. I also like that Team Plasma feels more ominous, like their actions will actually have more of an effect on you.

But most of all, I like that they actually deal with ethical issues because it makes the game feel a bit more grown up. Sure, Team Plasma is kind of shooting themselves in the foot because they’re using captured and stolen Pokémon to free other Pokémon, but they do address the issue of whether it’s ethical to use Pokémon for battles, to capture them from the wild, and keep them cooped up in little Pokéballs. Of course, the answer is that it’s not so black and white (I swear that’s not an intentional pun), and I liked their treatment of the issue. It made it seem more like there was an actual story here rather than events shoved into a game in order to break up the battles and collecting.

Lastly, there’s some streamlining going on. It’s nice that the PokéMart and PokéCenter are in the same building now. It’s also nice that you can catch Pokémon right away. I wish you could skip the tutorials and town tours, though, especially when you do multiple playthroughs. Some of the streamlining made the game feel a bit linear, but over all, I don’t think it was too much more linear than any other Pokémon game. One day, I’d love to see an open-world Pokémon game, but I feel like something like that is not too high on Nintendo’s list of priorities. How awesome would it be, though, to be able to beat every single Gym from all the regions? To literally catch ’em all? I know, I’m dreaming and it’s never going to happen. But if nothing else, please give me something to do after I’ve beaten the main storyline.

Graphics and Sound

Mel: Pokémon Black & White make the sprite-polygon mix of the previous set of games even more pronounced because they make a greater effort to utilize the third dimension. This is best exemplified in the looks of Skyarrow Bridge and Castelia City. With the former in particular, the camera will zoom in and out as you cross, giving you a sense of walking out into a big world; and with the latter, you can barely see the tops of buildings from some angles in the area you first walk into because of how tall they are. Along those lines, the height and size of the Mistralton City Gym really benefits from using that z-plane, which you can see as you’re flying (literally) to either reach the Gym Leader or return to the entrance. Pokémon‘s generally bright color scheme also helps make the details really come alive, especially when the seasons change each month and bring their own distinct colors. It’s a bit annoying to have some areas or characters completely unavailable because of the seasons, but I’m not bothered by this too much.

All that said, I’m a little disappointed that certain weather effects don’t appear outside of the western settlements of Unova. For instance, if we’re not in the cities of Driftveil, Mistralton, or Icirrus, we’re not seeing any precipitation. It would’ve been nice to see varying weather effects occur in random parts of Unova that weren’t Pokémon-induced, but again, this is something of a mild disappointment.

Sound-wise, I like the game’s soundtrack. In fact, it may be my favorite in the entire series. I remember a couple of tracks that fit the emotional aspect of the scenes they played in, and I’ve rocked out to almost every battle theme for a while. The only part that strikes me as odd lies in the sound effects, though. Pokémon introduced in an earlier generation still use the same cry they had from whenever; e.g. Generation I Pokémon still have their 8-bit sound cues when they appear in battle or when you listen to their cry in the Pokédex. I would think at some point the sounds would be updated to suit the current tech, but at the same time, I wonder if those sounds are too iconic to change despite how primitive they are at this point. In the end, it’s not much of a complaint—especially since the rest of the sound work is great.

Crystal: Graphics have been improved for sure. I like the addition of visual novel-style conversations and wish they’d have more of that (e.g. the post-battle scene with N after the Ferris wheel ride). I like the partial utilization of the z-axis. And cutscenes! There were actually cutscenes. That was pretty cool. And battles were a lot more exciting this time around, too. We see an improvement in battle sprites and it’s kind of nice that the camera moves around if you spend too long thinking about your next move or someone distracts you with a question.

I agree with Mel on the weather changes; I wish it would rain or snow or whatever outside of particular cities, especially if this would affect when you see Pokémon (e.g. less Fire-type Pokémon appear when it’s raining). In general, I feel like there was a lot more attention paid to the details in this game versus the others; for example, the footprints that fade as you’re walking through sand really add a nice touch. The one thing I wasn’t too big of a fan of was Castelia being the way it was. I don’t think it was the 3D feel that bothered me so much as the design of the city. It was almost like they were trying so hard to make the game feel more 3D that they forgot how to design a city that wasn’t obnoxious.

They’ve done some good stuff with the music as well. I know in Accumula Town, you can add piano and drums to the background music, which really tickled me. They managed to update the music in a way that it still sounds good and recognizable but is different and feels modern. I’m going to disagree with Mel on the Pokémon noises, though. I get that some people wouldn’t like this idea, but I wish that we’d hear Pokémon make the noises they do in the anime. I feel like we’re far along enough technology-wise to get that. Or, to please people who wouldn’t like that change, offer an option in game to switch between the different sound sets, much like the option to turn off animations.

Other Thoughts

Mel: The multiplayer aspect of Pokémon benefits greatly from the game’s access to the Internet. Pokémon Black & White gives players a couple of different options for connecting to another player’s game, such as the infrared or through the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. The game doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to connect, and trading via infrared is simple and intuitive. I kept having issues every time I tried to use a different connection method, unfortunately, all of which centered on how I just flat out couldn’t connect to another friend’s game. Also, trades from an earlier game like HeartGold or SoulSilver to either Black or White involves a completely unnecessary slingshot-type minigame for some reason. Was it really so hard to make such trades just as
simple as when one goes from Black to White?

In any case, the multiplayer worked wonderfully for what I needed (e.g. trades via infrared). However, not many people play Pokémon where I live—or video games in general, for that matter—so that and connection issues with everything except infrared meant I couldn’t try more of it.

On another subject, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who completely missed out on how Black City/White Forest was supposed to work. And of course, by the time I did find out—through online research, no less—it was too late to do anything about it short of resetting my game. That wasn’t exactly a move I wanted to do after all the work I’d put into the game at that point. These version-exclusive locations would’ve been more interesting if I didn’t have some kind of time limit on finishing the main game just to see buildings other than the Pokémon Center appear, never mind anyone who might populate the outdoor areas. By the time I arrived, Black City was just a whole lot of dark sidewalks, an L-shaped black street, and a bunch of tall buildings with black windows that remained untouchable, which made it little more than an elaborate rest stop between Routes 14 and 15. I was expecting something more interesting based on the advertising, so to see this fall really short of my very few expectations easily made it my biggest disappointment with the game. Even knowing Pokémon White had more version-exclusive Pokémon thanks to White Forest didn’t bother me as much.

But aside from this major ding, I enjoyed Pokémon Black very much. In fact, I don’t remember feeling this pleased with a Pokémon game since the days of Red & Blue and Gold & Silver. From the story to the graphics to the sound and each little improvement, I enjoyed every minute of the game. This was an awesome experience.

I still don’t understand the point of that scene on Tubeline Bridge, though. I blame Ghetsis.

Crystal: Sadly, I have had extremely limited experience with multiplayer, so I’ll recommend Mel’s thoughts on the matter. I wasn’t really sure what the point of the Dream World was, though. I mean, I get the concept behind it; I just don’t really understand why we needed the Dream World specifically to accomplish these goals.

I was not a fan of time limits for exploration. As a graduate student, sometimes I have to put a game down for months at a time, which is what happened here. However, it is nice if you have a friend with the opposite game and can invite people who have left their Black City/White Forest to come to your White Forest/Black City.

The new Pokémon were okay. Some of the designs were very neat, like the Deino evolutionary line, but others like the Vanillish line were just kind of stupid. If I were GameFreak, I’d probably focus on changing up the next series a bit (after Black & White Version 2, that is). If we’re going to add new Pokémon, it’d be great if they weren’t replacements for old Pokémon (e.g. Patrat for Rattata, Pidove for Pidgey). And honestly, I could do with less legendary Pokémon. There are around forty-seven legendary Pokémon by now. Let’s just stop that and work at fleshing out the stories and personalities of the Pokémon we do have, please.

Over all, though, this is the refresher that the Pokémon franchise needed. There’s just enough new material and tweaking of old systems to keep the game fresh. While there are things that bother me about the series and directions I really wish they’d go, this is one of the more enjoyable DS games out there, and it’s also probably the best main series Pokémon game I’ve played yet. I’m excited to see where Black & White Version 2 takes the series. I already have White Version 2 preordered, though which one I’ll wind up actually getting will depend on which one Mel decides she wants since I know we’d like to do another joint review for those games.

FINAL SCORE: B+

Disclosure: The games were purchased by the reviewers and were not provided by Nintendo. At the time of writing, Mel had completed the main and post-game sections, had obtained 330 PokéDex entries including all 153 Unova Pokémon, and played over 200 hours of the game since the day of purchase. In her most recent run-through of the game, Crystal had earned 5 badges and obtained 50 PokéDex entries, but she had played approximately 125 hours—and completed the game—since the day of purchase.

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