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Pokemon Black/White defies re-invention and proves to be a finely tuned, if slightly single-minded experience.
It's difficult to review a game like Pokemon Black/White. No matter how much time you spend on it, it always promises more: more creatures to find, more techniques to master, more side-games to provide entertaining diversion from the cycle of find/catch/train.
If you're an existing Pokemon fan looking for the inside scoop on this latest game, feel free to skip the next three chapters! I'm going to have a quick word with the on-lookers...
For the uninitiated, Pokemon is role-playing game in which - rather than levelling up a character or gaining weapons and armour -- the player travels the landscape to catch wild creatures to help on the journey and to undertake battles on their behalf. These creatures level up through experience as they progress and you can have up to six of them with you at any time. There are two versions of the game: Black and White. Each version features Pokemon that are unique to that version and therefore trading Pokemon with other players is the only route to completing the games directory of creatures. This particular title also features an explorable area which is different between each version of the game.
Those who have written Pokemon off as a child's collectibles fad (maybe as a result of the twee marketing and merchandising Pokemon has enjoyed over the years) will find a game of surprising depth and ever-widening opportunity. There is a rock-paper-scissors theme to battles, with certain types being effective or ineffective against other types -- however there are fifteen different types which come in to play, as well as some Pokemon being of dual type, making the permutations much larger. Each Pokemon can only learn four battle moves so a good understanding of the importance of a balanced team is essential -- but mastering the team selection is a weighty challenge indeed.
I find the level of strategy required quite demanding.
With 156 new Pokemon added to the roster in Black/White I find the level of strategy required quite demanding. That's without even going into the specialist areas of breeding and training.
For me, Pokemon Black/White is an exceptionally finely-tuned adventure. From my first encounters with my rival trainers' Pokemon, through the initial wild Pokemon areas outside your town and through the sequence of routes and cities on your journey, this game manages to pitch the difficulty curve and variety of encounters near-perfectly.
I'm also impressive with the designs and variety of the new Pokemon. Surely after a studio has designed its 500th tiny creature they must start to run thin on ideas? Somehow the game manages to throw plenty of fresh ideas in, even if a few of the designs look strangely familiar.
My main disappointment with the game is the lack of sub-games. In Diamond/Pearl I really enjoyed the cooking mini-game and the talent shows which provided a welcome break from the main action. In HeartGold/SoulSilver I think the Pokeathlon (a series of mini-games based on athletics events), the coin-flip game and other distractions like the bug-catching contest really heightened the overall experience (as well as the excellent Pokewalker pedometer peripheral!).
So far, in Black/White I have encountered only one sub-game which offers little in the way of interaction. The 'Pokemon Musical' was hyped long before I encountered it in the game and, although I really hoped for something like the pageants from Diamond/Pearl, it's a fairly passive experience. The game also promised much with the appearance of stadiums for Baseball, Football, Soccer (sic), Tennis and Basketball. I thought these would lead to Pokeathlon-style mini-games but sadly they are simply arenas to battle sport-themed characters.
The majority of the mini-games are to be driven through a website (which is sadly not available at the time of writing). It seems that after transferring a Pokemon to the internet via a DS function, mini-games can be played through your PC web-browser to collect items and find new Pokemon. I think it's an interesting idea; but, to me, taking any entertainment out of the DS (which I keep by my side) and putting it onto a website to which I have to keep returning is anathema to all the reasons I love gaming on the DS. It may prove to be popular, but for me it's a real own-goal.
Pokemon Black/White promises seamless wireless communication with other passing DS users.
And this brings me to the aspect of Black/White upon which it will stand or fall. The feature which Nintendo have vastly increased for this version is the wireless communications. Seemingly in advance of the Nintendo 3DS' much-vaunted Street-Pass system, Pokemon Black/White promises seamless wireless communication with other passing DS users (who also, presumably, have launched Pokemon Black or White and left it in hibernate mode). There are a greater number of features for interaction between nearby players than ever before. However, my own experience of being a Pokemon player in the UK suggests that passing another player in the street is highly unlikely.
It's a shame that this is the focus of their efforts on this version. The improved graphics and animation make this the most presentable hand-held Pokemon title to date (in fact some of the impressive 3D visuals had me hoping that the 3DS would somehow retro-apply its own 3D magic to this DS game -- unfortunately I think I will be disappointed).
Overall, I have to say I'm thoroughly enjoying this version of Pokemon for its core thrills of catching and training. At its heart it's a perfectly paced JRPG and if you link in with a great community site like www.pokecommunity.com you will find friends to trade and battle with even without local contacts.
Hoping that the 3DS would somehow retro-apply its own 3D magic to this DS game.
For fans of the series there is plenty to enjoy here. I also think newcomers would get on with it well, on account of the careful re-introduction to the series mechanics and the excellent difficulty curve.
However, if I were pressed to recommend the "best" Pokemon game... that is where Pokemon Black/White falls down. As the saying goes, if you only ever play one Pokemon game, I would personally direct you to HeartGold/SoulSilver on the strength of its massive game-world, huge creature index, brilliant Pokewalker accessory, multitude of mini-games and daily events and diverse characters.
Pokemon Black/White is excellent; but, it is not the series' strongest evolution.
[Chris Jarvis writes the Novel Gamer column where you can read his Pokemon Black/White fiction.]
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