It's barely been a year since the release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver, but the team at Gamefreak is churning out yet another iteration of the Game that Just Won't Quit. Not that it needs to; aside from the fact that it's actually rather fun, Pokémon has captured quite a bit of the nostalgia factor as well as a whopping 499 ball-dwelling monsters beyond the initial 150, bringing the total number for Black and White to 649.
Gotta catch 'em all?
We have to catch 649 Pokémon?! What the blazes, man! How on earth are you supposed to catch 649 Pokémon?!?
Cool your spurs, partner. You can, of course, if you are particularly dedicated, catch all 649 Pokémon, but here we come to the first reason why Pokémon Black and White is once again a home run for the franchise: for the first time in the game's history, only the 156 new Pokémon will be available until after you have finished playing through the main storyline. This involves you — stupefaction! — travelling the countryside, challenging gym leaders to become a Pokémon Master, and defeating the plot of an evil cartel along the way. The remaining 493 Pokémon will be unlocked after completion of this plot, where catch-a-holics will be able to catch-'em-all to their hearts' content.
This is a marvellous idea: it takes away the intimidation that 649 Pokémon would present to first-time players, and introduces a new reason to return after the story's conclusion. Previously, you could keep playing and round up all the Pokémon you had missed, but new, unlockable Pokémon sweeten the replay pot.
To make the game even friendlier for newbies, the story takes place in an entirely new region: Unova. Don't expect to see any of your old favourite characters; even Professor Oak has been replaced with — unprecedented — a lady professor. Your mum isn't a faceless character this time, either; she alludes to her own coming-of-age Pokémon journey around Unova, and she no longer saves your money for you, which previously served to make her a somewhat soulless voice on the end of the phone line informing you of frivolous purchases she'd made on your behalf.
And the baddies are all-new, too. Instead of pitting yourself against the not-so-wily Team Rocket, you'll be up against Team Plasma — sort of the PETA of Pokémon. This is a clever move, really; what Pokémon player hasn't thought, even if only vaguely, that keeping animals in tiny balls and making them fight each other is quite possibly horribly cruel?
It's sort of the question, really, but the game ducks it neatly by making the members of Team Plasma such cackling, moustache-twirling scumbags that they become the lesser of two evils; somehow kicking Pokémon and making small children cry (both of those things actually do happen) is worse than making your pets fight each other to the point of passing out. But never mind — it's possible to overthink these things. Moving on.
A change of pace
The game has received a few small upgrades from previous versions, Pokémon aficionados will note with pleasure. The first is that the graphics have been updated a little. There's still an essence of same-old-same-old, and we're of the opinion that it could have been a bit classier, but it looks good and it does the job. The battles have fuller animations (although the battling Pokémon still stay resolutely in their corners), the scrolling landscape is dynamic and — best of all — dialogue now shows up in speech bubbles instead of a text box at the bottom of the screen.
Also, the two new games don't come with a Pokéwalker. Instead, players will log into the Pokémon Dream World via the Pokémon Global Link website (launching 30 March). This performs a similar function to the Pokéwalker; once players log in, they can encounter and befriend Pokémon by playing mini-games. Many of these Pokémon have unique abilities and are not normally found within Pokémon Black and White, but once a Pokémon has been befriended in the Dream World you will be able to send it to your game and catch it in the Entralink area.
Other things you will be able to do in the Dream World include keeping a little house, meeting up with other players, exploring areas, planting and cultivating berries (which you can't do in the main game) and spending Dream Points on unlocking new areas to explore on Dream Island.
It sounds like a fun feature with the potential to enhance the game quite significantly, with a more casual approach to the world of Pokémon.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Back in the main game, prettier graphics and an all-new cast aren't the only changes: battles are different as well. Firstly, they're more fully animated. The Pokémon still don't leave their corners, so you won't get to watch an all-out brawl, but the move animations are a little more interesting. Better, though, are the new battle modes: Triple and Rotation. Triple battles are exactly as they sound: you send out three of your Pokémon to face three enemy Pokémon all at the same time — kind of like a double battle (which can now occur in the wild!), only the two Pokémon on either side can only attack the Pokémon opposite, while the middle Pokémon can hit any of the three opponents.
Rotation battles are also three-on-three, but one Pokémon battles only one Pokémon at a time. The advantage of this, though, is that you have two backup Pokémon that you can switch to without losing a turn (and so does the opponent team). These two new mechanics shake up the classic one-on-one battle and make it more exciting, but occur fairly infrequently; maybe not frequently enough to vary the gameplay to satisfaction, although we were perfectly content — it kept the longer battles a novelty rather than making them a drag.
We are all connected
And then you get to the online options. The game wants you to use them, big-time. Called the C-Gear, the interface is displayed on the bottom screen by default, so you can just jump in any time. Using a Wi-Fi or infrared connection you can battle other players, trade Pokémon or play mini-games, for which you then earn points to be traded for in-game bonuses — cheaper items at the Poké Mart, for example, or more experience points for your Pokémon. You're also not limited to interacting with friends; Random Match pits you against a stranger in a Pokémon battle to the fainting.
The other thing you can do is the strangely named Feeling Check. You and a friend will connect up and play a rhythm game where you tap on the screen. If you manage to synchronise, you get neat bonus items to use in-game.
Finally, the Pass By feature, which keeps the wireless connectivity on when you close your DS, scans constantly, looking for passing Pokémon players with whom it will exchange information on which Pokémon they've caught and so forth. The more players you interact with, the more items you can earn.
In the end
When you get right down to brass tacks, one Pokémon game is much like any other Pokémon game. Even with new monsters and a few gameplay tweaks, Pokémon Black and White doesn't feel like a hugely different experience from the original Pokémon Red and Blue.
That said, the fact that Pokémon has managed to maintain its fun and compelling nature for all these years is remarkable. Pokémon Black and White offers a rich Pokémon experience with gameplay that is well-loved, and has plenty to offer to Pokéfans both old and new.