Monday, December 26, 2011

DS review: Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver

Remakes of the Gold and Silver Generation II entries from 2000, Pokémon Heart Gold and Pokémon Soul Silver revisit the Johto region and the earlier days of the franchise. The main storyline and Kanto post-game remain almost entirely retained, though they receive some very welcome graphical and gameplay upgrades, courtesy of the Generation IV engine (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum). Before I get too far into this review, I should make a point of noting that I have not played a core Pokémon game since the days of Gold and Silver on the Gameboy Color. I played the Stadium games and enjoyed the quirkiness of Pokémon Snap. While I have kept up with the additions to the Pokédex over the years, these DS remakes are the first traditional Pokémon titles I have played in almost a decade.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Gold and Silver, it's pretty much the same this time around. Players will name their character, then receive a starter Pokémon before they set out on their journey to beat each of Johto's eight gym leaders. Those starters come in the form of Cyndaquil (fire), Chikorita (grass), and Totodile (water). The starter players choose will impact their rival's pick, who - unlike the cocky rival in Red and Blue - actually steals his starter from Professor Elm.

Early encounters with wild Pokémon will prove relatively easy. With a starter at level five, it's going to be easy to grind for experience points during the first few hours. Trainer battles will also provide sufficient funds for the occasional potion, but players will not need to worry about status changes like poison, sleep, and paralysis until after the first couple of gyms. This allots newcomers some time to adjust to the gameplay, while veterans will have sufficient time to beef up their team prior the earliest gym battles. Certain types of Pokémon will not be available to catch in the wild right away, and players must learn to keep their party balanced and strategic when approaching trainer, gym, and rival battles.

As players progress through the story, they will have encounters with Team Rocket and need to complete a handful of sidequests in order to be granted access to certain gym battles. While the story remains focused on the player, his/her rival, and the gym leaders, there are some side characters that are fleshed out a bit more than in the original Gameboy Color releases. The Pokémon games have never been recognized as the greatest in storytelling, since much of what happens therein is up to the player. But small alterations like this make the world much more engaging and believable. On top of that, the soundtrack is a phenomenal update, with some of the more noteworthy tunes being Ho-oh's theme, Red and Lance's theme, and the three variations of the theme that plays during the battles with each legendary dog.

The DS control scheme allows for two modes of play. Those who prefer the Gameboy controls of yesteryear can still select attacks and items in the midst of a battle by using the D-pad and buttons. The touch screen also allows use of the stylus for accessing all of this, as well as managing the Pokémon storage system. When teaching Pokémon new moves, players can compare the type, damage, and accuracy of a move to those their Pokémon already know, and not have to react so blindly or impulsive in these put-on-the-spot moments.

Outside of the main game, players can access the Pokéathalon, which presents a number of amusing minigames that will grow old after a short time. The Battle Frontier can be accessed after the main game is completed. There, players can battle a series of trainers back-to-back in order to earn Battle Points. However, players are not allowed to use certain Pokémon in the Battle Frontier (most being legendaries), nor can they earn any form of experience points through said battles. The Battle Frontier is included primarily for bragging rights among hardcore Pokémon fans, but there isn't much else to it.

On the other hand, the Safari Zone allows players to catch some Pokémon from Generations I, III, and IV that they would be otherwise unable to obtain. The Pokéwalker accessory that comes bundled with both Heart Gold and Soul Silver allows players to gain experience points, find items, and catch wild Pokémon on the go, as each step taken helps progress toward leveling up their Pokémon companion. The Kanto post-game provides some decent higher-level battles, though about half of the regions gym leaders are pushovers. Perhaps the most significant inclusion in recent Pokémon games is online play, allowing players to challenge friends to single or double battles.

Thankfully there are only a few points in the main game that require grinding for experience points, and the gameplay flows quite seamlessly because of this. The Johto region has never looked better. The tall grass and trees aren't anything special to look at, but the Ecruteak City towers, streets of Goldenrod City, and seaside port of Olivine City are each rendered in vibrant colors. The styles of different buildings now act as markers for the Pokémon Center, Pokémart, and Gyms, instead of simple text labels. The interior of each gym utilizes some form of puzzle mechanic, making the gym battles among the most exciting parts of the experience.

Players will need to purchase both Heart Gold and Soul Silver if they want to catch every single Generation II Pokémon. They can also import Pokémon from Generations III and IV if they so choose. The Pokémon games have always presented a great handheld RPG experience, and Heart Gold and Soul Silver are no exceptions. Where they really exceed, though, is through their improvements to user-friendliness. These are fantastic remakes and - a few shortcomings aside - belong in the collection of any Pokémon fan.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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