Tuesday, April 24, 2012

DS review: Pokémon Black and White

The fifth generation of Pokémon games will likely be the last on the standard DS handhelds as Nintendo moves into new territory with the 3DS. The series has seen a number of aesthetic changes over the years, as well and new additions to the Pokémon roster with each new generation. As evidenced through fan response to the previous generation four titles of Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, these new Pokémon can sometimes prove a mixed bag, with some not as welcomed with open arms. The generation five games of Pokémon Black and White seek to do two things for the franchise - break new ground with game design and return to some of the basics when it comes to the Pokémon players have access to.

The starters are very well balanced, and are in keeping with the traditional choices of water-type, grass-type, and fire-type. However, assuming you seek out a specific individual early on in the game, you will get one of three monkey-like Pokémon, each of which is also attributed with the water, grass, and fire themes. Whether you receive Panpour, Pansage, or Pansear is dependent on the starter you choose at the game's outset, and can prove a valuable team member early on in combating your two rivals, as well as the first couple of gym leaders.

From there, the remaining one hundred and fifty newcomers feel largely like new spins on old, tried and true formulas. Zebstrika is essentially an electric-type equivalent to Rapidash, favoring speed and special attack stats over defense. Darmanitan, on the other hand, is a heavy hitter fire-type who can take quite a beating, and who can learn a number of fire-type and a few fighting-type moves, a handful of which can allow him to deliver massive damage to enemies in exchange for lowered speed stat or slight loss in health.

Dual-types see perhaps the largest shift, as nearly every one has been designed with a specific strategy in mind. Chandelure can combat both brethren ghost-types with moves like Hex and Night Shade, and can use fire-type attacks to dispatch grass-types and other wild Pokémon who are only affected by traditional physical moves. The three legendaries have been designed with a strategic approach in mind as well, since Zekrom, Reshiram, and Kyurem all have a commonality as dragon-types, but diverge as electric, fire, and ice dual-types respectively. Some of these dual formulas, like steel/grass, flying/rock, and fighting/steel might seem a bit odd at first, but each serves its own purpose. There are very few Pokémon in the roster that are downright weak.

The process of leveling up moves at a much quicker pace this time around. There are a consistently high number of trainers on any given route between the cities, and the sidequests in different towns will sometimes require you to face off against characters before fully aiding them. Double battles occur on a regular basis in the wild, assuming you are walking in the dark-colored tall grass. Early access to an experience share and a wide variety of evolutionary stones only help to increase the pace.

Each gym leader is only allotted three Pokémon, and will generally reserve their single powerhouse Pokémon for last. This is one part of the experience that feels unbalanced. The first few gyms progress at a consistent rate, but the couple that follow throw off the rhythm. Elesa and Clay both have Pokémon that tend to spam a singular, over-powered move, and this leg of the journey can prove frustrating. Past that point, though, the gym leader battles become less and less challenging to the point where they are practically a joke. Thankfully, the variety of Pokémon in the possession of the Elite Four, as well as the significant challenge they present, largely makes up for the shortcomings on the part of the gym leaders.

There's actually a decent story to Black and White, courtesy in large part to the actions of Team Plasma. Unlike previous groups, Team Plasma's vision is to steal people's Pokémon away from them in order to create a world where all the Pokémon are free. It brings into play the question of just what it means to be a Pokémon trainer and whether or not the Pokémon in your party (or anyone else's, for that matter) actually want to be partnered with humans.

Two childhood friends act as rivals, one of whom aspires to be as strong as the regional champion, the other one being a somewhat clumsy and naive girl whose journey as a Pokémon trainer goes against her father's wishes. Cheren (the former) ends up being less rounded out and subsequently less believable a character than Bianca (the latter). Pitting you against two rivals, as well as Team Plasma's ironically potential noble cause presents what is perhaps the most memorable story in the entire Pokémon series. The narrative may not be quite as rich or complicated as the likes of a Final Fantasy title, but it's engaging nonetheless.

New to Pokémon Black and White are triple battles and rotation battles. While these are nowhere near as frequent as standard one-on-one scuffles, they certainly add another layer of complexity to the battle system. With triple battles, planning your team's setup is often crucial, as only the Pokémon in the center is able to attack any one of the three opponents - the two on either side are only able to attack the Pokémon directly in front of them as well as the one immediately next to that one. Rotation battles also see three Pokémon pitted against another team of three, but attack one at a time. Both Black and White version are host to houses in one of the towns visited late in the main game that allow players to visit once per day and challenge the residents to these new battles.

Outside of the main story, the game presents plenty of distractions. In Nimbasa City, there is both a theater where Pokémon can take part in a musical performance to earn rewards, and the Battle Subway which operates similar to the Battle Frontier from Diamond/Pearl and Heart Gold/Soul Silver. Depending on which version you have purchased, you can access either Black City or White forest post-game. Pokémon not native to Unova can be found in these regions, and their level of development is dependent on your actions throughout your journey.

Upon completing the main story, new areas are accessed and allow you to face off against trainers with Pokémon from other regions that are at significant higher levels than those previously encountered. The post-game area that is unlocked in Black and White is nowhere near as sizeable as the Kanto region in Heart Gold/Soul Silver's post-game. But Black/White does encourage players to revisit new sections of familiar terrain in order to track down rare items and the game's elusive legendary Pokémon.

Without a doubt, Pokémon Black and White has what is easily the most groundbreaking soundtrack in the series to date. It's also the best by far, with battle themes that pay homage to its Red and Blue roots and some downright epic battle themes (Reshiram and Zekrom's theme is one such standout number). Graphically, the game looks pretty good, considering it is an RPG with a top-down perspective. The 3D models that grace some of the cutscenes may look a bit angular and rough at times, but are also pushing the hardware of the DS pretty far. Calls on the X-Transceiver phone display characters in the style of the anime. As a whole, environments are incredibly colorful. The urban areas are teeming with activity while the many forests and routes have weather that changes seasons every so often, and this can allow for access to new areas. In battle, each Pokémon is animated, both when standing still and while attacking. The opponent's Pokémon in the distance look quite good, though your own team members that are displayed in the foreground look heavily pixelated.

In short, both Pokémon Black version and White version are beautifully realized entries into the series. Pokémon games have long been revered as some of the best on any of Nintendo's handhelds. With the variety of Pokémon available, exciting areas to explore, and creative gameplay elements, the fifth generation serves a prime example. Its primary concern is a strategic approach that is as engaging as it is enjoyable. Each of the Pokémon available for capture is a worthwhile grab, though every player is going to have his or her preferences. And that's what makes the Pokémon games - Black and White in particular - so well received; the freedom to approach battles with a multitude of strategies.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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