Wednesday, September 25, 2013
DS review: Pokémon Platinum
Set in the Sinnoh region, Pokémon Platinum is the compilation title for the Generation IV Pokémon titles and effectively follows the same story and series of events, albeit with a few expansions and alterations. The game begins with a very typical introduction to your character and neighbor/rival crossing paths with the Sinnoh region’s esteemed Professor Rowan, a mustached gentleman who grants you free choice of your starter Pokémon. From there, you make your way toward the first major towns via the numbered routes that connect them, but not before encountering a mysterious blue-haired man at a nearby lake who seems to have some interest in the legendary Pokémon rumored to reside there.
Pokémon Platinum deals with the same themes as its predecessors Diamond and Pearl. While Professor Rowan asks you to learn more about the connections between humans and Pokémon as well as the evolutionary process some Pokémon undergo, the local villainous group Team Galactic is concerned primarily with the Sinnoh region’s legendary Pokémon Palkia and Dialga, Pokémon rumored to have been instrumental in the creation of the region and perhaps even the rest of the world. While it is made strikingly obvious early on how dim-witted most of the Team Galactic followers are, the executive officers are much more collected individuals, and their intentions could result in the rewriting of both time and space – a far more serious implication than the thievery of Team Rocket.
The Pokémon new to generation IV are a strange bunch whose typings are not exactly evenly distributed. There are quite a few new evolutions given to Pokémon from the previous four generations, and while Lickilicky, Magmortar, and Rhyperior may be able to utilize broader movesets than their pre-evolutions, their rather bloated and uninspired appearances beg the question as to why Game Freak felt the need to add another stage to these evolutionary lines. Meanwhile, early Sinnoh-local Pokémon like Shinx (an electric type), Starly (normal/flying), and Bidoof (a normal type that acts as this generation’s Rattata or Sentret) can easily be caught to round out your party to a decent degree, but access to further fourth generation Pokémon is severely limited until late in the main game. The majority of your time spent in the wild, exploring caves, and surfing on the three major lakes in the Sinnoh region will result in encounter after encounter with Geodudes, Machops, Psyducks, as well as a few other overly-familiar faces. Even an egg that is gifted to you during the first half of the game hatches into a Togepi, an event all too familiar to anyone who played the generation II titles or their DS remakes that followed a couple of years after the release of Pokémon Platinum.
Graphically, the game looks superb. 3D models mesh well with the 2D character sprites, while the Pokémon display a decent range of actions as they make their debut in a battle. A few of the older Pokémon are displayed in strange poses, but on the whole the battle segments look very good. The gyms follow a formula of ‘something old, something new’, as the first couple are helmed by leaders that favor Ground and Grass types, while later gyms allow Ghost, Steel, and Ice type Pokémon have their moment in the spotlight. While the three starter Pokémon do stick to the tried and true typings of Grass, Water, and Fire for their early evolutions, their final dual-typings are a breath of fresh air to the series, as they adopt Grass/Ground, Water/Steel, and Fire/Fighting respectively. That said, the moves that these starter Pokémon learn over the course of the game are not exactly in perfect balance with one another, and exploring every inch of the Sinnoh region’s various routes and locales would greatly benefit your team’s versatility and strategies.
Routes have been compressed, packing a comparable number of trainers and seemingly greater quality/quantity of items into smaller spaces. Generally speaking, this makes the trek between points of interest far less monotonous or time-consuming, though a few routes suffer from lackluster design and layout as a result. Cities, on the other hand, are all brilliantly realized, with interesting themes guiding their aesthetic approaches. Oreburgh City is home to both the Ground type gym and a mining industry, while Hearthome City is large and entertainment-oriented, with the Ghost type gym taking on a sort of funhouse setup. The gyms incorporate interesting puzzle mechanics, such as sliding punching bags along rails to knock obstructions out of a pathway and raising the water level to connect floating bridge segments.
While the story crescendos in the most grandiose fashion, the postgame is lacking when compared to many other entries in the series. Attempting to catch both Palkia and Dialga is exciting in its own right, The Battle Frontier from Pokémon Emerald makes a return, and there is always the option to import Pokémon from any of the five GBA releases via the Pal Park. But Platinum seems to focus more on incorporating the extra content that is non-essential to the main game as side quests and distractions, which leads to very mixed results. The Underground area can be tackled with friends to dig for fossils and mess around with harmless traps, though it has a tendency to drain the battery charge on your DS faster than normal gameplay. Meanwhile, a park wherein you can walk around with one of your Pokémon outside of its Pokéball serves no discernible purpose outside of gathering a few odd items. A visit to the purportedly haunted Old Chateau and the ability to team up with an NPC trainer on Iron Island make up some of the game’s more memorable and cleverly crafted sidequests.
Commanding your Pokémon to carry out attacks, healing them up with potions or berries, and even swapping party members are all incredibly quick and easy actions, thanks to the incorporation of the touch screen as your command list. However, the rest of the game sees minimal use of the touch screen, relying heavily on the buttons and D-pad for navigating menus, engaging in Wi-Fi trades, and shuffling your teammates. It results in the overall gameplay carrying out at a rate that is a little bit slower than 2010's Heart Gold and Soul Silver remakes, and the DS’ touch control fame feeling very much underutilized and underappreciated. When not engaged in battle, the bottom screen is used to display one of many Pokétch apps. These can include (but are not limited to) a miniaturized version of the health display for your team members, a map of the region with blinking markers for keeping track of roaming legendary Pokémon, a dowsing machine used for uncovering hidden treasures, as well as the notably less exciting calculator and memo pad. Because Pokémon Platinum is built into the original smaller grey DS cartridges, it cannot hold as much information as the larger black cartridges used by every Pokémon game that followed, leading to some lengthy save times.
There are a few strange alterations to long-standing Pokémon traditions, like riding the bike. Instead of it being used as a faster means of traveling between 'Point A' and 'Point B', it is now actually required to ascend certain muddy slopes and continue on to the next town. The bike can run in two gear settings which players can easily alter at the push of the B button, but the faster setting is needed to even scale the aforementioned mud slopes, so it’s a wonder that Game Freak even bothered with the slower and supposedly ‘more easily controlled’ gear setting. Similarly, the process of gathering berries introduced in Gold and Silver returns, as does the process of planting them introduced in Ruby and Sapphire, with the latter portion of the optional scavenging routine being less welcome. Purchasing mulch and combining it with ideal berries to grow more trees and ultimately use the fruits of your labor (no pun intended) for poffins that can help boost your Pokémon’s personality traits comes across as a convoluted, lethargic, and generally boring process that really only benefits the individuals interested in tackling the game’s Pokémon beauty pageant. Trees will eventually grow back on their own after a day or two, and the same berries you’ve known since generation II can still immediately be put to use as healing objects.
The challenge factor for the main game is decent at the start, but seems to taper off before the halfway point. The game seems to discourage the importing of Pokémon from outside games early on, as Pokémon that exceed level 10 before the first two gyms have been completed will frequently disobey you (your Sinnoh starter Pokémon excluded). But the lack of interesting new Pokémon available as well as the lack of particularly interesting old ones makes the first few hours just a tad frustrating for just about anyone, regardless of their team’s make up. Once that second gym badge is acquired and the hurdle overcome, however, Pokémon Platinum becomes a surprisingly easy game to burn through, lasting approximately twenty hours. The only significant required challenge comes from the Elite Four, as each member sees a notable gap in the staggering of the numbered levels of their respective Pokémon.
There is a second egg Pokémon that you are given during the game’s second half that hatches into a Riolu, who can ultimately evolve into Lucario and become a highly valuable asset to your team as well as a solid counter to the Elite Four. The problem is that Riolu is not acquired until late in the game, long after most of your team members would be at level thirty or higher, and it would have been a more rewarding and interesting experience had the game granted you use of Riolu early on in place of Togepi. Over the course of Pokémon Platinum’s main game, you will need to use all but about two HM moves, with no fewer than four being necessary for navigating Victory Road. This will limit the movesets of your core party Pokémon to a considerable degree, or alternatively result in your needing to revisit Victory Road to grind for more experience in the event that you braved the cavern with a Bidoof or some comparable HM pack mule in tow – either option only compounds the issues presented by a limited array of new Pokémon.
Pokémon Platinum looks and sounds fantastic, with exceptionally crafted locales and one of the best soundtracks in the series. The battle system is an impressive modernization of the classic turn-based routine introduced in the original Gameboy titles. The intelligent, fun gym layouts as well as the late game puzzle mechanics of the Distortion World are incredibly fresh and welcome additions to the franchise. But for all these boosts to the quality of Pokémon Platinum’s presentation, the lack of useful or interesting wild Pokémon available prior to the postgame really drags the overall experience down. If Game Freak is going to bother making a new Pokémon game, they should at least provide you the option of running with all-new Pokémon instead of actively shoving the old and all-too familiar in your face.
My rating: 8 (out of 10)