Do Pokemon Black and White Live Up To Expectations?

It has been roughly a week now since Generation V of Pokémon came to the west. It was preceded by a tremendous amount of hype, but was it deserving? The question of whether Black and White would be the best Pokémon games we’ve ever seen was thrown around, and many reviews didn’t shut down that possibility. It’s an exciting time for us Pokémon fans as we delve into the Unova region. Alex has been taking you through his experience and giving his thoughts along the way with his series of journal-articles. Well, this is my review of the complete package.

If you’re after a narrow-minded fanboy-ish review that is blinded to any blemishes in the game, just like mothers are towards their own children, I suggest going elsewhere, because you won’t find that here. Likewise, you won’t find a hater ready to hate upon every downfall. This is my honest opinion – for the better and the worse. Naturally, it is spoiler free, however if you get fussy about reading some minor details, don’t say you weren’t warned. So, does Pokémon Black and White come anywhere near being the best installment ever in the series? The fact that I wrote this review with no real necessity or obligation to says a lot about Pokémon Black (the title I played of the two) – but what exactly does it say? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Well, reading on might be a good way to find out.

I was both excited and skeptical at first. The title screen set the scene brilliantly, and the opening further pandered to the exciting atmosphere. With that over and the actual gameplay beginning, you expect a slow start with a buildup – which it has, but it is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basis is as Pokémon as you can get. We’ve all heard that this is the Pokémon generation that changes it all – but changing it ‘all’ then, really only refers to some very minor changes here and there. At heart, the gameplay of Black and White is the Pokémon we’ve known for over a decade and come to love, or hate. It is a Pokémon adventure – don’t expect too much radically more than that unless you enjoy disappointment.

It’s hardly accurate to say these installments change the very fabric of what Pokémon is. There are some generational changes, and some new minor features – the good and bad. For starters, there were the enhanced battle animations and moving Pokémon sprites. Yes, the Pokémon actually move now instead of just being sprites that jiggle about – but slight blinks and movements are only a minor improvement. Just like the battle animations, some look impressive – especially fire type moves – but the majority are hardly much of an improvement. Some of the new moves are cool, but battle graphics and animations overall have only slightly changed. Barely enough to have warranted so much attention. DSi XL users, expect some pixilation of foreground sprites, which was really a turn off for me.

The actual cutscene animations are of more interest, because they were new to the franchise and really drove the story, indicating significant plot events. That was a nice touch, as was the fact that every Pokémon you encounter is new. The sense of discovery of the original games makes a nice return. A strong aspect of Black and White is its ability to stand alone. The tag line goes “start from a new beginning”, and that’s true as it is not reliant upon any past titles. It does have nice tributes back to older Pokémon games though, such as references to a charizard, Kanto, Johto, Team Rocket and Team Plasma. The music was another strong aspect. Like we’ve come to expect, there are a number of catchy tunes – Castelia City for instance. Other cool aspects included a special “beeping” battle song for when your Pokémon are near to fainting, which is an improvement over the past’s infuriating and droll beeps. Expect a nice change to the soundtrack when gym leaders are down to their last Pokémon as well.

Although it is not without challenging portions, the game’s overall difficulty level is much less than the other DS versions. Of course you can argue that it all depends on the Pokémon in your team, but even with that accounted for, it seemed just a tad too easy in my opinion. Perhaps that is related to how many people – trainers, friends, nurses, even opponents – heal your Pokémon for you along the way.

The New Battle Screen

No doubt many of us also heard about Castelia City and its bridge in the lead up to release. It was a massive busy city of sky-scrapers and business men. The graphics of it are no doubt stunning for Pokémon, but at the same time ask the question of why bother? All it does is make for choppy and poor camera angles, ones that aren’t anywhere else in the game and seem really out of place. A nice touch, or at least a nice intention, yet poor design led to a large but empty city that just forces you to back-track and waste time running around.

Castelia City had the size and the activity – there are heaps of people – but that wasn’t enough to hide it’s, nor the games’, overall emptiness. The routes were all disappointingly devoid of trainers to battle compared to what we’ve come to expect. The Unova region has five significantly sized bridges, but they are pretty much empty. The simple addition of more trainers would have been a major improvement. Also expect the eight gyms to have designs and puzzles like they always have. Some are clever, and others are lame, depending on how you look at it.

The changing seasons concept was, like Castelia city, a good idea but poorly done. I’ve still only seen Autumn, and that’s all I will see for a while. The seasons should change more regularly to reflect the relative time-flow of the game. It was a nice touch, but nothing major. Just like triple and rotation battles. A nice touch, but nothing major. One other new aspect was how at the first gym you face a trainer who is the weakness of your starter type. These games are said to be all about balance, so you’ll find that you will also receive a Pokémon that is super effective against your starter’s weakness. Like so many other things, nice touch, but nothing major. It’s the little things that count.

Personally, by the time we’d gone through Diamond and Pearl, then Platinum, then HeartGold and SoulSilver, I thought the interface for the DS had been perfected. Of course Black and White are different, but they are different for the sake of being different. Time will make us all used to the new interface, but it doesn’t seem quite as good – although it’s chiefly the same foundation. Some would argue that it’s all about the visual look because little has changed, but the new bag threw me off. While on the progression from HeartGold and SoulSilver, I really missed the Pokéwalker and no longer having my friend walking along behind me. Another minor gripe, although not impactful upon the game itself, was localization – or should I say localisation? Seriously, the word ‘mom’ is only valid in one very small and specific region of the world. You can be better than lazy little things like that Nintendo of Europe! While on a streak of negative aspects many would probably say that the new Pokémon are all badly designed. I say, like every other generation (except the first of course), there are a mixture of the good, the bad, the ridiculous and the awesome. Balance right?

Unlike previous titles, in Black and White you have two friends, Cheren and Bianca, as well as your rival N, Team Plasma, The Gym Leaders, the Elite Four, The Champion, and so on. In other words, there’s a lot going on, but at the same time, not that much. To me, Pokémon Platinum is the best game in the series. It struck a balance between gameplay and story. Its story wasn’t narrowly limited to whichever edition the player chose. It was Diamond, Pearl and more together in one. There was a great balance between storyline, and the actual gameplay and training. In Black and White however, throughout the game there is very miniscule story unraveling. Just enough to keep you going. Platinum was consistent throughout, whereas Black and White save their delivery for the end, and – to indulge in a cliché because I can – boy, what an ending it was.

In my mind I am somewhat thinking of Platinum as Ocarina of Time, and Black and White as Majora’s Mask. It is based on the notion that it took the foundation, it changed it a bit, and delivered a game focused more in reality. Focused more in human emotion. There was more sustenance. The meaning goes deeper than ever before. Inspirational would not be an overstatement for Majora’s Mask, or for Pokémon Black and White. In fact, it’s far from an overstatement. The notions of balance, of contrast between the busy lives of Castelia’s citizens and the entertaining lifestyles of those in Nimbasa City. The contrast of Black City and White Forest. Of ying and yang. Truth and ideals. Right and wrong. Perception and reality.

The story was full of touching moments, moving themes and straight out inspirational lines. There is Bianca trying to find her place in the world; Cheren trying to understand what true strength really is, and N – my new favorite Pokémon character – dealing with inner conflicts. People in Castelia, and the girl who you simply ride the ferris-wheel with just to comfort her, all lead to a more authentic experience that people relate to – just like Majora’s Mask. It’s built around emotion.

N as a Child

As the game winds down to its conclusion you will come to the grandeur of passing through the badge gates – a testament to how far you’ve come – and then journey on to the Pokémon league – the most extravagant yet. And there it is where you will encounter the best finale and concluding sequence in a Pokémon yet. That’s where the differences truly are. Then the credits will roll, but guess what? It’s far from over. There is much left unresolved. There is a good quarter, at least, of the Unova region left unexplored. More storylines to tie up. There is the national Pokédex to complete, not to mention all of the enhanced online functionalities to explore. Trading, catching, migrating your Pokémon over from your other DS games. It is never ending.

Already sitting at 24 hours of gameplay, I have days left of playing to go, that’s for sure. Also noting that the 24 hours of gameplay took place all within 72 hours of a busy weekend and university, with little sleep, I think it is safe to call Pokemon Black and White what Iwata-san said a lot about at GDC. It was ‘must-have’. Not only that, but also hard to put down. Compared to HeartGold and SoulSilver, with 16 badges, it feels like it’s over so quick – but thankfully there is much more to do. Besides, if you’ve heard about the ‘‘multiple-endings”, then you know that I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s not over once the credits roll.

To sum it all up for you, and those readers who instinctively skip down to the last few paragraphs, this is what I have to say. Pokémon Black and White were potentially overhyped in the regard that they were going to be different. They are Pokémon games through and through. If you’ve never liked Pokémon in the past, this won’t change a thing, but if you’ve enjoyed Pokémon at all in the past, this reinforces and reinvigorates that passion. It shows the development and progression of such a fantastic franchise, and takes the series somewhere new. No, I wouldn’t say the ‘storyline’ itself was the game’s drive, but rather the meaning and morals behind it all. Black and White have something at the foundation that we as humans can relate to and learn from. The meaning was deeper than ever before.

I won’t deny that I was hesitant, just like I won’t deny that for all of my complaints and praise, Black and White delivered in the end for a fantastic gaming experience. All along I had a smile upon my face that grew as I progressed, and that says more than anything else can. That is what is truly significant. Few games can do that: Pokémon always has, and this was no exception. The game may be over, the credits may have rolled, but as I seem to say in every article I write about Pokémon, it’s far from over because “Pokémon isn’t just a game: it’s a lifestyle.”

While I can’t recommended these titles to you if you’re not the Pokémon type, fans of the series will love these, although they are not without their flaws like any game. If you haven’t played Pokémon before, there is no better time to start because this is a new beginning – refined far more than any other title in the series. So to finally bring it back to the initial question that I proposed: does it live up to the hype? The answer is no. The hype told us that Black and White would be different to what we’ve seen before. Instead, Black and White reminded us that the concept behind Pokémon is so strong that it doesn’t need to drastically change to continue its success into the future.

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