It is one of the most popular franchises across the world, and now fans have yet another reason to celebrate. Pokemon has returned to the Nintendo DS with two new installments: Black and White. With a new adventure, new Pokemon, and exclusives to each version, there are plenty of things going for the new release. The biggest reason of all, however, is the fact that the game simply rocks!
Before I get into the review for Pokemon: Black I just want to put this out there from the start: This is my first Pokemon game. That’s right! I haven’t played any of the other installments prior to Black. I was a little too old when the whole Pokemon thing hit and beyond knowing the basic premise of the franchise and a few key characters, I’ve never bothered with it. Please keep that in mind if you’re looking for references to past events or the franchise in this review. They simply aren’t here. Instead, I’m approaching Black with a clean slate and no bias one way or the other.
In Pokemon: Black players take on the role of a young adventurer from a quaint village in the Unova region. Early on players are charged with completing the Pokedex (a catalog of the kinds of Pokemon in the world) by capturing and fighting them in the wild. Eventually, as players branch out and explore new towns and areas of the game, it becomes clear that a group known as Team Plasma is up to no good. They are part of a Pokemon liberation movement and seek to take Pokemon away from trainers in order to restore the world to the way it once was. The game throws the morality of the franchise’s concept into question, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of being self-referential. Ultimately the story isn’t very involving and the characters aren’t engaging, but there is a sense of progression that comes from frequent encounters.
In case you’re one of those who has a lack of knowledge of the franchise or game mechanics, Pokemon: Black really eases players into the world. It’s been a while since another traditional Pokemon title was released and Black has been produced with consideration to the fact that there may be new players. The early parts of the game are simple enough and each feature of the game is given a tutorial that shows players how things work on the fly. Both the early and latter sections of the game do a solid job of integrating concepts and new things into the fold so that players never feel lost.
The game is structured similarly to a role-playing game. As a trainer, players use Pokeballs to capture new Pokemon. Once captured, these critters can be used in battle against other Pokemon. By winning, they gain experience, level up, and learn new skills. Players can also give their Pokemon items to power up abilities or traits. There’s a definite sense of progression in terms of combat, and the “gotta catch them all” mentality can be very addictive. Arrival at a new region means there are new Pokemon to snag and naturally the first instinct players is to break out the Pokeballs and do some trapping.
Combat is simplistic enough, with each Pokemon having a base ability, an elemental trait of some kind, and four skills that can be used in battle. There’s a rock-paper-scissors method to the combat, for example, fire beats grass, grass beats water, and water beats fire. The system becomes more complex when the game introduces Pokemon types such as flying, fighting, psychic, ice, steel, ground, and rock. There are plenty of others too and players unfamiliar with these archetypes will have to experiment a bit. It’s addicting and rewarding, and having the right tools for the job plays a big role in succeeding.
One-on-one battles are the most common kinds of encounters players will find here, but there are team battles where two Pokemon go at it at a time, and something else called Rotational Battles. These encounters are far more interesting and dynamic, with three Pokemon per team participating. The monsters stand on a board that allows players to rotate which Pokemon is up for battle. It brings a nice element of strategy to the game and really breaks up the pace of the main game. It’s just a shame that these kinds of battles are few and far between in the grand scheme of things.
As players make their way through the single-player component of this newest Pokemon game, it becomes clear that the majority of the focus here is on exploration. There are hidden areas that can only be accessed when new powers are gained, there’s a battle station that is both challenging and rewarding, and eight gym leaders who must be defeated offer up plenty of diversity. The game never really gets old up to the end, but even at that point it merely opens the door for more exploration and more things to do.
Pokemon: Black is a rewarding single-player experience that will keep your DS running for a long time. On top of everything there is to do with the title, there are also Black and White exclusive Pokemon, and variations of many in between, to trade with friends. There are online battles to be had, and ultimately one really gets the sense that they’re a part of a community. The game’s new C-Gear component puts all of these features at the tip of your stylus on the fly if you open up the menu on the bottom screen. It’s just a shame that the DS’s wi-fi restrictions are such as they are, and many people who don’t want to change to a WEP network may find themselves searching for wi-fi hotspots (thankfully infrared connection is very functional).
All in all Pokemon: Black will take most players a long, long time to complete. The core game itself takes roughly 40-45 hours, and beyond that there’s all the side quests, online stuff, Pokemon to find, and additional goodies beyond the ending of the game. Those hoping to catch them all will find themselves undoubtedly dropping several more hours into this title. It’s also worth noting that Black (and White) are basically reboots of the series with all new Pokemon. This means that fans who have been following the series all along will find themselves looking at new faces and collecting new critters. It didn’t mean as much to me as a newcomer, but I’m sure players who burned out on the franchise will appreciate that.
Even as a Pokemon rookie, I have to highly recommended Black. It’s a simplistic and straightforward role-playing game, but man is it fun! The pick-up-and-play approach to the gameplay works and the sense of progression and accomplishment is enough to keep players interested. Whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran, Pokemon: Black should be in your collection.
As far as the graphics of the game Pokemon: Black is a little hit or miss. In terms of world content, there’s plenty of detailed environments, smooth animation, and nice effects. Each town and environment is lively and vibrant enough. Pokemon models are also good, for the most part. This is a case of cute from far, but far from cute because in battle your Pokemon are far too close to the camera and are therefore extremely pixilated. Details are lost and most monsters look like a murky mess of pixels. Adding to that disappointment are some questionable designs on some Pokemon and a limited amount of dynamic move effects.
The audio is solid for the most part with a quality soundtrack that contains tunes that are easy to hum along with. Sound effects are limited to cute noises from the Pokemon and elements from battles. There’s nothing outstanding in this regard, but it’s serviceable and charming enough to keep players interested until the end.
At the end of the day Pokemon: Black is a worthwhile effort by Game Freak. It’s a new generation of Pokemon for a new generation of players. I may be a little late (okay, 13 years late) to the game, but Black was a wonderful starting point. The gameplay is fun and addictive, there’s a definite charm, and many of the game’s features are very rewarding and challenging. This is a great game that’s worth checking out, and the only question you should be asking yourself is whether you want Black or White.
Pokemon: Black is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief and Mild Cartoon Violence.