Review: Pokémon Black & White (Nintendo DS)
by Alex Lucard on March 4, 2011

Pokémon Black and White
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo of America
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 03/04/2011 (Europe)/03/06/2011 (North America)

I still remember the phone call pretty clearly. Of course I was half asleep and my ability to decipher Japanese wasn’t fully turned on, so when some from across the Pacific from within the organization called and exclaimed, “”アルカード! ファミ通! スコア 完全!” it didn’t quite translate at first. But then when I shook the grogginess from my brain I realized what was being said. アルカード is one of the two most common ways in Japanese that people like to say my name. (The other is ルカリオ, which diehard Pokémon fans should instantly recognize and be amused by.) ファミ通 is Famitsu, which is the most popular and respected gaming publication in Japan. スコア 完全 is basically, “Perfect Score.” This was big. After all, only fourteen games had ever received a perfect score from Famitsu in the past TWENTY-FIVE years. Now there were fifteen, with the newest recipient of this honour being Pokémon Black and White. We chatted for a bit complete with jokes about me being the unwitting recipient of Pokémon furry slash art and fiction but the conversation really revolved around, “Pokémon Black and White? Really? Not the original Gold and Silver or their remakes? Not Diamond and Pearl? Black and White scored higher? REALLY?”

I would have similar conversations for the next few days with a lot of us who pulled a paycheck from the Pokémon franchise in some way, be it Game Freak, Creatures Inc., or TPC. It was an odd mix of pride and confusion. Basically it boiled down to the fact Black and White wasn’t expected to be as liked as the Johto or Sinnoh generations. Generation V was considered to be an easier game than the previous four. The new Pokémon weren’t considered as toyetic or aesthetically pleasing as in previous generations. Some were considered downright ugly or stupid by people(Poor living vanilla ice cream monster…). Some people believed the core audience (and reviewers) would be sick of five straight games with the same Starter Type choices and the, “You’re a little kid. Go capture monsters, train them to cock fight, get eight badges, become champion, catch ‘em all.” motif was starting to wear thing. These weren’t the majority of opinions nor were there ever outright thoughts the game was bad. This is just an example of random people close to the process nitpicking about the end product. Everyone in the industry does it about their baby. However, the feeling was that the game would be looked upon as a dip in quality the same way Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire was considered the weakest of the previous four generations. Looks like all those fears and worries were for naught, eh? At the end of the day, maybe they were all just too close to the product coupled with the bing-bing-bing releases of Platinum, HGSS and then Black and White (The fastest turnaround of Pokémon games EVER), it was more a fear of maybe pushing out the games too quickly or a bit of burnout.

So now here we are with the official North American and European release of the games. The game has broken Japanese sales records and received nearly universal praise over there. However, the West is not the East and Pokémon has this strange stigma of being “kiddee” with the more insecure and embarrassing gamers since god forbid, it’s all ages and has a cartoon series attached to it. That being said, even after playing in Unova/Isshu for more than half a year now, it’s still my least favorite generation of the core Pokémon RPGs. Does that make the game a bad one? No. It’s actually a very good game. I just happen to prefer the Johto titles for numerous reasons. So shall we see what’s good and bad about Pokémon Black and White? One thing is for sure though – it won’t be getting a perfect score from me. ;-)

Let’s Review

1. Story

Welcome to Unova, the fifth and newest region in the world of Pokémon. Much like the Sakura Taisen series, Game Freak has decided their fifth game would go stateside. Unova is based on New York City, or Manhattan to be specific, and like all Pokémon titles, it follows the adventures of a small child being kicked out of their home before puberty and expected to capture wild animals, store them in airtight containers, make them maul other creatures for money and prestige and eventually propel their master to being the Michael Vick of a E+10 world. See? When described like that, Pokémon can hold up to any T or M rated game, right?

Seriously though, 95% of the story in Black and White is the same it has always been. Yes, after five generations it would be nice to see a change in the storytelling and progression. Sure it would be nice to see a new starter triad (Like the once proposed Psychic/Dark/Fighting starter option), but Game Freak is going with, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and considering Pokémon RPGs set sales records with each generational release, they seems to be in the right.

The five percent that is different is where the game stands out. Where Generation IV dealt with four metaphysical issues, the two themes that run concurrently through Black and White “nature vs. technology” and “Pokémon vs. Humanity.” Now these themes don’t express a literal one side pitted against another. Instead it’s more a “where can these dualities co-exist and where shall there always be conflict.” This is especially true with Team Plasma and there plan to basically segregate humanity from Pokémon. As the game progresses you’ll discover that different team members of Plasma have different goals and desires in regards to their outlook, especially a big “twist” at the end of the first storyline where we discover than even the most grandiose ideas really boil down to “Mine mine mine!”

There are a couple other story differences like the fact you won’t fight the Pokémon Champion right away once you’ve beaten the Elite Four and that you have a 99.99% chance of getting your cart’s “cover” Pokémon, but the core of the game is exactly the same as the previous Pokémon titles. Basically it boils down to whether or not you’re okay with the same basic core plot. Are you find with every Final Fantasy being a group of spiky haired angst-ridden but well meaning teammates trying to save the world from some uberpowerful death dealing menace? You’ll be fine with this. Do you buy a yearly sports game even if you know it’s mainly just a roster change? You’ll be fine with this. Do you want something where the story is drastically different from the previous game but still uses the same mechanics and familiar characters. Then you’ll probably be disappointed with the story here. If that’s the case, you’re better off with Pokémon Coliseum, Pokémon Ranger or the Mystery Dungeon games anyway. I’m fine with the story, but I do wish for more. Sinnoh had some existential bits going on, Johto let you travel to Kanto and had the Suicuine plotline. Hoenn had slightly varying storylines based on the cart you purchased. Unova really doesn’t have any of that, what it does have is a decent storyline that Pokémon fans will find familiar and enjoy for what it is, even if they don’t outright love it.

Story Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

The graphics are an interesting point of contention here. On one hand, Pokémon are finally fully animated in battles and it looks great. On the other Trainer animations have been eliminated, Pokémon can’t follow behind your trainer as in HGSS and a lot of the new Pokémon (notably the starters) don’t look as good as those from previous generations. Some even look like mashups of older ones, such as Kyurem who looks like Latias and Lugia had a baby together. It’s a bit unfair to hold the entire visual quality of Pokémon Black and White against a few new character designs that just happen to be visually unappealing. After all, Ken Sugimori’s done over 600 Pokémon designs. They can’t all be winners. Still there’s no denying some of them are pretty damn ugly.

The overworld graphics are where the game really shines. You’ll journey through all four seasons in addition to a 24 hour clock. Each month is a different season, so you’ll be able to see how different locations look as the weather changes. Some locations even have special items, characters and events that can only be accessed during certain seasons. As well, the attempts at 3-D visuals like we saw in the Distortion World of Pokémon Platinum are back, but this time it goes towards underwater graphics. I admit my heart skipped a beat the first time I saw what lay beneath the waves when I used HM Dive. It’s arguably the best graphics I’ve seen in a Pokémon game. Sure it’s no Endless Ocean, but for a NDS cart, it’s pretty damn impressive. Adding the views off a bridge or in a large city, and you’ll be surprised that some of these visuals can be done on the DS.

For the most part it’s nice to see Pokémon fully animated, but it’s also something that should have happened a generation or two ago. The appearance of the new Pokémon are in the eye of the beholder and even though the new ones aren’t as toyetic as in previous generations, several of them are certain to became favorites of kids or adults alike. The visuals here aren’t as impressive as the jump we saw between Hoenn and Sinnoh, but what’s here is still going to delight those that play it.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound

The music of Pokémon Black and White is enjoyable. You’ll hear some remixed tracks in addition to new ones and while all of them make for great background noise, none of them are as memorable or catchy as several of the original tracks. Again, that’s not a knock on Black and White itself. It’s a fact in the same vein that the original title track for Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda tends to be far more memorable that music in later games, even if those later games were overall better experiences. Those older tracks have become iconic, especially for Pokémon fans and even though the new tracks are fine in their own right and complement the game nicely, they aren’t the kind that stick in your head or that you’ll find humming as you go on a jog or when you are in the shower.

Pokémon sound effects are back in the usual form. While there is always room for debate about why some Pokémon games actually have voice acting (Usually console titles) and why the core games don’t even though it HAS been done before (Pokémon Yellow), some people prefer the throwback to the MIDI noises that were first made 15 years ago, which is totally fine. Me? I personally feel the carts could hold 649 pieces of voice acting the same way they hold the electronic noises meant to pass for animal screeches, but that’s just me. I can totally understand why some people DON’T want to hear a Pikachu say its own name each time it pops out of a Pokeball though and so much like the music, I find the Pokémon noises to be fine in their own right, but nothing memorable or to get excited about.

Much like the rest of Pokémon Black and White, the aural aspects of the game are enjoyable in their own right. They’re not innovative or groundbreaking. Nor do they stand out from any other Pokémon game, but fans of the series will be happy what’s here even if they aren’t blown away.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

4. Control and Gameplay

If you’ve played any of the core Pokémon RPGs than you are more than familiar with Black or White‘s gameplay. The game uses the same battle system and engine from Diamond/Pearl/Platinum so that types of attacks are divided into physical and special moves rather than in the previous generations where say, all Electric and Fire attacks were Special moves only, thus leaving Hitmonchan in a storage box like he had a bad case of herpes. Each Pokémon has one or two types that leave him strong or weak to other types depending on how they match up in this colossal game of rock paper scissors. For those that haven’t played a Pokémon game – here’s an example.

Marowak is a Ground type Pokémon. This means he takes half damage from Rock and Poison attacks, no damage at all from Electric attacks and double damage (it’s super effective!) from Ice, Grass and Water. Now the reverse isn’t necessarily true when it comes to Marowak’s attacks. Sure, it can use Bonemerang, which is a Ground type attack, but that attack does double damage to Electric, Fire, Poison, Rock and Steel Pokémon, half damage to Grass and Bug Pokémon and no damage at all to Flying Pokémon. As well, because Marowak is a Ground Pokémon using a Ground attack, it gets what is called a STAB (Same Type Attack Bonus) or extra damage done with Bonemerang. However, let’s say Marowak wants to protect itself against Pokémon that would normally do double damage against it. It could then learn Brick Break which is a Fighting move and fighting moves do double damage against Ice attacks. It could then learn Aerial Ace to even the odds against Grass Type Pokémon. Now Marowak has three type of attacks, but it would only get STAB with Bonemerang since it is the only move out of the three that matches its type. Trainers then mix and match their Pokémon to give them the best set of four moves they can come up with to not only do damage but keep their Pokémon from being KO’d. It’s a wonderful simple and yet extremely complex system and any moveset for a Pokémon can be debated on endlessly.

The new editions to the fighting system in Black and White are two kinds of three on three Pokémon battles. Triple Battles are basically a pier six brawl where two teams of three go at it while rotational battles resemble something more akin to a six man tag match from professional wrestling. Pokémon Black focuses for on Triple Battles and White focuses on Rotational, but each game only has six or so of each battle in the game, so you’ll never really get to master it unless you do a lot of multiplayer battling. Either version of the three on three battles could use a bit of polishing and there’s definitely an emphasis on Flying type moves in Triple Battles, but it’s a good start and a logical progression, even if it’s not as finely tuned as Double Battles.

Other than that, Pokémon plays like Pokémon. You’ve also got the ability to use randomized healing items in multiplayer Trainer battles, but most people seem to be ignoring this option – probably because they’re used to the older way of doing things and it’s just ingrained in them. As I’ve said the new fighting additions are fun but a bit unpolished (I’ll have a more in-depth guide to both live on the site in a few days) but Triple and Rotational battles happen so rarely in the story mode of the game, you won’t really notice it as you’ll be too intrigued by the new possibilities and trying out your own Pokémon version of the Fabulous Freebirds to care.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

5. Replayability

Look, there are 649 Pokémon to catch. There are special events for the next year or so that you can download. Going through all of the game, both pre and post credits, will take you well over 100 hours if you’re trying to do everything and catch all the Pokémon you can. If you play against a lot of people in Trainer Vs. Trainer battles, you can probably DOUBLE that play time. When(IF) the next version of Coliseum/XD/Battle Revolution comes out, you’ll be playing even longer through that. Pokémon is one of those franchises where you can play for hundreds of hours and never need (nor want) to start over fresh. It’s hard to think of any series that comes close to that level of Replayability.

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

6. Balance

One thing you will notice right away is that Pokémon Black and White is MUCH easier than previous generations. The most Pokémon any Gym Leader will have is three, giving you a major advantage. Even if you’re not very good at building movesets or tactics, you should be able to power through any Gym with sheer numbers. The Elite Four is pretty much the same thing on your first encounter with them. They each have four Pokémon and they’re pretty easy to get through. You can also pick and choose the order you face them in this time around, adding to the ease of it all. Now remember, you don’t fight the Pokémon champion until after the credits roll. You have a different path this time around, but all of it is almost too easy. After those credits though, it’s a bit of a different story as the Elite Four and the Pokémon Champion each have six Pokémon at incredibly high levels, but up to that point the game is almost a cakewalk.

There are a few other challenges, like Cynthia, Morimoto and a few extremely high level Legendary Pokémon to try and catch, but the game is by far the easiest Pokémon core RPG yet and this might disappoint some looking for a challenge in the story mode. Instead, those gamers are going to have to look towards multiplayer battles and that’s about it. PvP can always be tricky simply because any team can beat any other team on a given day (unless your team is Weedle, Magikarp and Bidoof) but since there are a lot of players that just play Pokémon by themselves without trading or battling other Trainers, you might be a bit disappointed here. Younger gamers will still have a challenge, and the sheer amount of Pokémon can make things daunting for newcomers, but you can get through most of the game on sheer power rather than move/Type matching and that’s a bit of a shame.

Balance Rating: Decent

7. Originality

Pokémon Black and White brings some new things to the table but at first glance, the leap in innovation from Generation IV to V appears to be the smallest yet. Besides Triple and Rotational battles, what do we have? Variant Gym leaders in the first gym. Fully animated Pokémon battles. A sprite swap change for the eighth Gym leader. An exclusive area to each game. The ability to heal in Multiplayer battles. Changing Seasons. The Dream World. Pokémon Musicals. The Entralink/High Link. The Unity Tower.

In truth, when we look at Pokémon Black and White with a more discerning eye, we do see that a lot of things are new to the game, but that most of those are subtle changes at first. There’s also some very slight changes to the story progression compared to other Pokémon games, but otherwise it plays almost exactly like every other Pokémon core RPG.

So it’s a thumbs in the middle here. Most of the game is the same as Generation IV and there are some things that the HGSS remakes had that Generation V is missing, but there are some ideas that have been added that are either outside the box (Pokémon Musicals), almost too little too late (Fully animated battles) or a natural progression of things (three on three battles). At least Game Freak isn’t just resting on their laurels here.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

Like with any Pokémon game, you can whittle a way a ton of time without even realizing. There’s always a new Pokémon to find, Trainer to battle, Gym Badge to collect and so on. With over 150 new Pokémon (More than in the original Pokémon Blue/Red/Green!!!), you have even more work to do to “catch ‘em all.” Of course the downside to having THIS MANY collectable Pokémon is that many a gamer will hit burnout or grow tired of the same old, same old and stop playing. Honestly ask yourself, when was the last time you actually completed a Pokedex. Even people I know that love Pokémon (or even work in it) haven’t completed a Pokedex since the first round of Johto games. With so many Pokémon that can only be obtained through special Nintendo events (and the chance that you might not be in an area even near an event!), it’s become increasing hard to not only complete the National Pokedex, but many people just don’t even try to anymore. Now that doesn’t mean the game still isn’t addicting or that you won’t be spending well over 60-80 hours with the Pokémon Black and White. It just means that one of the core aspects of the game has gone from being a hook to a deterrent and that’s something that needs to change and change soon.

I loved my time with Pokémon Black and White. It was a fun game, it was hard to put down and I had fun wandering through a Pokemon-ized version of New York City. However, once I had beaten the Elite Four for a second time, beat the Pokémon Champion and took down Morimoto and Cynthia, I found I didn’t really care to continue on. I had Pokémon left to catch, events to see and optional challenges to take on, but at the end of the day, it was just too much of the same I’ve done over the past two years (2010′s HGSS and 2009′s Platinum). Too much of a good thing in too short of a time or too much of the same thing in too short a time? I’ll let you decide. Just remember I had invested a LOT of hours into the game to get to the point where I didn’t care anymore.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

Really, it’s Pokémon. The game sets constant sales records and is the most successful and popular video game franchise ever. In only 15 years and forty-some games for Pokémon has nearly hit the sales figures of every single Mario game ever made. Mario’s franchise spans twice as long (thirty years) and more than two hundred games. In pure numerical terms, Mario has sold roughly 8 million games a year for 30 years. Pokémon has sold 14 million a year for 15 years. Once you add in Black and White’s eventual sales figures, Pokemon’s going to be neck and neck with volumes of games moved with Mario, and that’s something no one ever thought could happen – especially in so short a time span. Another way to look at it is that Mario averages out to 1.2 million games sold per title. Pokémon sells 4.2 million games per title and that’s if we count things like Black and White as two separate games. Factor in the anime, TCG and the ancillary Pokémon items out there and that’s dominance and popularity on a level never seen before and that we’ll possibly never see again.

Pokémon = money, but more importantly Pokémon = arguably the largest fanbase in gaming and this is a decade after the TCG and anime were at their peak. Scary.

Appeal Factor Rating: Unparalleled

10. Miscellaneous

At the end of the day, Pokémon Black and White not only is able to stand on its own as a good game, as well as one of the best released in the first quarter of 2011, but it’s even able to hold its own while standing in the shadow the two most popular generation of Pokémon games (II and IV). The question remains whether or not gamers will suffer from Pokémon burnout after three straight years of core RPG releases, but only time will tell there. Pokémon Black and White brings several new things to the table. While it’s unlikely we’ll see a full game devoted to triple battles in the same we way had Pokémon Coliseum‘s “ONLY Double Battles!” story mode, it’s still nice to see a new facet added to the overall gameplay experience. I can’t say that the game is as good as any of the Generation II or IV titles, but I can say it’s the best DS game I’ve played in a year, that it’s more than likely going to be remembered as the best DS release of 2011 and one of the last truly good releases for the System as it is replaced by the 3DS. Even if it’s not the best Pokémon game ever, that’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Good
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Decent
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
Although I can’t say that Pokémon Black and White are as good as any of the Johto or Sinnoh region titles, I can say that either Generation V title is a lot of fun and well worth playing. Although the game has removed some features like your lead Pokémon following behind your trainer or the recent Pokethlon, it’s added new ones like fully animated battles and Pokémon musicals. It’s also expanded on the 3D graphics we first saw in the Distortion World and applied them to things like diving beneath the sea or walking through regular areas. The main game is a lot easier than previous titles, with Gym Leaders and Elite Four members sporting both weaker and fewer Pokémon. However once the credits roll, you find the post game offers a few (but only a few) pretty big challenges to overcome. Pokémon Black and White isn’t the best entry into the core Pokémon RPG series, but it is a fun one and something most Pokémon fans will delight in.




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