Wednesday, November 22

Pokémon Black/White Review

I played on: Nintendo DS
I paid: £58.05 (eBay)
Available on: Nintendo DS
Notes: Screenshots are from external YouTube gameplay videos, as recording DS footage is beyond my means.

Pokémon Black and White is the 5th generation of Pokémon games. The series is slow to change, and this is reflected in the progression of the mainline generations. What I’m trying to say is that Black and White are the most polished and finetuned games in the 2D era of the series. This slow evolution comes with the downside of them sharing a lot of the same problems and issues as the games that came before them. Let’s continue and have a deeper look at the 5th generation of Pokémon.

Let’s begin with the story. Pokémon has always had better world building than it has an engaging plot in my opinion. Generation 5 and 9 are maybe the only exceptions to this rule. Unova is a region far away from the previous 4 regions. Despite that, a villainous team of criminals still plague it. This time they’re called Team Plasma, and they want to separate all pokemon from their trainers. The king of this organization is N and he’s one of the best characters in the entire series. He was raised by pokemon and as such can understand them unlike any other human. He is certain that humans misuse and mistreat pokemon. As such he wants to use the legendary pokemon, either Zekrom or Reshiram depending on which version you have, to force all trainers to release their pokemon. This is very interesting motivation as we are literally having them fight each other for sport. If this was the real world it would certainly be animal abuse. We never really get a conclusion to this as near the end of the game it’s revealed that someone else is manipulating N from the shadows. But it’s still the best plot ever written for the series. Both the text and the subtext work really well.

The biggest improvement here over the 4th generation, are the visuals and audio. Pokémon, up to this point at least, had always been a beautiful series to look at and listen to but Black and White are the peak of this in my opinion. The 2D sprites combined with the stunningly magnificent 3D models for buildings, bridges and other parts of the environment look as good today in 2023 as they did back in 2010. The region you explore this time around is called Unova and is based on New York City. The landmass is shaped vaguely like Manhattan, Queens, Brookyln, and New Jersey. Similar to the real-life NYC this city has a lot of bridges. Crossing any of these 5 bridges is a pleasure as the camera pulls back to reveal the sheer size and scale of the bridge and the world around you. I still remember the first time I crossed Skyarrow Bridge as a teenager, it was daunting how impressed I was at the DS in my hands. Seeing the massive city in the background looming closer with every step, the boats passing underneath me, and the expanse of trees behind me. I love this region and it’s largely due to how well it’s used and shown during your adventure through it. The one downside of this amazing presentation is that very occasionally I had the framerate drop to the single digits. This didn’t happen often, and I never had any bugs, glitches, or crashes so it was never game breaking. Things would always pick up again after a couple of seconds. I tried this on 2 DS systems so it’s not my hardware and it’s understandable given how great this game looks on the dated DS. 

What I think shows this amazing presentation is the final climatic battle between you and the Elite Four and the Unova champion. In the previous generations victory road was a small but maze-like cave that ended in the regions Pokémon league building. During Black and White you have to climb a mountain. You dart in and out of small caves that let you climb slightly higher with each one. Every time you leave a cave, you’re on a ridge showing you how much higher you’ve come. When you reach the Pokémon league it’s a temple dedicated to the Elite 4. Once you enter the gate is locked behind you. From here you can choose which order you battle them. In previous generations you would have to take them on in a predetermined order. After all 4 are defeated, you go to confront the leader only to find him already defeated by N. From here an even larger castle erupts from the ground and dwarfs the mountain you just scaled. Once you get to the top of this new castle you capture the legendary box pokemon and battle N. This feels so much more epic than anything before it in the series. All the plot points are drawn together in a natural and logical way. The gym challenge, Team Plasma, and the Legendary pokemon. It’s really good writing from a series that has very often lacked it.

Gameplay is most likely the area that has changed the least from any of the past 4 generations. You control a team of up to 6 magical creatures known as pokemon with each on able to learn up to 4 moves each. Each pokemon has a type such as fire, water, flying, grass, and so on. Fire is weak to water, so you need to utilise a rock/paper/scissors system to maximize your attack power. I’ve gone over this in my reviews of the previous 4 generations, so I don’t want to spend too long focusing on it here. That being said, it’s great for new and young players as it’s easy to learn and works for older or more experienced players as it’s hard to master. The downside of it is linked mostly to the HM system. You will need to unlock and then teach HM moves to certain pokemon in order to progress in the story. This limits your 24 possible moves down to 18 but your choice of pokemon is then limited further due to needing certain types to learn certain HM’s. For example, you need a water pokemon to learn surf and so on. I will say limiting the HM’s down from 8 to 6 is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t completely remove the issue. You also need to grind in order to progress in the story. For some this won’t be a problem but, in my opinion, it can get dull having to fight the same pokemon over and over in order to level up your party before a difficult gym. The later games would share EXP between your entire party removing this grinding completely which I think improved the pacing drastically. Sadly, that’s not a thing here so be ready to grind. Besides that, the exploration and combat are as engaging here as they’ve ever been. A small improvement over the last generation.

There is a large percentage of the fandom that consider Black and White to be the best games in the series. I can really see why. It’s a gorgeous game which is a pleasure to play and even after you finish with it the story and writing urges further analysis and discussion. If you were to play just 1 Pokémon game, then Black or White might very well be your best choice. It’s an absolute masterpiece with only the smallest of problems. My biggest complaint is the grinding required between gyms but that’s not that much of a big deal. If you’re a fan of turn-based RPG’s, Pokémon, or interesting stories then Pokémon Black and White is a must play!

Recommendation Rating: 9 out of 10.

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