Review by Blue Blob
Nintendo's most stubborn franchise finally starts to challenge itself
Four years after the release of the last generation of Pokemon games (Diamond, Pearl, Platinum), 'Pokemon 5' has been unleashed upon the world. Nintendo's monster fighting RPG franchise - initially based on catching bugs - has racked up some insane sales over the years, and in recent times has a double audience of kids who have just been introduced to the series, as well as the adults that grew up with it when it was a 'craze'. The thing is, Pokemon games have a habit of barely changing with each instalment, unless it's to do with the battle system (look up the physical/special split that Diamond made, for example). With Black, Nintendo once again had an opportunity to do something really different, and although things are still pretty similar this time around, there's a bunch of new features and ideas that make this one of the best games in the series. New and old fans are going to love it.
To start off, Nintendo has dunked you in a brand new region (this time, loosely based on America, with a theme park, desert and the biggest city area in any of the Pokemon games) with no real ties to any of the others. As such, every single Pokemon you encounter is completely new - it's only after beating the Elite Four (the game's squad of final bosses) that you start encountering the critters from the other games. It's a wonderful idea because for the first time ever, you have no idea what any of these Pokemon are gonna do, and it ramps up the fun immensely. There's an element of surprise in Black that has been missing from the last few games, because half of the Pokemon you encountered in them were just recycled from previous ones. I hate to sound like a huge nostalgic geek saying this (even though I am one), but this is just like playing Red or Blue for the very first time again. It's insane.
For the 3 of you reading this review that haven't ever played a Pokemon game, here's the lowdown. You're a teenager from a quiet suburban area, and you go on a quest to become the Pokemon league champion. What's a Pokemon, you ask? It's your own personal fighting monster, and you assemble a party of up to six of the lil' bastards, train them up and traverse the world in order to show everyone that you're the absolute don. Some of the critters will even evolve into stronger, cooler, and more powerful forms.
Battles, like most RPGs, are turn-based, and there's a bigger strategy element seeing as each of your monsters can only learn four moves each. There's a huge slew of potential moves to learn. Some will shock, some will stab, some will bite, and others will do more obscure things like lay a 'curse' on your opponent, or make you levitate so Ground attacks can't hit you. My particular favourite move is Toxic Spikes, which poisons every single opponent Pokemon that comes into battle. As an example of the strategy included in Pokemon however, there's counters to this: if the Rapid Spin move is used, the toxic spikes will get pelted away, and if a Poison pokemon is used by your opponent, they'll just absorb those spikes right up and remove them from the fight. Some moves, such as Cut and Surf, can even be used to help you traverse the overworld, at the expense of a slot in your Pokemon's moveset where a more powerful move could potentially be (thankfully, these field moves have been granted a little more power in Pokemon Black).
Each Pokemon is associated with an 'element', from water to more vague ones like 'dark' and 'steel', and the entire thing is essentially a gargantuan game of rock-paper-scissors. Fire beats grass, grass beats water, and so on. This gets a lot more complicated due to the fact that Pokemon can have up to 2 types, with some combinations that cancel out previous weaknesses but also open up many others. Swampert from 2003's Pokemon Ruby is a good example of this. He's a water pokemon, but he's also part ground, which negates the effects of any electric attacks - however, the ground and water typing gives grass moves four times their normal power when used on him. On top of all this, each Pokemon has its own signature ability - Gyarados for example can lower its opponents attack just by entering the battle, and the mushroom-like Breloom gets healed by being poisoned instead of taking damage.
Got any friends with the game? You can trade Pokemon with each other or put your teams to the test in a duel. Don't have any friends? No worries, we're living in the online age, so find a wi-fi spot and fight people from countries you don't even know the name of.
Black takes the formula of the previous games and improves it immensely. Fights are much faster now, compared to the sluggish ones of Diamond (and even the recent HeartGold). You have two 'rivals' that follow you around in the game and explore many of the areas with you - you also get into fights with them much more frequently than your rivals from previous games, which is pretty cool. The weather effect notifications are gone - if you remember in previous games, the battles that took place in a certain type of weather would drag on and on because the fight would stop temporarily for every turn to inform you about the weather. In its place is a simple little icon on the DS's bottom screen that tells you of the weather (ranging from bright sunlight, which powers up fire-type moves, to a sandstorm, which can make some Pokemon more evasive). It's a simple little change, but it really does help the battles flow much faster. Adding to the battle system, there's now triple battles, where each trainer sends out three Pokemon each (half of their roster!). Triple battles are chaotic and hectic, and sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on, but they're extremely fun to play even if they are pretty rare. As a side note, you can also encounter more than one wild Pokemon at once in the field areas, which is a cool bonus if you're wanting to catch every single one.
The overworld areas of Pokemon games have steadily been evolving over the years, getting gradually fleshed out, and Black takes another step with this. The massive city for example is a great area to explore (with its multiple alleyways, docks and a sort of central park area), and there's still your multitude of 'dungeons' where you have to solve puzzles that usually involve pushing blocks around, but it's all done in a much more streamlined and enjoyable fashion than the old games. The new region is huge, and there's plenty of things to see and do, so much that purely exploring and finding new Pokemon is a refreshing break from constant battles. In general, Black also feels a bit more friendly to new users. In the first gym, you'll go up against one of three leaders - the game specifically picks the one that has the advantage over your starter Pokemon. However, on a side route nearby, you can pick up a monkey Pokemon that counters the gym leader's element. In earlier games, if your starter wasn't good against the first gym leader, you just had to bite the bullet and train, which might have actually turned a fair few amount of people off the game completely.
To become the Ultimate Pokemon Master of Destiny (or, well, the Champion), you're gonna have to defeat the leaders of the eight 'gyms' scattered around the world. These are essentially your boss fights, with the gym leaders using much more powerful and rare Pokemon than everyone else in the area. It's a simple excuse to get you to travel around the country, but it definitely works. Each gym holds its own gimmick, such as the first one (which doubles as a restaurant of all things), where you're presented with a curtain with one of the Pokemon elements on it, and have to hit a switch with that element's weakness. From this simple start, things get gradually more complex - the next three consist of a library, a gigantic honeycomb, and a rollercoaster. As usual, there's two editions of this game (Black's companion is obviously White), and the last gym leader is completely different depending on what game you bought.
Pokemon Black plays really well. It's faster, cooler and more involving than every single other iteration of the franchise and it's also starting to come out of its comfort zone a little and try new things, whilst at the same time improving on the standard gameplay and ironing out any annoyances. This game makes Diamond look really boring - and that is the sign of a good sequel. But despite all this, you can't help but hope for Nintendo to one day make a much bigger leap with this series - for starters, one where exploration is fully 3D and you can actually see the monsters roaming the field. Pokemon is one of the few Nintendo series that is to yet reinvent the formula for its 'main' line of games, and it's starting to lag behind other franchises like Mario and Zelda when it comes to the innovation department. That said, what it has at the moment works really well - I just hope the sixth generation tries something new.
There's one huge aspect of the gameplay I've been saving for last, and it's the Pokemon themselves - and whilst some designs will confuse and enrage many of you, I think this is overall a pretty great generation, with a lot of cool new types and abilities. We finally get a fighting Pokemon that can completely negate psychic attacks, due to the punk lizard Zuruzukin's Dark/Fighting combo. The three starters (nicknamed by fans at the time of writing as Smugleaf, Wotter and Pignite) are all enjoyable to use, even if their evolution designs are a bit bad. There's also a slew of brand new moves, such as a 'boiling water' attack that can burn your opponent as a fire move would, and 'nitro charge', a fire attack that increases your Pokemon's speed every time it gets used (this is especially useful when used by the fire boar Pokemon, who has great power but lacks in speed). Abagoora, the sea turtle, gets a nifty move called shell break, which lowers his defenses but gives him a huge boost in speed and power. As a side note, Pokemon Black is the very first game in the series to give us a pure flying Pokemon, with the aforementioned typing usually being paired up with the 'normal' element.
The two versions both have their own exclusive Pokemon as per usual, but the core game is the same pretty much all the way through. Hell, the main thing that might decide most purchases is the Pokemon on the cover. But as Michael Jackson once sang, it don't matter if you're black or white (sorry, but I just had to. I've been saving that for this review ever since the titles were revealed).
The overworld is alright, with 3D backgrounds and 2D sprites that to be honest sometimes look a little out of place (especially when travelling on Sky Arrow Bridge, where the camera is pretty dynamic yet the sprites are still these limited top-down things that look like they came from Final Fantasy 6). The gyms are probably the most creative things when it comes to backdrops, with the neon roller coaster one being one of my faves. The forest is much more lush and alive than Viridian ever was back in Pokemon Red, and the main city actually has some pretty good amount of detail. So yeah, the overworld graphics definitely do their job well.
Alright, let's step into a battle. Wait...is that Pokemon moving? Yep folks, for the first time ever Nintendo have finally decided to animate the little terrors. Whilst the sprites are still 2D, they're packed with personality. However, I will say this - the animations of the Pokemon introduced in this game are far, FAR better than how some of the ones from previous generation get treated. Mew (a legendary from Pokemon Red), for example, has a curved tail in his sprite, but it doesn't actually animate - it just moves about with one static frame, from one point back to the other. It looks really awkward and lazy compared to the likes of Smugleaf, who has cool little animation details such as when he folds his arm and taps his foot. However, (and this is a big 'however'), I see the inclusion of all the old Pokemon as more of a 'bonus' and hey, I'm a professional animator myself - no matter how big Nintendo's team was for Pokemon Black, getting the entire back catalogue of monsters to have individual animations must have been a pretty mammoth task (good animation requires a lot of time and effort), even if Mew was animated on someone's lunch break.
Finally, I'm gonna talk about the designs. The three starters and their first evolutions are all expertly designed and follow on from each other, but their final forms are a little weird, particularly Wotter. Wotter goes from a cute little sea otter thing, to a badass looking samurai sort of deal in his second form. However, he then evolves into some sort of sea lion with a horn on its head - not only that, but his colour scheme changes from cyan to a deep navy blue, and he goes from being bipedal to standing on all fours. I know the evolution line is meant to represent an apprentice making his way up to being a samurai and eventually becoming a shogun, but you can't help but think Wotter's final evolution could have had a much cooler design with a bit of thought.
Some of my favourites offer some great designs, though. Zuruzukin is a lizard with a mohawk, based on a street dwelling delinquent. It uses its shed skin as a pair of baggy pants and has a wonderful expression that conveys its low intelligence, but fearsome attitude. There's a crocodile line based on, amongst all things, eyewear - as he progresses from goggles to a pair of badass shades with his final evolution. My only complaint with this croc is that he completely changes colour with his final form, and it looks a little disjointed. Nonetheless, there's a bunch of other inspired designs, including a steel ant and, comically, a fire anteater that is doubly super effective against it. There's also finally a hydra-based Pokemon - a dark dragon that gets an extra head with each evolution, and there's some great ghost-type designs too (especially the stone golem and the sarcophagus).
As with every Pokemon game, there's your fair share of naff or 'filler' designs. Why Nintendo thought of basing a Pokemon evolution chain on an ice-cream is completely beyond me. There's also a trio of cloud-riding beings near the end of the roster that can only be described as 'lame genies', which all share the exact same sprite but with a different colour. What was the point of these three, exactly? Was it actually meant to be a satirical in-joke or something? Bad designs aside, I'd say around 75% of the Pokemon actually look pretty cool - and even the ones with crappy designs tend to animate pretty well. The sprites of the pokemon trainers themselves aren't animated much, but they're clean, well drawn and get the job done. My only complaint is the battle screen backgrounds, which are dull, dreary and pretty blurry. However, they are 3D and the battle scenes now have a camera that swings about to accentuate the impact of some of the more hard-hitting moves.
Pokemon games have always had pretty good music, and Black is no exception, with the usual catchy songs playing throughout your monster catching marathon. The sound effects are great and really help give the special moves some extra 'oomph', and the Pokemon cries and roars that play when they enter a battle are much better this time around - Pignite's final evolution sounds like crackling fire, whilst the 3rd in the crocodile evolution chain sounds like an electric guitar. However, the cries of all the previous generation's Pokemon have yet to be updated, meaning you're still stuck with Charizard sounding like he was all the way back in 1995.
+Improves Pokemon's core gameplay to make the best entry into the series yet
+Some really great Pokemon designs
+Faster, more fluid gameplay
+Great sound design
+Very efficient online mode
-Some of the new Pokemon are uninspired, nonsensical or drab
-Might be too easy for veterans of the series
I can't really say it better than this: Pokemon Black is as good as the core formula can get. If you don't want to import (and honestly, if you can't read Japanese, I don't see why you'd want to), then definitely check this game out when it comes stateside. It's not perfect and it's not new, but it's still a terribly addictive game with plenty of things to see and do.
Note: At the time of writing (October 2010), Pokemon Black is yet to be released in the USA. As such, pretty much all the location and Pokemon names in this review are the ones of the Japanese version, or fan-made names. I've also omitted reviewing the story, as I only know basic Japanese and couldn't understand the majority of what was going on - however, story matters very little in these types of games anyway.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Pocket Monsters Black (JP, 09/18/10)
Got Your Own Opinion?
Submit a review and let your voice be heard.