Review by Big Bob
Chances are, you've already made up your mind about whether or not to get this game.
Everybody knows what Pokemon is. You're a young kid, you get a starter pokemon, you catch a whole bunch of wild animals and work your way up to becoming the best in the world, blah blah blah. This is the fifth generation of Pokemon games, and chances are that if you aren't a fan yet, this review probably won't convince you otherwise. Sure, I could put a bold statement in this review, like "Pokemon Black is the most streamlined, mature, and well-designed game in the series", but ultimately that doesn't matter. However, since I'm a longtime Pokemon fan myself, and I have two 9/10 reviews for LeafGreen and Diamond sitting on my profile, I feel my opinion on Black should be elaborated on.
A Not-So-Standard Pokemon Storyline
Like I said when I started this review, the Pokemon games have kept the same basic premise, and Black and White feels like the first attempt to really shake that up. As always, you start off with a pokemon of your choice, and your two in-game friends have their own as well. In a way, they can be seen as a couple of archetypes of Pokemon players. Bianca is the ditzy, blonde-haired girl who just wants to explore the world and have fun, while Cheren is the studious type who is also striving to be the best trainer in the world. However, unlike rivals from the previous games, Pokemon Black really tries to give these characters interesting development. Bianca's family is uncomfortable with her traveling the world at such a young age, and Cheren finds himself wandering if becoming the best Pokemon trainer is really that great of an accomplishment. The main character is still mute, but these two trainers give the story some much-needed flavor.
The other shakeup in the story department comes from the new evil organization, Team Plasma. At first glance, they seem like yet another Team Rocket ripoff. But Team Plasma is interesting in that their ultimate goal is to separate pokemon from their trainers, arguing that it's wrong to enslave creatures. The game doesn't make any attempt to say that this mentality is wrong, but it also goes out of its way to suggest that the trainers in this game genuinely care for their pokemon. At the center of this organization is a man named N, who regularly challenges the main character, and is the game's "true" rival. Without giving too much away, I'll say that N is probably the most interesting character in the Pokemon games (though that's really not saying much). Black had the strongest ending sequence of any of the games, and N has a great deal to do with that. Though, you probably aren't playing Pokemon for the storyline...
Changes to the Gameplay
The most noticeable change is the fact that every pokemon in the game is brand-new. In previous generations, there was a large mix between old and new pokemon, but Black switches things up by not letting you see any old pokemon until after you've beaten the game. This may anger nostalgic fans, but the payoff is that for once, the game feels completely fresh. Since you've never seen any of these creatures before, each new encounter provokes curiosity. Who is that pokemon? What type is it? What's it good at? What does its ability do? And finally, no more Zubats popping up all the time to annoy players trying to get through caves. Another huge change is that the battle system has been sped up a ton. The pokemon are animated a bit instead of just standing still, giving the battles much more visual interest, and the overall pace has been increased. Battles in Diamond/Pearl and HeartGold/SoulSilver were incredibly slow, and really hurt the mood of the game for me.
As for other enhancements, the TMs that you use to teach new moves to your pokemon are now infinite use. FINALLY! The worst part of older games was getting an incredibly useful attack like Earthquake or Ice Beam, then never using it because you would never know if it was worth it. Now, those TMs can be used as often as you like, allowing you to update your team on the fly, giving you room to experiment with a ton of different combinations. Also, HM moves, attacks that also have an effect outside of battle, are now optional for the main storyline. It was rather frustrating to waste a moveslot on a weak move like Cut or Dive, but since those are now reserved for side missions after you've beaten the game, you can go through the game at your own pace.
It's always hard to talk about graphics and sound in a review, since all you're doing right now is looking at text. However, I must say that Pokemon Black has an amazing soundtrack, that's possibly the best in the series. There are a ton of catchy tunes, including a new blood-pumping track that plays when your health is low to replace the annoying beeping of previous games. The graphics style on the other hand is still suffering some. The characters are 2D sprites in a 3D world, and dramatic camera views can make it look like you're guiding a cardboard cutout across a bridge. I'm glad that the pokemon are animated now, but they're still permanently stuck in the "idle" animation, while individual attack animations do all the world for you. I know that it's a lot of work animating 600+ pokemon, but still. Not to mention, Pokemon look heavily pixelated when viewed up close, and the art is a step behind a lot of good DS titles. Still, there are some interesting cutscenes in this game when the story demands it, and I like how the gym leaders aren't just boss fights now: they're also part of the story.
Unfortunately, as much as I've praised this game up until now, Pokemon still have several glaring flaws that need to be addressed. For one, pokemon and item management is still clunky. Repeatedly, I found myself going through all the useless items in my backpack looking for the one item I really needed, and unlike older games in the series, you can't store items in your home computer to save space. (Seriously? Why not? Why take out a feature that was actually good?)
Not to mention, I hate how Pokemon have to "forget" moves to learn new ones. I understand the four-move restriction from a competitive standpoint, but can't those pokemon just keep those moves in a bank somewhere so I can swap them out if I want to try something new? Sure there's a move tutor and a move re-learner, but those require items that you have to farm for, and overall it's a huge pain, especially considering most RPGs have moved past that. Also, I hate the fact that I have to sift through menus to check the stats of moves mid-battle. Which one is most powerful? What's the accuracy? What's the secondary effect? Why do I have to go back to my pokemon's profile to check it? Why can't I just press 'X' and see which attack does what?
I understand the need to have random trainers see you and challenge you. You have to get stronger somehow. However, most trainers use very few pokemon, and weak ones too. Sometimes I get the impression that they select random moves. Ultimately, the only strategy is "use whatever attack the enemy is weak to". There are all sorts of status effect and stat-boosting moves, moves that effect the environment, and so forth, but you'll never need to use them in the main game. If there were fewer trainers, but individual encounters were more interesting and varied, then Pokemon would improve by a ton. Also, while I know catching pokemon is part of the game, that encounter rate can be downright obnoxious sometimes. Let us avoid fights without having to constantly spray repel on ourselves every 250 steps.
Like I said way back at the start, you've probably already made up your mind on this game before reading this review. If you like the series, you'll enjoy this one too, because it's an expansion of what you already love. If you hate the games, there's some stuff here that might make you hate it less, but I wouldn't jump on it. If somehow you haven't played a pokemon game yet, but are interested, go ahead and grab this one. Even though I've played for 30 hours and beaten the Elite 4 and saved the world, I've barely scratched the surface. So many pokemon I haven't caught, so many moves I haven't learned, so many legendary pokemon I need to track down and spend 20 minutes trying to cram into Ultra Balls. The best part of pokemon is that you get a ton of value for your dollar. I have issues with Pokemon Black, but it's the best game in the series, and I enjoyed my time with it.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Pokemon Black Version (US, 03/06/11)
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