Game Freak has itself in a very comfortable routine by now. Working in a very similar tick-tock cycle that we usually expect from technology companies, every new Pokemon game sees them announcing the main entry and, about a year later, a new version that tweaks some of what was in the original that serves as a sort of half-step between games. After Black and White, in many aspects their most ambitious game, everyone expected a Pokemon Grey to follow shortly afterwards, but the company decided that after putting so much story in Black and White, it would be better for them to pick up said story and continue it from a new perspective two years later. Unfortunately, the sequels don’t capitalize on this as well as they could have, instead delivering a shallow story with no grey areas and putting in place a series of changes that actually get rid of what made the originals special.
In some ways, the original Pokemon Black and White served as reboots for the series. Whole new landmass, new focus on story, the first route is Route 1 again… Even the fact that they took the pair of games’ color schemes back from the increasingly more precious metals to a simple color scheme all did a fine job of signaling a fresh sort of start for the series, perfect for newbies as well as old fogies like me. The best move in this aspect, though, was to limit the Pokemon you’d see on your first way through to just new ones. A lot of us sank into the habit of simply choosing Pokemon we were familiar with and knew how to use already, but this forced us to try new things. It was like rediscovering what made Pokemon interesting- a new world with a bunch of strange creatures to capture and master. I wound up with a weird team of colorful creatures, and when the world opened up and let me catch the rest of them, I came at it with a deeper curiosity on the strengths and weaknesses of each Pokemon, no matter how many generations old.
So this gets rid of that. The first Pokedex you get seems to have around 300 Pokemon in it, and it mixes in all generations, which strips all of my last paragraph out. It’s especially a problem since it seems like the balancing is a little off- I never felt like I ran into many Gen. V Pokemon, and even on my final team I only wound up with one from the newest generation: Serperior, my starter.
It’s difficult to tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing, though. On one hand, it’s good to have the generations of Pokemon mix like that, and seeing old favorites among newer, less-utilized Pokemon is fun and lets you build your team a little more loosely. At the same time, though, it’s really easy to just go back to something you already know and leave scads of Pokemon unused in the face of someone I’d already mastered.
Gamefreak is also trying to make it easier to actually find these Pokemon, though, by adding in a “Habitat” list, showing Pokemon by area. So you can click on Route 3 and see who lives there, making it possible to run in, find them all and leave knowing you actually HAVE found all the Pokemon there.
The game picks up 2 years after the events of the original Black and White, and you’re ostensibly supposed to be following the story set in motion by the first games, what with N and Team Plasma. The problem is that a lot of it doesn’t really come to a head in a satisfying way. The idea of a direct sequel to a Pokemon game is pretty interesting- it’s something they’ve flirted with before in entries like Silver and Gold, which take place after Red and Blue. But while those games actually showed some real change to what was going on, both in terms of continent design and characters, Black and White Ver. 2 doesn’t really do any of that, in some ways ignoring what really made the first games interesting and feeling like a step back in terms of narrative.
There is some carryover, though. The original Team Plasma has disbanded and is replaced by a dude who’s really just evil. Gone are the moral questions raised by Team Plasma before about the nature of human’s relationships with Pokemon. Instead, there’s a bad dude being bad because power. What’s weirder is that Team Plasma barely even shows up for most of the game, really just popping up towards the end for one huge run, only to be disbanded once more.
Interestingly, the games let you sync them with the saves from Black and White, which then pepper the world with flashback cutscenes showing some characters and some of what they’ve been up to since the last games. Some of them are undeniably interesting, such as one where N lets all of his Pokemon go, but others are confusing, such as a conversation between 3 gym leaders about bones. Then they leave, and I really wondered if I’d missed something. These gym leaders don’t exactly mean too much to the story, either, so it seemed like a strange use of resources.
Battles and gameplay are more or less unchanged from the original Gen. V entries, which means you’re in for the same tight battle system and more streamlined overworld. Most areas in the overworld are peppered with people who are just there to heal you, so you never have to worry about the difficulty of going into the wilderness and actually, you know, finding a challenging trek. People definitely have been having a backlash against the JRPG random-battle system, though, so it seems like the kind of move put in to appease them and help out new players, but it does take away from a lot of difficulty.
Beyond these gameplay systems, you’ll still find yourself battling the 8 gym leaders, stopping a criminal organization and becoming the champion of the Elite 4. You’ll follow the same map of Unova, just on a different route. Some of the gym leaders have swapped places, or been changed with someone else, and all of the gyms have been revamped with new puzzles. Along with the streamlining I mentioned earlier, though, there are a lot of occasions where there isn’t enough room to level between gyms, including some cases where you go from one town to the other with no battles in between and are just expected to be leveled right. This often results in that most capital of RPG sins: grinding. I found myself at it for a good couple of hours just to get to a point where a stood a chance in some of these occasions, which is definitely not ideal.
By now it’s really the endgame and the parts AROUND the main game that stand out in Pokemon games. Rest assured, if you want to spend a lot of time with Pokemon, you can do it here. In some ways, it’s so packed it feels like the final hurrah for what can actually be done with Pokemon on the DS. The same swath of wireless features is back. Local wireless play still offers battles and trading, as well as the rudimentary StreetPass style system, but also includes a new area that lets you play with 100 people in minigames around the world. While 100 is a lot of people, the games are such simple seek-and-find concepts that it winds up being somewhat unimpressive.
I actually can’t really speak too much about the online component because, this being a DS game, it still uses the WiFi options that the original DS had, and it’s incredibly difficult to find places where I can actually access the internet with it.
The usual battle subway returns, along with a Pokemon World Tournament, offering you tiered battles against familiar faces, garnering you points and fame outside of the event. Aside from battle, there are also the Pokemon Musical (which is a basic dress-up game) and the Pokestar Studios. Pokestar Studios is legitimately awesome- it presents you with Pokemon and a script, and you have to manipulate the battle to follow the script and make movie money. It was almost like a battle puzzle, and it’s definitely something I’d like to see explored again in the future.
I also downloaded the Dream Radar 3DS game that connects with the game, which is both awesome and lame at the same time. I’d expected the game to be a little weird thing where it scanned my room and projected Pokemon in, but it doesn’t even do that- it projects these ‘clouds’ that exist layered on top of the actual world, and you have to shoot them to collect energy. You’ll find Pokemon who you have to capture, and it’s more or less like Ghostbusting Pokemon. It’s awesome, until I caught 5 Riolus and had no idea what to do with them. The biggest fault I can give it is that it doesn’t progress towards the cool Pokemon quickly enough, which makes you want to give up before you really get a chance. You should stick with it if you got it because there are some neat things to unlock, but I can’t really recommend it unless you want to look like a fool waving you 3DS around (or if you, like me, began wildly salivating at the phrase “Ghostbusting Pokemon”).
In terms of gameplay, Pokemon gets a gold star for “Most Gameplay” because there’s a lot here. As usual, the game reveals as much information as you want it to, going from a simple battle with cute creatures to an intense, mathematical exploitation of hidden stats and much deeper systems. The formula still works, which shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s much tighter-feeling than it has been in the past. Furthermore, this game is just LOADED- you’re never low on something to do, because it seems like at this point there are more or less infinite things to do and trainers to fight. The game has even included an Achievement-like “Medal” system, with 250 tasks that give the player even more to strive for on top of an already loaded experience.
With the absence of new Pokemon to create, it seems like the character designers for Version 2 just went overboard with the character design. Characters like Ghetsis in the original B&W were already a little overly-designed, but examples like Colress, the mysterious scientist, really stand out as odd, ill-fitting designs.
Much like the original Black and White, these games also have a lot of nice visual flourishes with the camera, panning around as you cross bridges or changing its angle dynamically. The developers have added a few new ones here, redesigning gyms and battle screens in a way that’s pretty impressive.
While I can talk about how the story is less good in Ver. 2, the core of the game has really never stopped being a smart, well-made blend of simple RPG mechanics laid over a series of intense systems for those who want to get into them. There’s a lot here and really, no matter who you are, there’s something here for you to do. I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the Pokestar movies, but it was really like that for everything I did. I kept wanting to stick with everything. Battle subway? I’ll take it. Pokemon Musical? Simple, but an interesting idea. Pokemon World Tournament? I’m there.
Keeping it on the DS instead of 3DS is a bummer, but I get why they did it- the audience is still bigger on the DS, and the people who played Black and White are guaranteed to have a DS, not necessarily a 3DS. There are so many better ways to integrate some of the ideas in this game on the 3DS, with wireless being a great example. Instead of an elegant solution like StreetPass, the game instead doesn’t allow the 3DS to fully fall asleep and just saps its battery. I just wind up turning it off, which means I’m missing out on a lot of the cool things that the wireless gameplay offers, simply because it’s a choice between that and actually having enough battery to even play.
The core of Pokemon is still a great experience, though. Aside from triple battles (which are just tedious), the balance and battle experience is still fun and deep, allowing for many styles of play. There’s also so much to do that you’ll be well past 100 hours before you run out of story things to do- but even after that, there’s a whole plethora of extra challenges to test your mettle against that you’ll keep wanting to return to Pokemon in the coming months.
The best thing about a new Pokemon game is that it’s more Pokemon. The core of the series continues to be sound, but in the end the series needs to get better at following up on the story that it teases us with. After such a strong departure for the series the original Black and White, it’s a shame to see Version 2 take a step back and offer such inferior characters and story beats. Despite being the follow up to the best Pokemon games in years, though, Black and White Version 2 have to settle for being “pretty good,” leaving us waiting for the next real evolution in the series.