Pokémon Black – Nintendo DS Review


Game Name: Pokemon Black Version
Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Publisher(s): Nintendo
Developer(s): Gamefreak
Genre(s): RPG
Release Date: March 6, 2011 (US), March 4, 2011 (EU) March 10, 2011 (AU)
Price: $34.99

Since Pokémon Red & Blue’s release well over 15 years ago, just about no other franchise has evolved more than the main Pokémon series. After producing 12 titles so far in the main series (not including remakes), Gamefreak and Nintendo have now released Pokémon Black & White for the Nintendo DS.

These two titles come with the promise of starting “A New Beginning” for aspiring trainers everywhere with newly added gameplay mechanics as well as a cast of over 150 new monsters to catch, train, and breed while on yet another quest to become a Pokémon master. The question now is does this new start actually feel fresh, or is the series starting to lose it’s luster. Here is my review for Pokémon Black.

As with every Pokémon title, you start as a young trainer in a small town, ready to embark on your own journey to become a Pokémon master. After some standard introductions via Professor Juniper, you soon meet your two close friends, Cherrin and Bianca, and quickly it becomes time to select your first Pokémon to embark on this new quest which are all wrapped up neatly in the form of a gift. The three starters consist of the water starter, Oshawatt, the fire type, Tepig, and finally the grass type, Snivy. Making this decision is a big one as the Pokémon you choose will somewhat effect challenges and events later in the game.

When you are finished completing the basic training tasks and tutorials, you then set off on your quest to conquer the brand new region of Unova. Unova is much farther away than any of the areas players have traversed through in the past, being completely cut off just about from any of the previous region’s Pokémon and characters alike. This means however that everything, from trainers to the monsters themselves feel brand new and makes the journey much more fulfilling not knowing what is around the next corner.

As for the plot, you still must try to discover every crevice of the region, filling up your Pokédex and aiming to “catch em’ all”, while taking on Unova’s eight gym leaders and Elite Four. That part has stayed relatively the same aside from the varied personalities along the way. There is also an evil team for Black & White by the name of Team Plasma.

Team Plasma are very different from any of the previous teams in the past, as they are actually fans of Pokémon themselves and see trainers as evil for keeping the creatures in Pokéballs for use in battle. Plasma play a huge role in the game’s story and you will be seeing a lot of them as you move from town to town on your journey. This plotline feels a bit more mature and political in a sense while adding some of the most in depth “villians” I have personally seen so far in the series.

My favorite part of the series as a whole has always been the whole exploration factor though, and the many offbeat characters that inhabit the region make this as fun as ever with quick, witty dialogue and interesting little side-quests in which you can partake in. Locations, trainers and citizens of Unova alike make it easy to want to progress futher in this title and ensure there is never too much of a dull moment ahead.

For Pokémon Black & White, many elements of gameplay have been added and enhanced for the overall battling experience as a whole, which does wonders to make the system feel fresh despite it’s age. The first thing to talk about would be the way you go about catching Pokémon to start with. As you travel Unova, patches of grass, caves, and water all are home to the many various Pokémon which are needed to fill up your Pokédex. Nearly all the Pokémon in the game can be caught standardly in Pokéballs, so staying stocked up at all times is essential if you want to capture each wild encounter you may come across. Catching is nearly exactly the same as it was in past titles, relying on the specific ball used as well as a little luck and how much HP is remaining for your potential catch with up to six being used for your team, and as usual, the others are sent to the PC storage system. I will say for the first time ever in my many years with the series, I caught my first shiny and nearly fell over with excitement. Little rare quirks like that in my opinion boost the demand to hunt for Pokémon in general and make exploration a lot more rewarding.

Battling has grown even more complex than what we seen in Diamond/Pearl/Platinum from a strategic standpoint, but still relies on the same system of type advantages and grooming the proper moveset to best ensure victory over whatever foe you may be up against. Each Pokémon has a distinct nature, which can be completely random and slightly effects the way they perform in battle. As you progress and win each battle, experience is given which is used to level up your team’s stats and level, and the great news for this title is that overall is that it is easy to keep a balanced level team with all of the wild battles as well as trainer encounters you come across. Random battles do seem a bit more frequent this time around, but due to the varied Pokémon you can encounter, these never become overbearing or monotonous.

Brand new to the series are Triple & Rotation Battles. A standard triple battle is exactly how it sounds and plays nearly identical to a double battle, but with the extra Pokémon in tow. The only thing is that Pokémon on the left cannot hit the opponent’s team member on the right, and vice-versa. Pokémon in the center are free to hit all three opposing members, however. Rotation battles work quite a bit different. While still using three team members, only one is allowed to attack at a time. To use another party member, you must rotate the field left or right, moving your Poké right into the battle zone, enabling it to attack. Both of these new additions are not utilized all that much within the game, but make for a great change of pace (and strategy) when encountered.

One of the most important elements of battling is each Pokémon’s own moveset. As you level up, you are rewarded new moves to use in battle. Each Pokémon on your team still can only have four moves, so upgrading techniques throughout the game still is yet another important feature to stay on top of. Each monster’s movepool still consists of offensive, defensive, and status effecting techniques which can change tip the flow of battle in an instant. For instance if you are unfamiliar, a move like Sleep powder will lull the opposing Pokémon to sleep, incapacitating it for a set number of turns, or moves like Toxic will Poison the foe and slowly drain their HP while they are active in battle. Other attacks and maneuvers are mainly used for quick, HP reducing moves, or simply raise stats when applied in battle. This whole layout has been perfected and fine-tuned in Pokémon Black, and keep battling at the forefront of the entire game while adding in many brand new attacks in the process.

Pokémon still have separate abilities which can be used in battle as well. Each ability takes a trait from a specific Pokémon and then uses the said trait to that monster’s advantage. A good example for this is Sandile’s Moxie, which increases the attack stat after it faints an opponent. This title does a great job of utilizing these even more so with this release, adding in even more strategy to be applied to a player’s technique for battles in general.

Along with the quite hefty battles comes the tools that assist you on your quest. Items in the game can be purchased at the shops (which are now conveniently located in Pokémon Centers), as well being found scattered throughout Unova. Potions and status curing items are the most common, but the hold items are still very present and can give your team some much needed assistance for training and battles as well. TMs and HMs are also back with full force, but now with TMs possessing infinite usage, lifting the one-time-only restrictions of the past.

Battles are not where the gameplay ends though, as there is plenty to do other than just toughen up and fight with your team. There are a few mini-game like opportunities which come along which are a great break from an intense route or gym. As you make your way through the game, many puzzles also come into play which can be found in caves as well as gyms and require completion to move forward. These are not too complex, but battles found along the way give these the challenge they need to make it all the more rewarding when you make it to your destination.

Menus have also gotten a small face lift, but not really much has changed other than the mapping of Key Items, which let you hop on your bike, go fishing, ect. by just hitting the Y button as a small menu pops up letting you quickly choose an option. Sometimes certain things still seem like a chore to do, such as using the PC or accessing online functions, but honestly, this hasn’t changed since the start so I can’t find too much room to complain, though it is one minor thing that could use some polish in the future.

Near the beginning of your journey, you are given a device by the name of the C-Gear. The C-Gear is always displayed on the bottom screen (unless you are in a menu) and controls a good portion of the online functions of the game. Each cartridge has infrared sensors built in, which makes swapping friend codes extremely easy as now you can point your DS at a friends’ and swap data instantly. There is also a wireless/wi-fi video-chat feature labeled the Xtransciever, and while small, it is a great distraction and has some features such as voice modification and doodling which are fun to play around with. Up to four players can use the Xtransciever wirelessly, or two can go over Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi mode does require the extra steps of actually adding a friend code in the pal pad, then accessing the wi-fi room to be used, but I encountered hardly any lag whatsoever on the device and felt like this is what the DSi/DSiXL has needed since release. The C-Gear also boasts many new features to toy around with as well, such as wireless battles, trades, and other minor add-ons which make the interactivity between Black & White come full circle.

When it comes to graphically changing a game, both Black and White have definitely evolved the series in major ways due to the small visual touches applied to just about everything in the game. While in battle, each sprite is fully animated and gives life to each Pokémon. Even the smallest details such as a Pokémon blinking and even finally closing their eyes when asleep have been applied which just makes the game feel like no others before it. When I first jumped into my first battle though, the back sprites did seem a little pixely around the edges, but after spending so many hours with the game, this became more of an afterthought. The camera also zooms out and in, making the battles much more intense with the fully animated battle seqeuences

As well as the Pokémon and battles, each city and environment has gotten a huge boost in presentation as well. The second I walked out of my house near the beginning, a couple of Woobat flew over, with the wind blowing Autumn leaves overhead. It really was a sight to see as since Platinum, Gamefreak have been enhancing small touches in towns with minor touches like animated windmills flashing lights on buildings, but Black and White seems to have captured the full on environmental feel and improved vastly from that, adding a huge exclamation point to the whole experience. Camera angles also play a huge part of the game as they add a lot of depth to each location, pulling back and zooming in to put off a better feel of each location making everything feel like much more 3-D and full of life with detailed buildings and environments, animated citizens, and seasonal changes which occur every month.

Music has always been an important part of the Pokemon series, and Black & White offers quite a soundtrack that should keep fans happy for years to come. Each tune is perfectly adjusted for whatever situation or town you may be in and quite memorable as well. A really nice feature was how the battle music can change instantly, such as when a gym leader is down to their last Pokémon or your team member is low on health. This boosts the feeling of intensity with each battle dramatically and keeps you on the edge of your seat during crucial moments. Sound effects have also never been better. Environmental sounds such as wind blowing or raindrops tapping in puddles add a lot of depth to each area and work with the visuals to tie in a full on feel for your location. Pokémon cries also sound sharp and do a great job of capturing the essence of a Pokémon’s personality.

Pokémon Black & White really could have been just clones of previous titles we have seen on the DS and still would have been great titles, but the finished product we were given should be any Pokéfan’s dream. Everything feels fresh and new, leaving excitement around every corner and is still easily accessible to those who may be new to the series. Battles are more of the same and have not changed a lot, but the new presentation make this aged system feel modern and pushes the series towards the future. I felt very involved throughout the whole story as well, which made it hard to even turn off my DS at times and left me running to my charger on several occasions after hours of gameplay.

It seems with these titles, Gamefreak and Nintendo now officially know that most players that pick up Pokémon titles are going to invest a lot of time into the games, and they did a spectacular job at making this time spent well worth it with many past features being fine tuned and perfected while adding in an even more interesting and diverse world to explore. All of the extra online features are just icing on this sweet-Pokéball shaped cake. Pokémon as a series has came a long way and matured a lot since Red & Blue, and the future is looking as bright as ever now for the series with the release of Pokémon Black & White.

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