Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Game Freak
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Here we are again, another year another Pokemon game released for a handheld system, and as always there are two questions raised by it. Firstly, what sets it apart from the previous instalments? Secondly, how long must we wait for a full 3D version on a home console? To be frank I have all but given up on the latter, but in answer to the first, the latest offerings Pokemon Black and White stack up surprisingly well.
I should begin by prefacing my remarks with the following, I was 10 years old when I first received a copy of Pokemon Blue and my see-through purple Gameboy Colour for Christmas, therefore the games will always have a special place in my heart. That is not to say that I can’t see the bad in the series, there has been a need for improvement to cease the gradual decline in quality since the release of the second generation and I am pleased to say that the fifth generation has ruined the downward curve.
The opening cut scene of the game is impressive and utilises the graphics capabilities of the DS to the full. The player is treated to an anime style backstory, documenting the life of the legendary ‘Hero’, a plot strand which is elaborated on later in the game. We then move through the usual input of a name, gender and the introductions to the game’s key characters; it is important to push through the irritating opening half an hour of gameplay as once introductions have been made the game is able to compete with the best in the series. The player’s two best friends are named Bianca and Cheren; following a similar vein to previous instalments the latter is obsessed with power and nothing more, whereas Bianca is a surprisingly weak opponent.
The gameplay from hereon in is fairly formulaic, training pays off so long as you have the patience for endless fights in deserts, seas, swamps and on roads and each gym leader brings their own challenge. There is even another criminal organisation for you to defeat in the shape of Team Plasma, who upon first meeting seem like a cross between the Knights Templar and PETA under the control of their mysterious leader imaginatively named ‘N’.
While it may seem that thus far I have found a lot of negatives in the latest offering there are plenty of positives which far outweigh them. For a start the latest generation has a brilliant feature whereby the player can only capture the latest generation’s Pokemon before beating the elite 4 (who can be taken on in any order; not strictly relevant but a nice touch I feel), whilst this may seem like something of a hindrance it forces the player to familiarise themselves with the new generation and in the process creates the same excitement, trepidation and uncertainty that we all felt upon our first play of the first generation. A simple, but effective touch.
The latest generation of creatures themselves are all rather impressive. After the disappointment of the likes of Starly and Gastrodon the geniuses at Gamefreak have really excelled themselves, particular favourites of mine include the fighting type Sawk, the grass type Servine and the fire type Darmanitan. Though there has been criticism levelled at the perceived lack of creativity in such pokemon as Trubbish; a poison type Pokemon resembling a bag of garbage (see below), I would like to draw attention to two staples of Generation I, Muk and Ditto, both blobs, both lacking creativity and both brilliant; as are the new creations.
The graphics have undergone significant improvement as well, at predefined points in the game the camera angle will change from the traditional overhead view to one behind the character, for example as one runs across one of the many spectacularly designed bridges in the Unova region. Alongside this, the battle animations have improved considerably with each pokemon having it’s own individual entrance animation, supported by an elaborate animation system for attacks and stat changes. I would also like to draw attention to the landscapes of the game which vary from thriving metropolises such as Castelia City which has to be seen to be believed to the tiny outcrops of Nuvema and Undella Towns. Each location has been meticulously designed to make it the most enthralling region yet created in a Pokemon game. They have even managed to eliminate the irritants from previous games such as gaps where the player can’t actually pass through and characters who stop you on your way to repeat inane and irrelevant pieces of information. The whole experience feels streamlined and I have to say it is long overdue.
To cater for an ever more integrated world the new games have retained the Global Link system introduced in Generation IV and added new online only areas such as the Dream world which permits players access to Pokemon not normally available in their respective versions and an addition to human/human battles called the Wonder Launcher which enables the trainers to use items in Infra Red and Online battles as they would in a normal battle situation.
Overall, Pokemon Black and White are not only great contributions to the Pokemon franchise, they are fantastic games in their own right. The graphics capabilities of the Nintendo DS limit the levels of realism available but I have to say of all the games available on the console these have the most consistently impressive landscapes, textures and animations. The soundtrack as always is outstanding and sets the tone for each situation perfectly. Not since my first days as a gamer have I had such a compelling experience on a handheld system. The new Pokemon have their own charm, their own strengths and, as is essential for the online battling made possible by the Global Link system, some who are deceptively powerful. These games are great RPGs, and whether or not you know anything about the franchise, I would recommend playing either of the latest incarnations, I promise you, you’ll be hooked.