Review: 'Pokémon' evolves a real story with 'Black' and 'White'
After four generations, Pokémon is a household name. Like the Nintendo DS – hosting five versions of the game, not counting side-trips like the Pokémon Ranger and Mystery Dungeon series – the Pokémon franchise is all but a license to print money.
Add a few critters and upgrades, slap on Pikachu's friendly face and shove it out the door, right?
Wrong. This generation of Pokémon has evolved.
Oh, don't worry. You get the same basic experience and virtually the same game mechanics. Pokémon get captured, fight and evolve the same way.
The game adds seasons, night and day and days of the week, and that does affect certain aspects of the game (for instance, you won't be able to buy ice cream on Tuesdays during winter. Oh no.), but the meat of the game is mostly unaffected. The game also adds wild double battle areas and trainer triple battles, which may affect Pokédex completionists and competitive gamers, but that isn't where the game evolves.
Past Pokémon games haven't exactly had the most riveting storylines. Truth be told, they haven't needed them. The game is about either collecting or battling for most players. Past storylines have seen you trying to become the regional Pokémon champion, while simultaneously fighting an evil criminal organization, who since the third generation have plotted world domination via capture of one legendary Pokémon or another.
In Black and White, however, for the first time the game has a story that is worth playing for itself. Previous games have put your character's successes down to love of his or her Pokémon (whatever the player's actual feelings are) — but that love has been shown, for the most part, by having your Pokémon beat the snot out of the Pokémon held by everyone you meet (plus a few wild Pokémon unfortunate enough to be innocently standing in the wrong patch of tall grass). There is a real divide between what the characters in the game say and their routine in-game actions.
When you first meet this generation's Team Rocket (known as Plasma), they are peacefully hosting a rally asking trainers to release their Pokémon in order to stop hurting them. This generation may be Black and White, but the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are not so clear.
It does turn out that the "save the Wailmers" schtick is just a ruse to essentially leave the vast majority of humanity unarmed for the group's leader, but it is also clear that quite a few, if not the majority, of Team Plasma's members aren't in on it. "How many Pokémon have you hurt to get this far?" one defeated grunt asks late in the game. Even for a player lax on the grinding, hundreds at this point. Ouch.
For the first time, the battle between you and the evil organization is the primary goal; you fight the gym bosses and the Elite Four to get to them. This is also the first Pokémon game that can truly be said to be spoiled. At one point, an important member of Team Plasma does something which four previous generations of Pokémon have taught us is impossible. In the end, the game cops out – pretty much saying Pokémon like being used to beat the crap out of each other, take our word for it – but it was at least brave enough to address the issue.
Graphics and design
Black and White are certainly the prettiest of the series. Though the overhead view remains, the DS allows for three-dimensional shots that are often surprisingly spectacular (crossing a bridge for the first time is pretty cool). Pokémon now move around during fights; a small change, but appreciated.
Character design is pretty important to the furry fandom. Nintendo took yet another risk by introducing a brand-new group of 150+ Pokémon; you can't catch any old Pokémon until after the game ends. Not even Pikachu survived the cull. Now, we all know the original 150 are totally the best-designed set, without any duds (not even the circle cut in half evolving into the circle cut in half), but the new ones grow on you pretty quickly. And, seriously, how can you say no to a lamprey-based Pokémon? Basically, as with any generation, there are a few that are going to bomb, and a few the fandom are going to eat alive.
Now, if you haven't made the choice between Black and White, the choices extend beyond Pokémon (which include ball of cotton versus extremely feminine plant, a Gothic Lolita versus a diagram of cellular mitosis, and a diaper-clad buzzard versus an American eagle).
Each game has a unique area appealing to different types of players. Black gives you Black City, where you can fight trainers to gain experience, while White gives you White Forest, with a variety of older Pokémon available to catch. Finally, while the third generation gave us land versus sea and the fourth generation gave us time versus space, Black will give you the right side and White the left side of this painting. Really.
Finally, this generation is the most progressive, as it sees the first female "professor" and the first black gym leader. (Ed: A step up from Jynx)