So much has changed, yet so much stays the same.
Pokémon games are like old friends. You only see them every few years and when they come around they are a few changes, little tweaks to their personality and looks, But beneath this, they are essentially the same person. Each time a new Pokémon game comes out, much is mentioned of the differences and changes that have been made, yet beneath it all, the game remains more or less the same.
This is in some ways no bad thing. There is a reason why the Pokémon games, with their mixture of collecting, rock/paper/scissors combat and role-playing, are so damn popular. The formula works, and works well. This is actually a good reason not to make too many changes, or change things too radically. Let’s face it, we have seen far too many games have sequels that just destroy whatever it was that made the original games so good.
But life moves on and players were perhaps expecting some kind of reboot with Pokémon Black/White, essentially the fifth generation of the franchise. Sure, just like your old friend, it has matured, learnt a few new tricks and even picked out a new wardrobe. But beneath all of these superficial changes, the Pokémon game that you used to love hanging out with is still there, encouraging you to dismiss your new group of friends and spend some time reminiscing.
The same formula still stands. Players choose a starting pokemon as the companion for their upcoming journey. They are then asked to find as many wild Pokémon as they can during their travels, with the ultimate destination being to fight the Elite Four in Pokémon battles after having gained badges from the leaders of the various Pokémon gyms along the way. Intertwined with this journey is a story that centres around the games bad guys, Team Plasma this time around, and whatever nefarious plan they have up their sleeves. During the journey, players will find wild Pokémon that they can capture and train up to be part of their team of six Pokémon that can be used in battle. Pokémon have different characteristics and moves that make them either weaker or stronger against other types of Pokémon, meaning a varied and well thought out team is essential to success.
As with each different generation of Pokémon game, Black/White offer three new starter Pokémon – The grass-type Snivy, fire-type Tepig and water-type Oshawott. There are 156 new Pokémon to discover this time around, bringing the series total to far in excess of 600. Aside from the new ones, players will have to wait until they have completed the story before they start importing their old Pokémon in an attempt to get that elusive completed Pokédex. But this is one of many little treats that will keep players coming back long after they have finished the story, such as a variety of locations that only become available after completion and the promised fun of Dream World, an web-based online extension of the game that is not yet available.
Perhaps the majority of innovation in Black/White revolves around communication. The sense of community that the game is trying to encourage is obvious, with many different ways for players to interact with each other. The Pokémon games have always had a strong sense of community, with trading and battling being a common sight in playgrounds around the world. But this time around there are even more possibilities, including the chance to enter someone else’s game world and enjoy a short co-op quest.
Another way in which the game has substantially changed is in the way it looks. Everything looks so much better this time around, with frequent view point changes, such as over the shoulder or the massive zooming out as the player wanders over a particularly long bridge, and far more interesting architecture to look at along the way. Another change, albeit minor, is that the Pokémon are now far more animated during their battles. This is all well and good, but if ever there has been a game that screams for a remake on the new Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon is it. 3D battles will be a sight to behold.
But I digress. Black/White has also included seasons this time around, with each month progressing the seasonal cycle thankfully. Different seasons will offer the opportunity to catch different Pokémon and change the looks of some the creatures, making players work hard to find all of the monsters that are available. In a similar manner, as is usually the way with Pokémon games, Black and White each have their own unique Pokémon to find and events to participate in, forcing completionists to indulge in at least a little bit of trading with others.
So yeah, the changes are mostly cosmetic and leave the core game untouched. This is fine by me and it is incredibly easy to drop into the game and clock up five or six hour sessions without even blinking. Although a full reboot would be nice at some point, the fear of the franchise being ruined weighs heavily on my mind. I am not overly enamoured with the new Pokémon, they seem to lack the personality of earlier specimens. But that is just a matter of personal choice.
Pokémon Black/White offers obvious advancements to the series, but not the giant leap forward that many gamers have been calling out for. That being said, the game still offers hours and hours of enjoyment and is easily the most solid Pokémon game thus far. I look forward to seeing what the Dream World has to offer when it eventually becomes available and until we get a Pokémon 3DS, Black and White have plenty to keep an avid Pokémon fan happy.