First steps into the future score high
This time around, unlike my review of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver, I will be working with a scoring system. Being that I am in no way an impartial critic when it comes to the Pokémon franchise, I've tailored the system to grade in categories based on what I feel makes or breaks a Pokémon game. These categories are as follows; Gameplay, Aesthetics, Music/Sound, Lasting Appeal, Personal Taste (I'm ripping off every popular gaming website, essentially). I will then average the scores into a final score for the game. This is the system I will use from this point forward.
A bit of explanation on that last category; there is no such thing as a critic who isn't swayed by personal taste, and if there is I'm sure he is not only boring, but pretentious as can be. Essentially, the “Personal Taste” category will be a score based 100% on my personal favoritism (or lack thereof) toward a game. So a game that isn't a technical masterpiece still has a shot at a decent score if I still dug it.
Now, you may have noticed that plot is missing from the list. This is because I specifically excluded plot, as to be honest, it has no real bearing on the quality of the game. Pokémon has never won originality points for its stories, and it doesn't have to. All that is needed is a thin thread to keep the game moving along. I may go into my thoughts on the plot of Black and White, but keep in mind that those opinions have absolutely no affect on the final score. Now, onto the review.
They have arrived. The Pokémon games that will revolutionize the entire franchise, sending it rocketing into a new generation of portable gaming. The Pokémon games that will redefine what a Pokémon game is and what a Pokémon game should be.
Alright, back to reality. Nintendo may not have outright said Black and White were going to be all-out revolutionary, but they sure planted the seed that grew into hype that resembled the buzz around the franchise in the late 90s. But as with the wide majority of games with a fanbase as devoted as Pokémon's, I'm sure many are going to be underwhelmed by Black and White.
I'm not one of them.
At their base, Pokémon Black and White are the same games we played fifteen years ago. You're still a young trainer setting out on an adventure with the help of your local professor and a starter Pokémon. This isn't a sign of laziness so much as a sign of a solid core. The basic progression of catching, training and battling gym leaders is so addictive that I will sink hours into even the games in the series I don't necessarily love (see: Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald). I can't say that for any other video game franchise.
As always, you've got a villainous team to conquer. This time, the baddies are Team Plasma, a group with a goal of “liberating” Pokémon. They're essentially your most extreme of animal rights activists, claiming trainers cannot truly claim to be equals to Pokémon if they claim ownership of them, keep them inside Poké Balls and order them around. It's kinda of strange to see a villainous team that questions the morality of Pokémon itself, being that the franchise is dominantly for kids, but I like it. It jives with titles, and actually gives them some meaning in regard to the plot (and who knows, maybe I will get my “Morality isn't Black or White, but a subtler shade of Pokémon Grey” Version. A bit dark and over the top for a Pokémon game, but hey, if everyone in this fandom makes hopeful speculations about everything, I'll do so too). Is Team Plasma, like every other villainous team in Pokémon's history, still one big cliché? Yes. But they are a cliché I never really expected to see in a Pokémon game.
What really matters, though, is what's surrounding that core story, and whether there is enough there to truly give these versions their own identity. Fortunately, Black and White have plenty to offer.
I wasn't looking for revolutionary. I wasn't looking for Pokémon redefined. I was looking for tweaks and innovations and the feeling that Nintendo/Game Freak wants to move this franchise forward. In nearly every single way that is what I got.
Little things tend to add up, in this case they add up to something really, really good. Little things like TMs no longer being single-use, the introduction of seasons, moving the Poké Marts inside the Pokémon Centers, and giving each Gym its own design, based on both the city and the Gym Leader.
One of the biggest little things is the introduction of new dynamic camera angles that give certain areas (and in the case of Castelia City entire cities) a unique vibe. It's executed exceptionally well, though there are moments where it seems this new camera work is destined to be utilized on the 3DS in the future (particularly the alleyways of Castelia City and Skyarrow Bridge), and that may be where it really shines.
The region of Unova itself is up there with Johto as the most fluid, most beautiful region in the franchise. Traveling from city to city and across a ton of bridges (they were smart enough to realize bridges are a damn good way to show off their new camera angles) is sometimes just as fun as the battling and training itself.
While the region incorporates a lot 3D modeling, the player characters, NPCs, and Pokémon sprites remain 2D. I've always been a supporter of keeping the Pokémon as 2D sprites, as I feel you can get more emotion out of the monsters when they're on a small screen when they remain 2D. I imagine full 3D Pokémon would look more lifeless and hollow on a DS screen.
What is different about Pokémon in-battle, however, is they are in constant movement, as is the camera. This adds a bit more life to the battles, and everything moves at a slightly faster pace. Attacks and reactions to being afflicted with a status condition are a bit more animated, and while not a particularly advanced feature, it is rather neat.
The music of Black and White is also some of the best in the franchise's history. The tracks for Driftveil City, Nuvema Town, and Icirrus City are among the best pieces of music you'll find on any DS game. The only track I really have a problem with is Nimbasa City. It's poppy, and it fits the theme of the city, but it gets downright grating after a while. But everything else - from the standard battle tunes to the less-often mentioned route music – is fantastic. The shift in battle music when a gym leader throws out his last Pokemon and the critical-health ringing being mixed in with the music are welcome additions to the soundtrack as well (again, the little things).
Pokémon cries are still simple screeches, though, and there certainly could be a lot of work done there. The sound effects in general (particularly in-battle), little of which there are, are very simple, some just carried over from previous games. Not a huge detraction, but something that needs to be worked on.
As with every Pokémon game, Black or White will remain in your DS for months to come. Although I have yet to finish the main game (I honestly don't think I need to complete the main game to deliver an informed review), I can safely say I will be trading and battling and collecting well after the story is over, as I always do. And that is one of Pokémon's best features. You never really finish a Pokémon game as you do a Mario or Zelda game. Even after you have caught them all for a fifth time, it's still all about the Pokémon Battle.
I've been a bit down on the Pokémon franchise for a few years now. Black and White have rejuvenated my excitement and love for this series in a big way. This is far from the end, and while Black and White may not be the first step into the new Pokémon, they are the first step into the future of Pokémon, and that is much more important.