Game Review: Pokemon White/Black

I've been playing the Pokemon games since I picked up my copy of Pokemon Blue back in 1998 for the Game Boy Color. While I found the RPG about battling and capturing tiny wild monsters fun, I wouldn't say it was compelling. Time and again, I'd purchase the new game with great excitement, only to put it down after a few hours of play for something less monotonous. This is not the case for the newest generation of the game. Pokemon White (which is the same as Pokemon Black, only with a few different Pokemon and a different legendary creature) takes the best elements of each generation of the series, finesses them, and unloads them upon a better-conceived, more challenging, and balanced world.

Balance is the key to a good RPG. Pokemon White introduces a whole new series of Pokemon (over 150) that are pretty equal in ability. New defensive moves like Swagger make you rethink forcing your low level normal monster to forget an ability that can make the next move a one hit kill. Sure, the advantages and disadvantages of type still come into play--fire beats grass, grass beats water, water beats fire, and so on--but they are less over the top. A level 20 water Pokemon is not going to instantly beat a level 25 rock Pokemon in the wild unless you get really lucky. So long as you choose a variety of Pokemon in your team (meaning, don't choose six water Pokemon and expect to win), you'll be able to make it through the gym leader section of the game at a good clip. I used the first six Pokemon I caught through the fifth gym and had no major issues; I only switched because my psychic Pokemon Munna was KO'd too often in the gym leader battle thanks to critical hits. If I toughed it out, I could still have my first six Pokemon in the post-game exploration/capture/sandbox mode.

The changes to the game are great overall. Some improvements are tiny, like a much faster bike or being handed your first Pokemon right away without the exposition dump of "professor saves you from the wild grass, lectures you on how stupid you are, and then makes you walk two minutes back to her lab to get your Pokemon." There are many elements that make the game feel more immediate. When you're going through a dungeon level (dungeon being the RPG term for constant battle section, so really the forests, mountains, oceans, and towers), you'll have the option of battling a nurse or doctor who will become a remote PKMN Center to heal and restore your team right before you pass out. Do you know how great it feels to finally be able to get all the way through a mountain without using an escape rope to get out before you pass out? It feels fantastic.

There are other changes as well that make the game more challenging. The Dowsing Rods--an addition from the last generation that track down hidden items--actually work, but now they force you way off your path in dangerous areas to collect a random potion, pokeball, or TM. Every two or three gym battles, you now have to use the next level of pokeball no matter how low the wild Pokemon's health is. The gyms have all been turned into increasingly elaborate labyrinths, going from the simple--step on the right switch of three choices to proceed--to the bizarre--run through a honeycomb like structure to find hidden switches and opponents. I knew when I battled the first gym leader and discovered there were three--one for a fire starter, one for a water starter, and one for a plant starter--that I would finally get all the way through a Pokemon game. It's normally really obvious which starter is the right choice because they will be the starter Pokemon with the advantage over the first gym leader. When you can't escape fighting at a disadvantage, you know the developer finally took balance into consideration.

Worth noting is the inclusion of the first new villain storyline since the first game. Team Rocket variants were always "we're stealing your Pokemon, nyeh nyeh." This time, Team Plasma exists to comment on the nature of the franchise and they aren't fooling around. This new team wants to force every Pokemon trainer to release their Pokemon into the wild because trainers are exploiting them for their own gain. They believe Pokemon want to be free, not companions to human, and will battle you to steal your creatures. Team Plasma is tough, too, as evident by how many trainers come up to you and beg you to get their stolen Pokemon back. Just having a new perspective in the game would have been enough to revive interest. With all the other improvements, it's enough to make it the best game in the series.

If you like RPGs and haven't played this series in a long time (or ever), give it a shot. The changes are all significant improvements on the tired formula. It's actually fun to play Pokemon White. You don't want to complete it out of loyalty to the franchise; you want to complete it because it's fun, well-designed, and challenging.