Pokémon Black - Staff Review  

That Old Black Magic
by Zach Welhouse

Click here for game information
40-60 Hours
+ A lot of the new pokémon are entertaining.
+ Technical Machines are reusable!
+ The story's better than usual...
- ... but it's still rushed and awkward.
- The interface is a step backward.
- The new battle types don't get much exposure.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Pokémon Black won't win any converts to the Pokémon series. Although it has generally improved over past entries, it still has a devotion to the core mechanics of the series that puts Dragon Quest games to shame. There are enough improvements to keep longtime fans happy, but it isn't the game to pull erstwhile friends back into Snorlax's domain. Still, Pokémon Black's better-than-usual story makes the first fifth generation Pokémon game a good introduction to the series for the curious.

   Like all core Pokémon games, Pokémon Black focuses on a youth's journey to become the best monster battler in the land. Along the way, the plucky protagonist investigates a militant liberation movement, earns badges of competency, and collects as many friends/battle pawns as possible. The Unova region contains 156 new pokémon; until the postgame, they're the only pokémon available. Moreover, not all of them are available on the Black version of the cart. Catching them all requires trading with friends or logging into the upgraded Wi-Fi mode. Although many of the new monsters feel like reskins of series mainstays like Pidgey and Geodude, there are enough winners in the batch that selecting a core team of six is difficult. Previously unexplored type combinations such as Dark/Fighting and Ghost/Fire make their appearance, resulting in new battle strategies. The effect of these new pokémon on the multiplayer community is currently unknown, but they keep single-player battles from becoming too stale. Rotation and triple battles add further spice to the mix, although they don't occur often enough to seriously impact the main play through. One-on-one battles remain the common currency.

   The new type combinations contribute to Pokémon Black's surprising difficulty. It's hardly an experts-only game, but neither is it Babytown Frolics. Knowledge of each pokémon's strengths is essential. Deciding to bring Fire pokémon into a cave filled with Ice pokémon is simple enough: fire melts ice. However, the canny trainer also knows that Ice pokémon tend to have Water attacks, which are strong against Fire pokémon. What's the best way to handle a Grass/Steel pokémon? Moreover, battles are difficult to steamroll by power leveling. Experience points are awarded on a sliding scale that sharply drops once the battling pokémon is higher level than its opponents. The bump in challenge is a welcome change; it's never too annoying, as many routes have friendly doctors waiting at the midpoints to fix up any severely battered monsters. In other words, anyone playing a Nuzlocke run straight out of the box had best proceed with caution.

Outside a shed in autumn. Outside a shed in autumn.

   Speaking of battered monsters, the story is one of the greatest disappointments. In the right hands, it could have been a thoughtful deconstruction of the Pokémon mythos -- or at least an alternative viewpoint of the utopia in which the games exist. Unfortunately, the central villains appear as hypocritical power mongers from the start. Their pokémon liberation rhetoric ties in powerfully with years of critical speculation comparing pokémon battles to glorified cockfights, but it never quite meshes with their actual surroundings. This is a world where the feelings of pokémon are all that people talk about, every bookshelf is loaded down with pokémon merchandise, and every child's ritualized journey to adulthood consists of a cross-country journey of friendship. While the story heats up and takes a few chances near the end, it's a case of too little, too late. Too much is explained in flat, exposition-heavy speeches. Instead of being experienced, the emotionally charged background becomes a big data dump. The hefty postgame revisits many of the plot elements, but the damage is already done.

   When the story returns to familiar themes of friendship, it finds itself on firmer footing. This time around, the main character travels on his or her journey with two friends. In addition to filling the rival's role from the previous games, these friends inject the world with a stronger sense of character. The nameless protagonist doesn't respond to external stimuli, but the friends are free to question and grow. It's a shame that the rest of the characters didn't receive this kind of care. Townsfolk are either irrelevant or devices for providing goods and services. As a result, the world often feels like an empty set, despite its tall buildings, hordes of residents, and swarms of brightly colored pokémon.

Also new: moving sprites! When they sleep, their eyes close. Also new: moving sprites! When they sleep, their eyes close.

   Despite its emptiness, the world is an attractive one. While walking its bridges and vistas, Unova's unique character reveals itself. Its monuments are large and showy, typifying a different sort of exploration than prior games. This is urban exploration that's grounded in Unova's surreal remapping of New York City. Towering, 3D edifices sell the cities as impressive visual landmarks, while wilder areas are more secluded and subdued. Seeing the entire world requires dedicated exploring: the plot follows a linear loop, but searching out the sidepaths turns up worthwhile rewards. Hidden Machine moves such as Strength and Surf are the only way to access much of the side spurs, making them seem even more exclusive. Musically, Unova is less impressive: a handful of showy songs pep up the important scenes, but the rest of the time is filled with unmemorable variations on old standards and a sprinkling of unpleasant earworms.

   Although Pokémon Black has built on its ancestors solid mechanics, the pedigree has also resulted in awkward, vestigial traits. Several elements of the past games that originally provided stronger story incentive now feel like mandatory pit stops on the way to Victory Road. When the player receives a bicycle or a Hidden Machine, it's not because they're relevant to the plot, but because they're a mandatory part of the experience.

   The interface is a step backward from Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver's extensive stylus accessibility. Although battles are still as pokable as ever, the overworld is less kind. There, the lower screen is reserved for managing wireless data. Accessing the various status menus requires pushing an actual button before the stylus can come into play, and conversations aren't able to be stylused through. The tradeoff might be worth it in environments where the wireless tag mode feature is allowed to shine, but those seem uncommon despite Pokémon Black's exceptional sales.

   In the end, the real question is whether Pokémon Black offers enough spark to justify buying another Pokémon game. True believers have purchased it already, and the vocal haters will continue their hating despite this review's best efforts. For everyone who's left, the answer is a solid maybe. It's the most tactically complex of the core Pokémon games, and the critters are cute, but it's all very familiar. Interface issues aside, it's the best of the Pokémon games, but it rarely reaches beyond its roots. Whether this translates to "nostalgic" or "rehashed" depends on how much love exists in your heart for Smugleaf and friends.

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