Black/White’s Unova setting swaps the rural Japanese inspirations of regions old for the big city lights of New York. But this is no holiday. With 156 new monsters, and no old designs appearing until the story is complete, Black/White has the air of a witness protection scheme, rescuing Pokémon’s core mechanic from the chaos of four overly iterative generations. Balancing 156 creatures, as opposed to the National Pokédex’s 649, lets Game Freak rediscover the game that charmed us to begin with. Elemental types are carefully doled out, engineering trickier, strategcally satisfying battles. New creatures have an air of mystery: what will it do, and how do we stop it? And, most important of all, Unova’s caves are Zubat-free.
The most radical change alters how experience is dealt out. Level difference now dictates the post-fight reward. Breeze by with a higher level for a small prize or struggle with an underdog for a big payout. Not only does this prevent players from levelling their squad of six until they’ve stormed ahead of the difficulty curve, it reinvigorates the lower-level game with some much-needed impetus to return to early locations. Pokémon’s challenge was so easily undermined in the past that we forget the depth of its RPG ideas – allotting stat-buffing items, for example, or agonising over each monster’s quartet of moves. After three generations of collecting ’em all, it’s good to be reminded what ’em all are for.
Other additions focus on streamlining or ironing out stubborn kinks. Pokémon Centers and Marts are combined into one handy location. Technical machines welcome experimentation with infinite uses. Each area contains a healer character, to prevent treks to the Center (and the tedious healing animation therein). Yes, in the context of the hundred-hour endgame, these changes are trifling, but they make for the slickest, most agreeable story campaign yet. It also helps that Game Freak packs the game with narrative events; none well written (odd, since much of the incidental dialogue is very witty), but giving the adventure a sense of objective beyond the traditional gym badge pilgrimage.
The cutting-edge vibe of Black/White’s take on Manhattan rubs off on its multiplayer functionality. In-cart IR allows trainers to trade and battle on the spot without first travelling to a Pokémon Center. After fixing this long-term bugbear, Game Freak goes on to ply trainers with goofy multiplayer distractions, from DSi camera-enabled video chat to Entralink, a co-op mode that dumps one trainer in another’s Unova with three minutes to complete a delivery mission. Bar the PC-hosted Dream World (see ‘Dream weaver’), nothing here matches the substantial offer of Dragon Quest IX’s co-op, but it all taps into the idea of brief encounters so key to the in-game action.
Beyond the wireless novelties and exemplary story campaign, Black/White is not the evolution it initially seems. Unova is dense but small, good for a busy 30-hour plot, not so much the bulky post-game collecting. Completing the tale grants access to new areas where old Pokémon can be caught. Huge value, yes, but the space feels crudely unplanned, a dumping ground that negates the delicately structured early hours. And triple battles, Black/White’s single combat upgrade (bar its energetic battle camera), are messy affairs. The clarity of one-on-one brings out the best in Pokémon’s elemental one-upmanship; when two other creatures enter the fray it becomes a manic free-for-all, shutting out all but the most dedicated competitive players.
Where next for Pokémon? Black and White don’t suggest any answers, but they do remind us why we’d care in the first place.