Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review: Pokémon Black 2 and White 2

Like Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum versions before it, Game Freak has honored the fifth generation of Pokémon with an updated re-release. Only this time around, they asked themselves, "Why sell one updated re-release when we could sell two?"

Unlike all those just mentioned, however, Black 2 and White 2 feel much more like honest-to-goodness sequels than mere expansions. That much should have been obvious from the titles alone, I suppose, but I certainly can't say I was expecting this much new and exciting content.

Black 2 and White 2 once again take place in the charming, EagleLand-esque Unova region, which I imagine is what Japanese people imagine America is like. The skyscrapers, subways, and airports of Unova are a refreshing change of pace from Pokémon's typical rural fare, and the sequels only push the envelope even further by including sprawling sewers, underground rock clubs, and even a fictionalized Pokémon version of Hollywood. The beginning parts of the game take place in an all-new, sectioned-off corner of Unova that wasn't found in the first game. The first two gyms are found here, which greatly helps the game immediately and firmly cement its status as a sequel and not just an expansion. In addition, the player's hometown in this game is not a town, but a city, a first for the main series RPGs. Beginning the game in anything other than a field with two homes and a lab is so refreshing, I'm not sure I can properly put it into words, and the view from the marble ledge to the north is one of the most breath-taking sights I've seen in a Pokémon game. Even when you do reach Castelia City and the familiar areas that lie beyond, you're immediately drawn into a brand-new dungeon within Castelia's sewers. Fresh additions like this are spread throughout, and the game very skillfully avoids that stale feeling of drudging through areas we've already explored in the last game, even if it's something as simple as slipping old Pokémon in new areas. Not since the original Gold and Silver have I felt such warm nostalgia for returning to familiar towns and cities, seeing what's changed in the year-and-a-half since I've been away (probably because this is the first proper sequel since the original Gold and Silver, barring XD: Gale of Darkness).

Part of the fun of Black and White 2 is just taking in the sights.

And there are some cool new things to be found in this new visit to Unova. Pokéstar Studios, the Pokémon world's take on Hollywood, lets you star in a variety of Pokémon-themed films (I prefer the Japanese name, "Pokéwood," though I think we can all see why they changed it). There are a wide range of movies to act in, including action, sci-fi, horror, and even romance, though all of them are so silly they delve into outright parody. Each film is set up as a sort of mission-based Pokémon battle, taking place in front of a green screen, typically against a trainer in a motion-capture suit. The sprites, backgrounds and music are hilariously charming, and since you get to watch the completed films in the theater nextdoor, half of the fun is seeing just what they do with the ludicrous costumes, backgrounds, and dialogue options. For each shoot, you are given a rental Pokémon and a script to follow, such as "Knock out your opponent in 5 turns," or "Steal your opponent's item," and so on. These "puzzle battles" are a surprisingly fun, addictive distraction from the main game, and while the scripts are a cinch to follow at first, they quickly become more complicated and things can easily go awry; the opponent might get a critical hit and kill you before you can finish the scene, and sometimes you may even think you've followed the script, but end up writing yourself out of the rest of it. One of the earlier films I shot directed me to "Protect myself" on the first turn; the rental Pokémon I had been given had access to both Reflect and Light Screen, and, assuming my choice didn't matter, I set up Reflect. As it turned out, though, my opponent in the scene used only powerful Special Attacks, and without boosting my Special Defense with Light Screen on the first turn, I wouldn't live long enough to fulfil the rest of the script. But what is even more interesting about Pokéstar Studios is that you are allowed to finalize a film even if you deviate wildly from the script, whether by choosing an off-the-wall dialogue option, knocking out a Pokémon you weren't supposed to, or even losing a battle you were directed to win. The fans you amass as you act in more films may even reward you with rare items for going in an especially odd direction, and you're privy to the audience's reaction on the bottom screen as you watch your completed films, which can be very amusing. Do well and the flamboyant studio owner with call you "dahling" and immediately greenlight a sequel. Such a brutal, yet loving parody of Hollywood may seem an odd inclusion in a Pokémon romp, but it more than surpassed my expectations.

It's pretty mind-blowing to see the playable characters actually have lines of dialogue for the first time.

The Pokémon World Tournament is another new area, and it is essentially the Battle Tower or Battle Subway (which can still be accessed). The main draw of the PWT, though, is the ability to do battle with every Gym Leader and Champion from all five generations, except, curiously, Koga and Iris. While I admit I don't much care for the strict rules of the Battle Tower (we'll get to that in a minute), being able to challenge a who's who of the 47 most memorable foes from previous games is an excellent bit of post-game content.

Even outside the PWT or the Studios or any of the six brand-new cities and towns, there are still a lot of pleasant surprises in store for anybody who played the original Black and White. I remember being very impressed with the dynamic battles and sweeping, 3D environments of the originals, and Black 2 and White 2 only do more to round out the package and further improve the formula. The gameplay in the franchise is so solid by now that I barely even feel the need to touch on it; most of my very favorite things about Black 2 and White 2 barely have to do with gameplay at all. They're just very nice touches on an already stellar single-player experience. Every enemy trainer in the game now has their own pre-battle animation, which adds a lot to the dynamic, animated battles. Each individual gym now has its own unique arrangement of the traditional gym theme; Grunge rocker Roxie's gym, for example, has a metal version with lyrics sung by Roxie. Supermodel Elesa's catwalk-themed gym has a sexy pop arrangement, and so on. Black and White already did a good job of featuring the Gym Leaders outside their gyms, making them more their own characters than fences leading to the rest of the game. Further individualizing each of their gyms only makes them even more interesting. That is, to me, the most remarkable strength of the fifth generation: that for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I cared about these characters. I was interested in what Bianca and Cheren and Skyla and Alder and N and Skyla were up to after the events of the first two games. I've officially become that guy. The guy that plays Pokémon games for the story.

This guy's kind of important, but whenever he talks I mostly just laugh at his hair.

In my defense, though, that's all Game Freak is offering me after Heart Gold and Soul Silver. After the first Black and White desecrated and disfigured the fourth generation's Wi-Fi rules into a bloody, foul-smelling Battle Tower mess, and after the second Black and White did nothing to mop up its predecessors' vile remains, I have no reason to even bother attempting online multi-player. In HeartGold and SoulSilver, raising and training Pokémon for competitive battling brought me literally hundreds of hours of additional content after I'd done all there was do and seen all there was to see. But as soon as I'd caught Kyurem and Volcarona and the Musketeers, White version popped out of my DS and began collecting dust. And while I'll likely have fun making the rest of the films at Pokéstar Studios and tackling some old Gym Leaders, soon enough, White version 2 will suffer the same fate.

Like their predecessors, Black 2 and White 2 are incredibly fun, deep, and rewarding as single-player games. In fact, they may just be my favorite Pokémon adventure yet, and they're a very worthy swan song for what is perhaps my favorite console of all time, handheld or otherwise. The new features and old Pokémon they've added make for an exceptionally tight experience that I would recommend to anybody who enjoys Pokémon or RPGs in general. They would have earned a perfect rating easily, but Game Freak's stubborn refusal to let me enjoy the multi-player in any capacity makes it impossible for me to recommend them over HeartGold and SoulSilver. So close, and yet so far.

Ricky thought this game was...

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