Pokemon Black and White 2 review: A generation's true form

With Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2, developer Game Freak has finally decided to stop beating around the bush and give us a "true" sequel instead of a Pokémon Platinum-esque expansion pack. The series is better for it too, even if the much touted emphasis on storytelling remains largely superfluous.

Set two years after the events of the original Pokémon Black and White, it features a new silent protagonist, a new rival, and a handful of new gym leaders. More importantly, there are new Pokémon – or should I say, old Pokémon. Unova is now rife with Pokémon from previous generations – a welcome sight for fans of the series. It makes the world of Pokémon feel bigger and more connected than it already is, and makes the Unova Pokémon feel like they're "part of the family."

Disappointingly, the returning Pokémon aren't the only familiar component. As usual, Black 2 and White 2 rigorously follows the badge/Elite 4 formula that has long since worn out its welcome but will never go away. What a pity that Game Freak didn't use this opportunity to experiment a bit with the formula and trim down the usual rote badge quest (or make it entirely optional). As a franchise, Pokémon can be at once really smart and innovative, and annoyingly set in its ways.%Gallery-155420% It bears mentioning that prior knowledge of Pokémon Black and White is not necessary for full enjoyment of Black and White 2. It adds some context to the story, and the Mass Effect-like ability to link up with the original game to add in various memories is neat, but otherwise they are relatively self-contained. Black and White 2 has more and better Pokémon from the get-go, and the story quickly becomes a distant memory once the Elite 4 are finished. Better to cut to the chase and get to the good stuff early.

One thing I really like about Black and White 2 over the original games is the new post-game content. Not that there was any shortage of bonus content in the original Black and White; I just prefer what the sequel has to offer. One of the coolest features is the Pokémon World Tournament, which brings back most of the gym leaders and champions from the first four generations for one big tournament. It makes for a fun bit of nostalgia for those who have been playing since the beginning, and provides a tough challenge for anyone trying to make it through all of the tournaments.

Also enjoyable is the Hollywood-like PokéStar Studios, which hearkens back to the contests and musicals of previous games – always one of my favorite features. In PokéStar Studios, you and your Pokémon follow a script (with a little room for improvisation), after which you're graded by the movie-going audience. It's the perfect challenge for my beloved Flareon, who is currently rocking more than twenty ribbons, and is now ready to be a movie star (if only I could give her a cool pair of shades to complete the look).

Finally, Pokémon has in-game achievements now. Referred to as "medals," they can be earned by completing tournaments, trading with other people, or simply buying a lot of items from the shop. This is a long overdue addition, especially given Pokémon's notoriously obsessive-compulsive fanbase. It makes me that much more motivated to really dive in and try to fill my Pokédex for the first time since Pokémon Fire Red (which, by the way, still boasts the best and most attractive Pokedéx ever).

Playing through Pokémon Black and White 2 has proven to be a refreshing experience for me. Wandering the world with my Infernape in tow, I'm constantly struck by just how big the world of Pokémon has gotten. Through Wi-Fi features like the Global Trade Service and StreetPass-type elements like Join Avenue, where special shop vendors are added by passing other fans, I feel more connected than ever. There really is a ridiculous amount to do once the limiters are off and you can explore at your leisure. I often wish I could just skip the badge-collecting and get right down to the business of fighting in tournaments and collecting Pokémon. I suppose Game Freak has the new players to think of though; and as tiresome as the campaign has become for me, I imagine the well-balanced challenge of the gym fights and the diverse array of Pokémon will be a delight for first-timers.

Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 are apt to be the last of the fifth generation, which has been somewhat weaker than the excellent Diamond and Pearl installments, but has managed to remain as popular as ever. Now that the Nintendo 3DS is in full bloom, the next generation will surely be on its way soon, and Game Freak will have more tools than ever to expand its unique world. It will be fascinating to see what they do with the built-in StreetPass tools and the much-improved Wi-Fi. The AR-driven Pokémon Dream Radar – a paid minigame of sorts available on the 3DS that integrates with Black and White 2 – has already offered a glimpse.

Pokémon Dream Radar

In the meantime, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 feel like the "true" versions of Black and White, much as Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum felt like the real versions of their respective generations. It has more Pokémon, better post-game content and, apart from a few added perks like the aforementioned Memory Link, largely renders the original games unnecessary. Whether returning fans should pick up Black and White 2, meanwhile, depends entirely on whether you're burned out on Pokémon yet. The sequel is bigger and better than the original, but it's still Pokémon. In your heart, you already know whether or not you're ready to slog through another eight badges and get back to catching them all.

In my case, Pokémon Black and White 2 has given me a new perspective on the series. For the first time in years, I'm ready to put aside the steady grind of raising the perfect monster and really delve into what the world of Pokémon has to offer. A world that feels larger and more interesting than ever.

This review is based on retail versions of Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2, provided by Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.