Some of you, like us, might be a little embarrassed to go out and actually buy a Pokemon title. That was so a decade ago, and that anime ...! But every time we manage to muster up the courage and shove away our pride, we are constantly reminded why we continue to buy these games: behind the rudimentary plot and a-bit-too-cute style lies an RPG experience unequaled in portable gaming.
The premise is simple: head out and become a Pokemon master (simply because, hey, it's the cool thing to do), stomping anyone and everyone in your path. There's some nonsense about friendship, but that's irrelevant, because this game is about battling and little else. The reason the game is so wildly successful is that it is the natural progression of the "collection" phenomenon in our history. People have always loved to collect things for no real reason: bottlecaps, stamps, whatever. Things like collectible card games became highly popular because they take that very same concept and allow people to compete with said collectibles, claiming superiority over another. Finally, the Pokemon series takes that battling and implements it electronically, automating the rules and number-crunching and opening up the concept for anyone willing to insert the game cartridge.
So, while casual gamers can simply go through and level up their Pokemon ... more than sufficient to beat the single-player game ... the hardcore can immerse themselves in the process of raising a specific Pokemon to maximize their statistics and moves, creating an unstoppable team to challenge the world's best. It's this duality that makes the game so accessible for pretty much the entire gaming population, whether they want to admit it or not.
So, Diamond and Pearl. The bad news is that developer Game Freak is absolutely unwilling to change anything that made the series popular in the first place, at the heavy cost of stagnation. This game, especially the first half, is a near carbon-copy of previous titles in the series. You still pick from one of three starter Level 5 Pokemon: grass, fire, or water. You still journey from city to city on predefined routes, battling gym leaders and catching wild Pokemon in the exact same way. Each Pokemon still has exactly four moves and a predefined limit as to how many times each move can be used. These things are not necessarily bad; they still allow for wildly intense strategy and depth within a team of Pokemon, but to see the same things over and over in the fourth generation of titles can get irksome. Why not at least let us send Pokemon to storage from any location, or let us select our four moves from a pool of abilities? Even minor additions like these would be highly welcome, but are almost nowhere to be found.
The things Game Freak did add this time around are minor (except one, coming in a bit). The horrendously useless "Pokemon Contest" system allows you to enter your Pokemon is a competition of beauty, skill, and ... hell, it doesn't even matter, it's pointless. The underground digging mini-game is fun for all of nine minutes. There are zero new elemental types of Pokemon (though there are some interesting new combinations), and now with 493 Pokemon in the series in total, it's difficult to give new Pokemon a sense of unique identity; half of them simply fade into obscurity. Touch screen menus are a welcome addition, but ultimately add little to the overall experience.
This review has been fairly doom-and-gloom thus far, but if there's one thing we want to make clear, it's that Pokemon did not need to be changed. The incredibly addicting system is still in place, and the number of locations and things to do is immense. And despite the lack of new gameplay features, there is one overwhelmingly important reason that Diamond and Pearl excel over their predecessors: WiFi.
Trading has always been an important part of the series -- hence the two different versions -- but with the Nintendo DS comes freedom from cumbersome link cables. Though the tacky friend code system is still in place, the ability to trade with and battle friends and random people on some silly message board somewhere is extremely gratifying. Voice chat is also enabled during battles, either through the built-in microphone or the newly available Nintendo DS headset, which improves audio quality significantly. Also, you are able to "download" others' teams and battle against a computer-controlled version of said team offline. But wait, dear friends, there's more: without any knowledge of friend codes at all, you may offer up one Pokemon at a time on a worldwide trading server and post what you desire in return. If anyone sees the match and has what you need, they may complete the trade without your direct intervention. Due to the unbelievably high number of players currently using this system, there are literally hundreds of thousands of trades being offered at any given time, which adds a whole other layer to the game. The search feature is surprisingly robust, and though the limit of one Pokemon at a time is a bit frustrating, this is without a doubt the best addition to the series since the original titles.
There's really no reason you shouldn't pick up this game, unless you felt yourself become a little burned out on the phenomenon during the last Pokemon title you played. If you're new, buy it. If you liked the last one, buy it. If you're some weird jump-on-the-bandwagon gamer, buy it. If you're too cool to own a Pokemon game, well, you are reading this review, after all. Drop the tough guy act, and you'll thank yourself later.
Controls: Though no Pokemon game requires "tight handling," the addition of big, comfy touchscreen menus is a definite plus. But why not let us map more items to the L and R buttons?
Visuals: Though the visual style of the previous games remains, the engine is at least partially 3-D. You won't notice some of the more subtle effects for awhile, but still, they could have gone a little further.
Sound: Surprisingly excellent. The familiar themes are still in full use, but the new stuff is highly varied and well-composed. The classical theme played right before you challenge the Champion was enough to pause the game for several minutes and simply enjoy.
Story: The same old Team Rocket/Evil/Galactic/whatever trying to conquer the world via snatching Pokemon. The game tries to pretend to do something new, but it doesn't. Disappointing. Still, who plays Pokemon for the storytelling?
Difficulty: Generally where it should be; you may have to grind a bit if your Pokemon types are inopportune, but it's never unbearable. It should be noted that the Elite Four and Pokemon League Champion are much more difficult than in previous titles.
Final Score: 9.0/10