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Pokemon Black and White review: This year's model


Pokémon, I love you -- but you're bringing me down.

Don't let either half of that opening assertion cheapen the significance of the other. More than any previous installment in the franchise, Pokémon Black and White taps into the visceral core of what makes the series so exceptional. The compulsion for all-catching is as strong as ever, the new roster is the best generational addition to the universal Pokécatalog, and the capacity for building, customizing and perfecting your team is the deepest its ever been.

However, for all its iterative improvements, Pokémon Black and White still feel like this year's model. The framework the game is built around, while sturdy, is the very same skeleton which propped up literally every other generation that came before it. After five generations, this duplication has lost its nostalgic charm -- now it just seems like the series' creators possess a frankly befuddling hostility towards change.

Gallery: Pokemon Black and White (DS) | 19 Photos

You start in the -- well, you know where you start: The idyllic, four-or-five-building-large holler of Nuvema town, where you and two part-time friends, part-time rivals choose between three Pokémon to get yourselves started. They represent, as always, the Grass, Fire and Water types, and while you've probably made this decision a dozen times before, you'll almost certainly spend a good ten minutes laboring over your choice. (You'd hate to pick the wrong one, wouldn't you?)

You know the next few steps to this dance as well: The warm-up battle with the rivals, the farewell to your mother, the tutorial on Pokéballs, the receiving of the Pokédex, the first gym that you'll need to do a bit of training to be ready for, the cave of constant random encounters against bats and boulders, the forest of status effect-flinging bugs, and so on. From your mom's house to Victory Road, the occasions for you to be surprised by where your journey has taken you are few and far between.

Now, there are countless surprises in store for series veterans in the form of the refinement of gameplay mechanics, or the eradication of long-offending problems. However, adventures are only adventures the first time you embark upon them. If this is your fifth tour of Gym Badge-collecting duty, I can guarantee that sense of childlike wonder and exploration you had as an up-and-coming Champion of Kanto won't be revitalized while making your way through Black and White's cookie-cutter campaign.

Thankfully, this monochromatic generation deftly avoids staleness thanks to the 156 Pokémon that have made their way into the 'Dex. Though past generations have incorporated new monsters, this batch is the most diverse and interesting crew to date -- not only in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of the exclusive moves that most of them possess.

Pokémon Black and White represent the very best that the franchise has to offer: An endearing cast of monsters and trainers, addictive collection mechanics, a 40-plus hour single-player campaign and a bevy of bolstered multiplayer functions.

Not only are the new monsters brilliantly distributed throughout the world, but Game Freak made the wise decision to embargo any previous generation's Pokémon from appearing in the game until after the player topples the Elite Four. These two simple decisions ensure that your six-monster roster will shake up frequently during the campaign, instead of relying on powerful, evolved early catches. (Or that level 100 Mewtwo you keep importing generation to genertaion to serve as a ringer. C'mon, we all know you do it.)

Other important changes come in the form of some long overdue streamlining -- for instance, Pokémon Centers and Pokémarts have been folded into a single building. Most of the game's inter-city routes contain trainers that will heal your team, preventing you from making obnoxious runs back to town. Also, TMs can be used infinitely -- eradicating any guilt you might feel while customizing the movesets of your frequently swapped line-up. Better still, instances requiring you to use HMs like Surf and Cut are few and far between, leaving that sixth slot open for a contributing member of the team, rather than an "HM Mule."

In addition to the pair of friend-rivals, Pokémon Black and White attempts to fill the world with a colorful cast of characters. Players will encounter and learn more about most of the gym leaders before challenging them, while Team Plasma -- this generation's take on the original Rockets -- harbor deeper, more idealistic motives than "we're going to take all of your Pokémon." Instead, they fight for a world where Pokémon don't serve as the battle-puppets of mankind; a lesson they try to instill in the player through perplexingly frequent Pokémon battles. Huh.

You'll be foiling their plans across the landscape of Unova -- unarguably the best-looking setting of the Pokémon series so far. Cities, routes and other landmarks are full of 3D objects and perspective-shifting paths. Pokémon actually move while embroiled in skirmishes, following oft-repeated (but much welcomed) animations. Most outdoor areas change with the seasons, which rotate once a month; these changes not only open up certain areas for exploration, but also change the Pokémon that show up in random encounters.

Why are Nintendo and Game Freak so terrified of letting this franchise evolve?

One neat, albeit criminally underutilized addition comes in the form of the new Triple and Rotation battle modes. Both add inconcievable levels of depth and strategy to the franchise's formula, but you'll only encounter around five of them while playing through the campaign.

Pokémon Black and White place a much larger emphasis on multiplayer than their predecessors, as evidenced by the C-Link, which occupies the bottom screen for a majority of the game. This device lets you battle, trade or chat (with video, provided you're using a DSi) with nearby players, or access the Game Sync function, with which you can export a Pokémon to the Global Link website (which sounds rad, but isn't actually online just yet).

The usefulness of the C-Link will probably vary based on your level of exposure to fellow Pokémaniacs. If you attend a school of like-minded pocket-sized monster enthusiasts, or have reason to frequent Tokyo's various forms of public transportation, you'll likely find it invaluable. If you're more of a closeted Pokémon appreciator, you'll probably find it a waste of an entirely good touchscreen -- not to mention a significant battery hog. (Don't worry, energy conservationists: The C-Link can be turned off to save juice.)

A much more accessible multiplayer feature waits for players at their nearest Pokémon Center: The option to be randomly matched against an online stranger in a ranked battle. While this looks to give the game some post-Elite Four staying power, the difficulty curve seems pretty steep. Then again, the handful of battles I participated in were against Japanese players who have a substantial advantage in the expertise department.

Pokémon Black and White represent the very best that the franchise has to offer: An endearing cast of monsters and trainers, addictive collection mechanics, a 40-plus hour single-player campaign and a bevy of bolstered multiplayer functions. Ultimately, though, these are the new trappings of an old, old game -- one you may have already played three or four times before.

And while that realization ultimately doesn't ruin what turned out to be a delightful and compelling handheld RPG, it does beg a necessary question: Why are Nintendo and Game Freak so terrified of letting this franchise evolve?

This review is based on the retail DS version of Pokémon Black provided by Nintendo.

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