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Evolving Pokemon: How Black 2 and White 2 points to the future of 'catching them all'


Who says Pokemon never changes? Until recently, the franchise's story wasn't much more than an afterthought. Its main virtue was its consistency – you could always count on an evil organization showing up to destroy the world for no real reason at all. With Pokemon Black and White, a sliver of change was added to adjust the formula and pointed the series toward the possibility of more deft storytelling.

That trend continues in Pokemon Black and Pokemon White 2, which takes the time to examine some of the consequences of the previous game. The somewhat deeper story isn't the only new element either. The franchise's first ever numbered sequel brings with it a few other interesting trends, which are apt to continue once the Pokemon series leaps into the Nintendo 3DS market.

Gallery: Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 (5/15/12) | 7 Photos

Let's start with the story, which in Pokemon Black and White skews a bit older than it has in the past. Pokemon Black 2 and Pokemon White 2 pick up two years after the character N, in an uncommon fit of self-awareness for the series, tries to free all Pokemon from what he perceives as slavery.

Image"When we set out, we had many who thought [Pokemon] was too much of a kid's game. We wanted to expand our audience, and in doing that, we decided to enrich the story," Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 producer Junichi Masuda [left] explained to Joystiq.

That focus continues into Black and White 2: "After Black and White wrapped, we realized that we had a deeper story than usual. The conclusion, for example, was very open-ended. I thought that it was enough for the story to end where it did, but the rest of the team wanted to expand on what happened next."

To that end, Black and White 2 expands the Unova region considerably. There are new areas, including a Hollywood-like location that lets you cast your Pokemon in various theme-appropriate films. The leads have also been recast, though there will be a few familiar faces. One reason, says director Takao Unno [bottom right], is that they wanted to bring to light some of the consequences of N's actions in the first game.

"In Black and White 2, we put a spotlight on the people of Unova, and how their thinking has changed," Unno says.

It's a direction that initially seems too deep for Pokemon, but players may have to get used to it. The series was bound to grow up at some point, if only little by little. Among the side effects is an ever greater focus on continuity and a general sense that the world of Pokemon is more than just a collection of loosely affiliated gyms. Black and White 2 doesn't allow for travel between regions like Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but it does find other ways to connect with previous games in the series. Among other things, it introduces the Pokemon World Tournament, which features competitions with numerous gym leaders and champions from neighboring regions – proof, if anything, that Pokemon is getting older. Six-year-olds aren't likely to appreciate appearances by the likes of Sabrina and Brawly. This is a nod to fans that were introduced early to a series created in 1996.

The team's evolving view of the series also reflects in the actual gameplay. More and more, Unno says, Pokemon's multiplayer is not just competitive, but cooperative as well. He is quick to bring up the "Funfest" – a mode in which players work together to complete missions in-game and earn prizes.

"In terms of what we're most proud of, we're pleased to have added more communication options," he says. "We feel we really accomplished that with the Funfest. We wanted to make it possible for more than 100 people to play together. It was difficult, but we were able to make it work. "

Unno also refers to the Join Avenue – another Wi-Fi mode that utilizes Black 2 and White 2's PassBy functionality, which is basically a DS variant on the 3DS' StreetPass. Connecting with people who own Black 2 and White 2 will result in their avatar appearing in an empty shopping arcade. These avatars open shops, which can then level up with additional contacts.

ImageIt's a reminder that, no matter how much the team might build on the story, Pokemon is still a series primarily focused on the concept of communication. Asked what he would like to do to improve the series even further, Unno says he wants to keep building on the communal aspects of Pokemon. Among other things, he would like to make it even easier for players to connect with one another.

And what of the single-player? Would Game Freak consider dropping the badge format that has defined previous games? That would be the kind of change that would get people's attention.

According to Masuda, the team has thought of changing the system many times, but has held back: "The system really provides a good balance for the gameplay. It makes it so there's always a goal for the player to achieve."

In that, of course, Pokemon is as conservative as ever. Developer Game Freak has a formula that it likes to use, and it is more than happy to stick with it. But as with Dragon Quest, another famously conservative Japanese RPG franchise, the changes continue to pile up. Pokemon's stronger focus on storytelling, among other things, does hint at an evolving perspective on the series on the part of the franchise's developer.

Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 is apt to be the last of the series for Nintendo's DS handheld, with future games likely appearing on the 3DS. At a guess, it will make more extensive use of the 3DS StreetPass functionality than any game to date, and cooperative play will feature heavily. The team will also continue to put a premium on continuity, and the story will be just as serious as that of Black and White and its sequel (though it's not too serious).

For as much as Pokemon likes to reference previous games, the sixth generation is also likely to once again hit the partial reset button on its Pokemon count. Masuda seems pleased with how the decision to lock away all of the Pokemon from Generations 1 through 4 until after the conclusion of the story worked out in Black and White: "We're very satisfied with [how the last generation of Pokemon was received] in the respect that it made the experience fresh for everyone. We like that everyone could play it on the same level."

With that, Pokemon continues to walk the tightrope between old and new. Like every other game in the series, Pokemon Black and White 2 casts a wide net, appeasing longtime fans by streamlining the opening sections, and trying to draw in older players with a somewhat more mature story.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

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