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Pokémon Black Version (DS) artwork

Pokémon Black Version (DS) review

"When you are wandering the wilds between towns, there often are places where the road simply stops. Then you must traverse tall grass or dark sand or whatever. That has always been true, but now every third or fourth step from the beaten path seems to result in a random encounter. That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve counted on multiple occasions. Sometimes I would win a battle, take one step and then immediately find myself in another battle. I was hoping to take at least two or three steps."

There’s no way to bluff my way through a review like this and I wouldn’t even want to try. The simple reality is that I don’t have a lot of experience with past Pokemon games and there are some burning questions that a long-time fan of the series may have in mind that I’m not qualified to answer. Incredibly, given how long I’d been playing games and nearly every other major RPG in existence by that point, my first brush with the franchise came when I played Pokemon Pearl a few years back. I had a terrific time with that one, but then I didn’t touch the games again until Pokemon Black. During the years that passed in the interim, something changed. I’m afraid it was the games.

With that said, at least the general setup remains the same: you are an adolescent and you’re out to capture all of the pokemon critters in the world to complete your pokedex. There are rivals and there will be many battles, but along the way you’ll find out a little bit about who you are and a lot about what it means to raise a bunch of pocket monsters.

In Pokemon Black, your rivals are the members of Team Plasma. They are led by a charismatic fellow who extols the virtue of permanently separating people from their pokemon so that the pokemon can live free from the influence of humans. His followers dress like medieval Templars and run around the world robbing weak trainers of their precious pals. Your goal is to earn badges from gym leaders throughout the world, and that exercise frequently puts you in the path of the thieving Team Plasma folks. Over the course of the game, you get to know them and their leaders. You get to question the relationship between yourself and the monsters that fight for you. The story actually goes a lot deeper than I remember Pokemon Pearl going, which is nice because it keeps you interested--mostly--in seeing what might happen next. I can imagine my 12-year-old self totally digging this.

Unfortunately, the new degree of narrative depth is one of the only truly positive changes that the series has seen in this, its latest installment. Most of the things that I like about this new game, including the attractive visuals, the pleasant soundtrack, the lengthy main quest and post-game content, the online options and the sheer volume of general content are qualities also found in previous titles in the series.

The most obvious change is the roster of new pokemon that you’ll be adding to your pokedex. There are a slew of new creatures that inhabit the Unova region. That sounds nice enough, but the earlier generations of pokemon were quite imaginative and their replacements feel like a pale imitation. Many of the new creatures are just animals we know and love from here in the real world, with a slight tweak to a tail or ear and a clever new spelling for the name. For instance, there’s a fawn that is called Deerling. There is a Boldore critter that looks like a crab constructed of boulders. The new roster is suitably expansive, but it feels like most of what’s new is new for the sake of being new and not because it actually adds anything useful to the experience. Some of the new creatures will no doubt become favorites, and some show more creativity in design and are cooler than others, but many of them are easily forgotten.

Speaking of forgetting, pokemon still have the memory capacity God gave the goldfish. You can learn and retain only four moves at once, so your pals quickly learn enough abilities that you have to decide what to forget and what to remember. Some moves that may seem useless at the time can become indispensable later, but it’s hard to know for sure unless you talk to friends who are also playing the game and who maybe have more experience than you do (through trial and error of their own). Or you can always consult the Internet, but somehow that just feels like a cheap way to compensate for a game that gives you too many options and then strips most of them away from you. If the developers at Game Freak were so intent to make changes, maybe they could have let the player retain eight moves for once. That would have been nice of them, especially since sometimes you have to sacrifice a slot to learn a move that is only useful while navigating the world map. Do you strip away a great move so your most powerful pokemon can now fly or swim, or do you hamstring your party by replacing one of its core members with a weak pokemon who has learned the ability? The choice is yours!

Some players will likely celebrate the availability of new three-on-three battles where three creatures are out and fighting the other team’s three members all at once. This doesn’t really change things up much, though. Players will use different strategies to win against their opponents, of course, but this is just a case of the developers depriving players of one less option than usual and calling it innovation.

Any of the changes discussed above are insignificant in the face of the apparent adjustment to the amount of random encounters that you’ll face throughout your adventure, however. As you explore most new regions, you can hardly move a few steps without seeing another trainer rush up to you and challenge you to a battle that you can’t avoid. That’s ultimately fine because once you defeat every trainer in an area, the problem goes away. Besides, you gain a lot of experience points in the process. My gripe is that the truly random encounters never go away unless you spend a bunch of money on Repel items, which in turn will only leave you with no money and only low-level pokemon if you spend too much time avoiding battles.

I actually like random battles in my RPGs (yes, I’m one of those freaks), but here I readily admit that they are taken way too far. I don’t remember it being such a problem in Pokemon Pearl. When you are wandering the wilds between towns, there often are places where the road simply stops. Then you must traverse tall grass or dark sand or whatever. That has always been true, but now every third or fourth step from the beaten path seems to result in a random encounter. That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve counted on multiple occasions. Sometimes I would win a battle, take one step and then immediately find myself in another battle. I was hoping to take at least two or three steps. I’m greedy like that and the game shouldn’t force me to constantly purchase and apply items to remedy the problem.

If you have to explore a dungeon, the problem is exacerbated. You’ll come to an area like Chargestone Cave where you have to push crystals into place (or something similar) before you can proceed. It’s possible to push the wrong crystals and then you have to backtrack to the previous floor before returning to try again. There’s no rest from random battles in caves. It’s bad enough when every three or four steps means a new encounter, but when you have no way to even be sure that you’re walking in the proper direction, that uncertainty leads to a whole new level of frustration.

On some level, a game should be about having fun. Pokemon Black’s developers were so anxious to provide new depth that they seem to have forgotten that. The result is a game that’s too often about fear: fear that you will take a step you don’t need to--and thus instigate a random encounter with an enemy that you can easily defeat but that you don’t want to actually bother fighting--and fear that you will recruit the wrong pokemon and spend hours training him only to discover that he’s a weakling or that you had him forget the wrong move. It’s about fear that you’ll waste your time going deep into a dungeon, only to find that you didn’t bring along the right pokemon for the job. Given all of that fear, is it any surprise that I’m afraid to recommend it to any but the most diehard fans of the series?

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 02, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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If you enjoyed this Pokémon Black Version review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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PAJ89 posted May 03, 2011:

Enjoyed reading. I've invested a lot of time into at least one game in each of the generations (and will start with B/W this week) so I have a different perspective, but I can totally understand a lot of your points.

The one about move slots and which ones to keep, for example: my current self that has a fair knowledge about which are useful and how to go about building move-sets would say anything more than four moves would break the balance when it comes to competitive play. But when I first played Pokemon Red way back, I didn't have a clue (I remember making the mistake of raising a Charizard that had four fire type moves). There are ways to re-learn moves later on (if the Heart Scale item is still in at least), but I would probably be very overwhelmed at the complexity of everything if I was just coming into the series now.

It's a strange series in that it always gets lots of sales (and likely plenty of new players each generation), but it's had a thriving competitive scene since the very first game. The changes, particularly to the battling, always tend to be little tweaks rather than overhauls (the most radical changes would be adding the Dark and Steel types and the splitting of the Special Stat to Special Attack and Special Defense, both of which I believe were in the 2nd generation), so as interesting as a real change to the series would be (or the battling in particular), I don't think we'll see it.

After browsing some of the new monsters, totally agree on the design. I know they've broken 600+ now so it's going to be a tad difficult to make every one outstanding, but some of the names and designs are boring, repetitive or even ugly. I read an IGN Top 100 Pokemon list voted on by users, and unsurprisingly, the majority of them were monsters from the first two generations.
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honestgamer posted May 03, 2011:

It's easy to miss important little details if you aren't ready to totally immerse yourself in the game. For instance, I didn't know that I could learn back moves until someone who had played the game for 200 hours told me, and it's not like I only sampled this game before reviewing it. To an expert player, it probably reads like I did in my review, but I've spent quite a few hours with both the main game and the post-game content.

Pokemon Black is not a horrible game and I expect that the truly diehard fans will love it and (depending on how open-minded they are or aren't) consider me a fool based on my review. My review isn't for those people, necessarily. It's for someone who has been a casual fan of the series or perhaps a total newcomer. It's a warning, perhaps, that there are better places to start. I hear that HeartGold and SoulSilver, which I missed, are excellent.

Thank you for reading, and for letting me know what you thought of the review. I appreciate your comments and your perspective, especially because you were open to mine. I hope that you'll review the game yourself once you've played through it!
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wolfqueen001 posted May 03, 2011:

Nice review. My biggest complaint with this generation of Pokemon after reading and hearing about it has to be the Pokemon themselves. As you say and as PAJ has pointed out, I truly feel that they've just run out of really good ideas. I mean, Jesus - there's a freaking ice cream monster for Christ's sake. Haha. Still, this alone won't be enough to make me avoid the series. I was reluctant to try it at first, but now I probably wouldn't mind. From what I understand, even if a lot of what they do has been done before, it's done in a more expansive way, and therefore should be interesting.

The random encounter thing is also a good point, but is of even lesser concern to me because I've found repels to be quite cheap and hardly a money waster in the end. Maybe the ramped up encounter rate will null this; I'll have to find out whenever I can get a chance to play

Anyway, I disagree completely about the move set thing. That's one of the series' greatest strengths and more or less makes up the strategy of the game, deciding what moves to put on your Pokemon. I know you may be new at this, but every generation since III (at least) has given you the accuracy, power and a description of what each move does, both when you're trying to learn it and in your Pokemon's regular stats. Because of this, there's no excuse for ignorance when it comes to selecting move sets.

The one point you may have regarding this is deciding whether to teach HM moves or not. (The water one is called "surf" btw). But, again, that's part of the strategy. I've found that, if I don't want a particularly good Pokemon to have an HM move that would prove rather annoying and somewhat crippling to it, I'll either just catch another one of that same breed and train it up properly or, as you suggest, catch a weaker one to use as an HM slave. Recently I've found the latter to be a very effective technique because it allows for your main five Pokemon to actually fit within the level range of your enemies as you progress (particularly the gym leaders). The only tough thing about it is possibly training up a sixth member might take a bit of extra time.

In any case, aside from the move set argument, I pretty much agree with everything else, as I said earlier. Good job with that. Pokemon has always seemed like a hard series to review, so it's cool to see how others do it. Might help me when I get to writing my own.

EDIT: To address the Move Tutor / Move Relearner issue, anyone could find these people if they explore every town thoroughly because that's usually where important people like that are. However, I can understand someone missing it if they're not completely into the game and/or just don't like the tedium of going into every house and talking to every NPC there is. I admit that I get impatient myself. And, in fact, when it comes to this series, I'm actually kind of dreading the prospect because some of the towns/ cities (Hiun especially) are just so huge.
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honestgamer posted May 03, 2011:

It's hard to put all of my thoughts on any of those topics into a review without it becoming a bloated beast. The review is already just over 1400 words and that's basically my self-imposed limit where I know I'm going on too long and that most people won't read any more if I continue (or any at all if they see how huge it is). The new design makes longer reviews look shorter than they are, which is helpful, but it doesn't change the fact that there's a lot of text to process.

Anyway, a big problem I have with Black that I didn't perhaps articulate as well as I could have--owing to how much I'd already said--is that while there are "fixes" to some of the issues I encountered, the solution almost always involves entering a bunch of houses. I kind of touched on that with the "turn to the Internet" bit, since that will solve things. You can talk to a friend to find which building or which NPC in which town might offer you what you need if conditions are right, but there's so much digging to do and for a newcomer who has more to play than Pokemon, it's a bit much.

This would be a good game to buy a 12-year-old who has a lot of time on his hands and not much money for games. I don't know why so many parents come to the store with their kids and (I've seen this) say "You can buy a game for your DS but not that Pokemon thing!" I guess they're holdouts from when pastors used to address the congregation and warn them of the evil of Pokemon (I still remember that actually happening in the church I attended when I was a teen and the craze was red hot, so reports of such things aren't lies). Someone I know on Twitter who has contributed here and to Gameroni was talking about spending over 200 hours with the game and about how easy it is to spend a few hours in post-game to level up individual Pokemon to an extent that you can have boxes full of powerful Pokemon. It was presented as convenient and perfectly reasonable, and maybe for some people it is, but until you've invested that amount of time in the game or the series or have read a bunch of stuff online or talked to a bunch of knowledgeable friends, how could it be reasonable unless you've grown up playing the game since you were a wee child (or are now a wee child yourself)?
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PAJ89 posted May 03, 2011:

I don't think there's danger of any sensible reader considering you a fool, you put it out there straight away that you aren't a die-hard veteran of the franchise. I think I enjoyed the read more because of that: although I'm not at the level of super hardcore player who is up on everything in terms of competitive battling, I've spent hours playing about with IV/nature breeding and EV distribution in the past two games, enough to know the mechanics and be able to build a decent team. As I said in my other post, I've got to guess that there are always lots of new players with each generation. And although I can't imagine playing a Pokemon game without getting in deep to borderline obsessive levels, I bet a lot of people just want a fun, long-lasting RPG. This review sets it out plain and simple for that type of player.

Case-in-point would be the story details, which don't bother me that much. Although the commentary on morality caught my interest a little, it doesn't bother me a lot as the big draws for me are collection and battling (and I've already slogged through four games that have had the same story). I'm sure a new player would give more consideration to the story than I do.

I can't be certain as I've not played B/W yet, but it does seem like HeartGold/SoulSilver (or even the GBA remakes of Red/Blue) would be the best place for a new player. I think we've all established that the earlier Pokemon designs are stronger, and you don't get to see the majority of the original 251 if you enter in at the third generation or later.
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zippdementia posted May 06, 2011:

The goldfish 30 second memory thing is a scientific myth. But I still like the way you incorporate it here.

This review is killer. I really dig a review that can tell me what I'm going to get out of Pokemon, even though the answer is usually: "the same old thing." That I stayed engaged enough to keep reading while suspecting that answer says a lot.

I've always thought pokemon needed a mario-RPG style makeover to their combat, where you could use timed buttons or, with the DS, timed drawings, to do more damage, take less damage, or use special attacks. I love the game world, I like the simple anime scripts (surprisingly) and I even like those damnable pokemon, but the fighting system is so thin that the thought of encountering a battle every two steps is causing me gastric pain.
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hmd posted May 06, 2011:

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