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?
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.
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!