Pokémon HeartGold Version review
Heart's In The Right Place


I've been a long time fan of the pokemon series, dating back many years to when I started my adventure through Kanto in Yellow with my trusty partner Pikachu following me. The series has had its ups and downs for me over the releases, such as the disappointment of the third gen and Diamond reigniting my interest. Coming into Heart Gold I had somewhat mixed expectations. Gen IV was certainly a step up but Game Freak's last attempt at a remake failed to impress me, so the lingering question over whether or not they would get this nostalgia trip right.

Before I get too far I will point out that there are few significant changes from the previous Diamond, Pearl and Platinum versions. There's a new region, different available pokemon, a different mini-game to replace the contests and the pokewalker. However, the core game mechanics are the same and if you're worried that things are going to be a bit samey then they may well be. However, if the thought of continuing your journey into different lands interests you then by all means read on.

The presentation hasn't changed drastically from the previous DS games. The overworld continues its clever mix of 2D sprites and 3D polygons to create a bigger feeling of depth. Buildings still offer that extra level of perception as you walk around them and the game uses scaling to emulate going around slopes or exploring high up areas while keeping lower locations in view. Some areas of the game appear to have been specifically designed to show these kinds of things off. Going around Fawlkner's gym is a good example of this. Heart Gold adds a few extra elements to this as well. The lesser of these are additional effects such as seeing the gusting wind in some locations, which isn't that important really. What is more notable is the ability for one of your pokemon to follow your trainer around. This was toyed with in the previous games but here we have it turned into a full blown feature. Every single pokemon can follow you and shiny status is also retained. It's a nice visual bonus, although it is a shame that the visible pokemon is determined by whoever is in your first slot.

There are no real notable changes to the battle scene however, which means that anyone hoping that they would take the opportunity to add real animation to these scenes will be disappointed. It is nice to see pokemon have animated intro stances, but after that it is a shame to see that the action is portrayed by static cutouts shaking and flickering with various effects overlaid. To its credit the effects are great and give us a wide range of design choices that help to cover all the various types, but I was hoping that the attacks would look like the pokemon was attacking.

Music is same-old pokemon stuff. The tunes have changed but really the whole vibe of the series is always there so by playing any entry in the series you'll have a fair idea of what to expect. Surprisingly I'm not quite as interested in these remixes as I am in the more recent music used in other Gen 3/4 games but it is a minor difference of taste. Sound effects haven't changed, so expect the attack effects to be great and pokemon cries to be fairly decent aside from a few screechy ones here and there (mainly the older generation pokemon, who would really benefit from more updated cries).

The story of the game feels like it is the weakest in the series, which probably isn't the greatest complaint to make considering how the series has pretty much never been amazing in this department. The most we get outside of the "young trainer takes on the pokemon league challenge" is that Team Rocket, having been taken out by the protagonist of the Gen 1 games, are attempting to reform in Johto, with several Executives now running the show and the gang doing criminal deeds. My main problem is that the Team Rocket here is pathetic. They never seem to have much presence and I can't help to think that there isn't much interesting in mopping up the leftovers. If only the Executives made more of an impact, but they didn't and so I didn't care.

Whatever, I'm not playing Pokemon for amazing storylines. Once you've gone through the mandatory intro section, chosen your name and gender and received a starter pokemon from local Professor Elm the adventure can begin.

Type disadvantage - switch out or risk it?

Combat in Pokemon is turn based where pokemon exchange attacks until one side is out of usable team members. You start off with just your starter but can catch more wild pokemon by weakening them and using pokeballs to add them to your team, allowing you to expand on your team options. It's not that simple though, as you have to weaken them without accidentally knocking them out, and you have different types of pokeballs to choose from to match different situations. With hundreds of pokemon available the possible combinations are very extensive and creating diverse teams is encouraged. This is because everyone pokemon is designated a type or two types, and every move in the game is also given a type. All this effects damage multipliers, such as fire attacks causing more damage against grass pokemon, and so takes the normal rock-paper-scissors to a whole level of complexity.

In battle you have a variety of options on the bottom screen each turn that can be selected with the handheld buttons or the touch screen. Fight is the main one (as evidenced by being the biggest option) and lets your currently active pokemon access one of its moves. This element alone provides a tremendous amount of strategy in choosing not only the right moves to use in battle but the right moves to bring into battle. This is because all pokemon are limited to carrying four moves each, and must forget existing techniques in order to learn new ones. New attacks can be obtained in a variety of ways, such as levelling up, using TMs or finding the move tutors. This provides many options in what to use but adds pressure by not allowing you to just use all of them. Do you set up your pokemon as a sweeper or a staller? Do you want that bite or switch it out for faint attack?

In terms of the available moves you have many standard damage dealers mainly used to cause damage along with some having the bonus chance of causing secondary effects. However, there are also other types of techniques. Some moves will inflict status ailments, such as sending the opponent to sleep. Others will mess with stats temporarilly by either raising or lowering those traits. Other special effects can also be induced, like causing rain to fall, negating an opposing attack or healing. There is such a ridiculously large pool of moves to pick from that you will likely find moves that will be useful.

Other things can affect combat too. All pokemon have an automatic ability to activates on its own during battle and can sway the flow of battle. Such abilities can provide effects like swift swim increasing speed in rain or trace copying the opponent's ability. This adds another layer to combat that can overturn a disadvantage.

Items are in full use in two ways. There is the literal option when in battle, where you can use things like potions and status healers to recover the condition of your pokemon, although this means missing a round of combat. The item selection screen has received an overhaul from the Advance generation of games, as it no longer uses the normal bag screen but instead opts to show four categories covering HP/PP healing, status healing, pokeballs and battle items, and only usable items are shown. Together with a shortcut to the last used item this makes things a lot more straightforward. Pokemon can also hold items and some of these will be used automatically when certain condition are met, like a pokemon holding a pecha berry will use to to cure poison if afflicted by it without wasting a turn or holding a magnet will boost the power of electric attacks.

Switching pokemon is also possible unless under the effect of certain techniques that prevent it. The menu for this not only allows for switching but for viewing the status and movesets of other members on the team. For non-trainer battles there is also the option to run from battle, which may fail if your pokemon is slower than the opponent.

The physical/special move change introduced in Diamond and Pearl is still in use here. Prior to the DS games, whether a move was classed as physical or special (which determined which of the attack and defence stats it used) depended entirely on what element type it was. In this generation all moves now have a separate classification indepedent of the type for this. It seems like a minor change, but it has drastically changed up the battle system. Formerly hopeless pokemon become much more viable options and previously powerful movesets are forced to undergo changes, bringing in that all important tactics value.

Battles can be conducted in either 1 on 1 or 2 on 2, with attributes of moves in doubles fights very important. Discharge hits everyone on the field except the user whereas thunderbolt only hits one target, but if you can mix this kind of thing in with resistances and immunities then you can really breeze through battles. Unfortunately, much like the previous remakes, the Johto games really don't use 2 on 2 much. Outside of the Battle Frontier and multiplayer you'd find it hard to participate in many doubles. I really wish they had made use of this more, although it isn't quite as bad as the Kanto remakes were on the GBA.

The one thing about the battle setup is that the difficulty seems a distinct step down from the Sinnoh games. Some of the key opponents in the game, including Rocket Executives and Gym Leaders, are pushovers as they field small teams of mostly weak pokemon even as you approach the league that are easily swept with a type advantage. There are some challenging trainers to face off against but compared to previous games this just won't challenge gamers as much.

Johto has always been one of my favourite regions to travel around, if a little small compared to more recent locations, and this remade version cements my opinion. One of the things I like most is that it requires very few HMs to reliably get around the main locations. It is still an annoyance having to have pokemon move slots, which are already limited, taken up by attacks that I only have because I need to use them in the field to bypass obstacles, but these games make it less irritating than others.

Another aspect is that there are plenty of locations that are optional but exploring them will yield benefits like new pokemon or special items. Here you can safely ignore the Whirlpool Islands or barely travel through Mount Mortar but those willing to travel through them will get the prizes, and if you don't feel like it now then you can always come back later.

Wide selection of pokemon to catch and train.

Then the adventure does not have to end in Johto. Upon defeating the Elite 4 then you get the chance to travel to Kanto and tackle the gym challenge and trainers there. It was a great surprise back then and it's still great now to travel that region and see what three years has done to it. Long term fans should note that Kanto has had some of its previously removed content reconstructed, so Viridian Forest and Seafoam Islands now have areas to explore instead of just not really existing.

One problem I find is that the encounter rate for wild pokemon tends to be a bit high, especially when trying to go through caves and the like. At times I can literally be stopping every three steps or so unless I burn money on repels, and even that isn't a guaranteed solution. Mix this in with all the trainers that litter every route and you come up with a rare scenario where I run from more battles that I fight. This is largely because there is no real convenient way of resting the team on the field. You can burn through potions to heal the team, but PP restoring items that would let you keep using techniques for longer are ridiculously rare. This can still lead to more dashes back to the nearest pokecenter than I would like.

The games make full use of the time system to influence events. Certain pokemon only appear at certain times of the day, but more involved events also occur. There's the bug catching contest that happens several times a week or special shops only open on specific days. Ideally I would have liked to have seen more time specific events around as there have been only a few minor additions since the original games but it is good to see the ones that are around.

A few other side tasks have been added too that are less reliant on the clock system. Pal Park and Battle Frontier have been ported from the previous DS games. Pal Park is a means of migrating pokemon from the Advance series of games permanently to the DS games using the dual slot mode of the handheld, which is a nice bonus to long term fans wanting to transfer their teams over. The unlocking methods is also a lot more simple than the other DS games, which is nice. Recatching your pokemon using the park balls (100% catch rate thankfully) probably wasn't needed though.

Battle Frontier was introduced in Platinum and is basically the same thing here. There are different facilities that offer various challenges. One challenge is a basic succession of battles using a team of your pokemon to score winning streaks, and will be familiar to anyone who have used the Pokemon Tower feature of earlier games. Other challenges include using a team of rental pokemon, having random events influence battles, using castle points to heal or obtain items and one where you field a single pokemon to take on challengers. There is a fair amount here, and while the whole feature is identical to Platinum's it is well worth a look if you haven't gone through it before.

New to this are the Safari Zone and the Pokeathlon. Well, we've seen Safari Zones before but this may be the best version yet. After passing some tests you gain access to the full set of features, such as being able to switch around the sections of the zone and to place objects that will entice other pokemon to appear. With this and the removal of the time limit it has made the place quite interesting, although the actual catching method is still more of a pain than it needs to be. Instead of using your pokemon you throw rocks and bait and hope that your target doesn't just decide to run off.

The pokeathlon replaces the contests of the previous games and is a lot more involved. There are ten events in all that cover various activities like running a hurdles course, trying to push opponents out of a ring or catching flying discs. All gameplay for these events are handled by the touchscreen with great responsiveness for most events. I am not fond of the event involving collecting flags (especially as the computer makes it look so easy) but otherwise I find this to be a fantastic alternative to the contests and found myself spending a fair amount of time at the dome going through the events.

The menu interface for the overworld has received another overhaul. Now all the menu options can be accessed through the touch screen or physical button presses, helping to streamline the process. You can access options like checking the pokedex for information on creatures seen, getting an overview of the team's status and the all important save feature that lets you save anywhere outside of battle.

There are some problems with the interfaces though. The bag setup has only been improved slightly since the last games. Items are split into different pockets depending on what they are used for and you can use the touch screen to work with it, but due to Game Freak abandoning the ability to store items in the PC and instead giving a bottomless bag to the player it can be a bit of a pain to navigate as this means that the bag just gets filled with items that won't have a use until later and makes navigation something of a pain. Seriously Game Freak, give us back the option to store items in the PC.

The pokegear is also a mixed blessing. The map is good and the radio is cool by providing useful info and effects. The phone is terrible though. Unlike the original games there is no longer any limit to the amount of numbers that can be saved to it, but the more numbers you have the more likely it is you'll be irritated by these trainers calling you up to proclaim how they just defeated a wild nidoran like it's some amazing achievement. The problem is that the phone is the only way to get rematches with people, but I seriously hope the developers go back to a less annoying method.

One of the additional features for the game.

I suppose I should wrap up by mentioning the pokewalker. This little device comes with the game and is basically a pedometer that tracks how much you're moving around. You can transfer one of your pokemon to it and earn watts by walking around, which can be spent on the pokewalker to try and catch more pokewalker or gain items, or you can transfer watts back to the DS game to unlock new walker routes with more pokemon and items. It's an interesting idea to try and encourage more active lifestyles with gamers, though the rewards weren't much special and I found it not so impressive. There are only a few routes available that really offer pokemon and items you can't already get ingame just as easily, leaving much of it to come down to novelty value.

Multiplayer options haven't really changed. You can challenge people both over local wireless or online to various matches to your heart's content. You can also make multiplayer challenges through the Battle Frontier and the Pokeathlon too. Trading is also easily possible through the GTS or regular trading means. Many of these functions are also possible with the older DS games to encourage communication.

I don't know what more to say so I'll leave it here. Heart Gold is not as impressive as the early DS games, especially as they are retreading familiar ground but in a different region. However, it is a nostalgia trip done well by really bringing the Joho/Kanto regions into the fourth generation. If you're new to the series I would suggest looking at Platinum first, but longer term fans with fond memories or people who have played Gen IV and are interested in what the older regions are like will certainly find some value to this package.

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