Pokémon White Version review
Battle On In A New Region


If you're even remotely aware of video games then chances are you've heard of Pokémon. When these critters burst onto the Gameboy nobody could have quite predicted how successful the series would become, and while various parts have since died off there are still areas of the franchise that continues just as strong as ever. Pokémon White (and Black) are the fifth generation installments into the core games and promise to bring an experience that is refreshing but still retains the elements that have made it such a success. So join me as we delve into the depths of Unova and uncover what awaits us in this new region.

If I am to start anywhere then the graphics is the first port of call. Traditionally I've always been a bit disappointed with the visuals of the handheld games, citing the lack of real animation and static battle scenes as a put off. Game Freak have heard our cries, delivering a battle scene much more exciting. Pokémon sprites are now always animated, which generally consists of a certain action repeated. These animations consist of numerous frames that make it that much more fluid, which is a vast step up from the 2 frame entrance animations of earlier titles.

Interaction between sprites still seems to be applying effects over the sprites, but this is enhanced by the new dynamic camera. With this the camera now moves around, zooming in and out to give a much more intense visual treat. In combination with the special effects it helps to craft an illusion of an actual battle not seen in the series handheld games before. This aspect does result in some sprites looking a little pixelly though based on the camera's position, but currently this is a trade off I am willing to accept but I do hope it will be addressed for the next games.

The actual battlefields are similar in appearance to before, in that they provide a blurry surreal look loosely based on the current area. It doesn't look bad and gives some good colour usage but it's still not quite as awesome as looking at proper locations though. I'm sure it wouldn't kill them to draw some trees that look like trees in when in a forest, for example.

The overworld, as before, consist of a combination of 3D polygons and 2D sprites to create a rather interesting sight. The 3D helps to provide an element of depth that is certainly most welcome and, once again, the camera will sometimes be used to accentuate this by moving to different zoom levels just to show off the surroundings. A select few areas have the similar problem of pixelly sprites but overall it is a great effect.

Players of HG/SS will be sad to note that pokémon no longer follow the trainer, but there are a wealth of other sprites to be admiring. The design styles of the main character are notably good and show up well even in the chibi-style sprites. Some areas also seem content to show off here too, like some streets of Castelia City has loads of people swarming around.

The designs of the new pokémon is something that has a rather large love/hate relationship happening. My opinion is that they're as hit and miss as they've ever been. Some designs can be fantastic, like the grinning fire ape Darmanitan. Others can be a lot less interesting, like the aptly designed garbage creature Trubbish. I've certainly found more than enough creatures here to love the look of so I'm not going to issue a complaint here, but it certainly seems to be a case of personal opinion.

The music has always been a strong point of the presentation and the Unova games are certainly no exception to that. Of worthwhile note is the battle music that blares out as your get your team to engage other monsters in epic combat. It's high intensity all the way and serves as the perfect backdrop to the dynamic battle sequences. As expected certain types of battles will have their own unique themes and I can honestly say none disappoint.

The monster cries for the new creatures sound great for most of the ones I've heard and seem to fit right in place for what they come from. Sound effects in general are pretty good as various explosion and strikes are fired all over the place. Of note is the new "near fainting" sound. Previously, having the current Pokémon's health drop into the red zone would start a rather irritating beeping noise. In the new games this is practically a melody of its own and far less annoying.

Story has always been the weakest element and it is here as well. The plot tends to cover the bases for the most part - collect starter from local professor, aim to challenge the league by collecting gym badges and defeat the local bad guy team along the way. White doesn't do anything different here and follows this pattern.

But it's not all bad. The execution is critical and this is where the story gets a boost. There is a strong emphasis on nature vs technology and the balance of things. The rival setup alone, which gives you two competitors to deal with, showcase this brilliant with their natures. Then Team Plasma, the local bad guys, touch onto the issues of Pokémon liberation. Given how these events affect the region and people you know then it feels a lot more important than Team Rocket being a bit of a nuisance. Even so, it's not Lord of the Rings or anything, so don't go in with sky high expectations.

Still screenshots simply don't do the battle scenes justice.

The battle mechanics are quite similar at their core to what has come before but here's a nice refresher for you anyway. The game's combat is basically handled by turn based battles where Pokémon on each team take it in turns exchanging moves, with the order based on the speed stats. When a monster loses all its HP it faints and cannot fight. A fight ends when one team has no active members left.

So far so simple, or so you'd think. Each pokémon is limited to possessing four moves at any given time, and must delete earlier moves if it wants to learn new ones. The attacking style moves are the main means of causing damage but come in so many different flavours. Attacks like this can be categorised by their element type and combat type. Element type plays into strengths and weaknesses, as every pokémon is also assigned a type or two. Each type is strong against some and weak against others, like rock-paper-scissors on a much grander scale. Exploiting this system is the key to victory and forces a lot of tactical thinking. Combat type can be either physical or special and determines which set of attack and defence stats an attack uses. This will influence the moves you choose for your team. For example, there's no point giving a special attack to a monster weak in that area.

Affecting stats and status is important too. Some moves can inflict temporary stat changes, such as buffing speed or dropping defences, and others make cause a status effect such as sending a creature to sleep or draining some health each turn with poison. With the effects caused either by specialised status moves or as secondary effects to damaging moves it provides a tremendous amount of options to choose from.

Other elements can influence the flow of battle. Pokémon possess abilities that activate automatically and range from things like preventing loss of accuracy to increasing damage output based on certain factors. Items also play a role, allowing trainers to restore the condition mid-battle at the cost of a turn (more limited in multiplayer, which I'll discuss later on) or hold items that the pokémon themselves make use of, like eating a berry to restore health. There really are so many options to choose from here.

Both singles (1 vs 1) and doubles (2 vs 2) make a return to these games but two new battle styles have also been introduced. Triples (3 vs 3) is the obvious progression and allows for 3 pokemon to be out on the same side. The position of each team member becomes a lot more important here, as most attacks launched from the sides aren’t able to reach the other far side of the enemy team, meanwhile pokemon in the middle can target anyone but can also be hit by anyone. Being able to plan out team tactics on a grander scale is a welcome addition even though it can feel a little overwhelming in certain circumstances. Rotation battles feature a similar 3 vs 3 concept but only allows for 1 pokemon to be active at a time. During each turn the player may switch with an inactive member on the field if they want without using up a turn, which can make for some interesting fake-outs on the opponent. Of course, the huge problem with Rotation is the large amount of guesswork that goes into them. I found these battles dragging on a lot longer and certainly weren't as fun as the other options.

My main complaint about these, as well as the returning 2 vs 2 battles, is that they still only make up a fraction of the gameplay. Things are better, like dark grass areas now allowing for wild doubles battles without the need for a tagalong partner, but singles battles still dominate the storyline, and while it is great to see these options in certain locations and multiplayer, I wish they would see more use in single player.

The difficulty tends to be a bit up and down. The experience system has changed in order to encourage players to bring in full teams, and in the early stages this contributes to an overall harder challenge. However, later on around clearing the 4th gym this toughness seems to drop off and battles become a lot easier. Then finally the difficulty rises back up to a decent level for the closing stages of the story and the sidequests. For those seeking an extra challenge there are things like the Battle Subway to really test your talents as well, but be prepared for the shaky nature of the overall challenge.

Time to catch some more team members before moving on.

Exploring the region is a lot more fun than in earlier games. Unova is certainly well designed and takes you from the traditional grassy routes of the early areas to deserts caught in a sandstorm, rainy marshes and dense forests. Some areas are really there to show off too, like Castelia City feels a lot more impressive than similar large scale locations of previous regions such as Goldenrod City. Gym layouts have become quite crazy here, all for the better, and while few will trouble you in puzzle terms they are fun to go through.

For the most part this is still familiar territory but a few things set this apart from what has come before. One is the severely reduced reliance on HM moves. This has tended to be a pet peeve of mine, but Unova breaks the mold. HM field moves still exist, but now completing the main story now literally only requires the use of a HM move once. This leaves players the freedom to build their storyline team how they want without having to sacrifice move slots or drag along a HM slave just to make it to the next city. At the same time, offroad paths and optional caverns will still require these moves to explore to give explorers a real sense of working to delve to the depths of places. It’s an ideal balance.

Another is the spread of vending machines and healing NPCs scattered throughout various routes. It can be quite depressing to be partway through a route and have to backtrack because your team is a bit knackered and you didn’t stock up on enough potions. These additions reduce such needs by offering makeshifts rest stops in the middle of many places where going to the pokemon center simply isn’t convenient.

Pokemon contests and the Pokeathlon have been left behind in favour of the next favourite past time – Pokemon Musicals. In these you get to dress up your pokemon with accessories and then get them dancing, commanding for 1 or 2 special appeals. Visually it is more impressive, but it also seems horribly pointless. Playing dressup only goes so far in terms of entertainment and the severely limited player interaction just results in a boring experience, like they took one element of the Sinnoh contests and gutted it to its bare basics.

Thankfully, other game mechanics have made welcome returns. Pokemon can still breed to produce offspring, even though the option is locked until you make it to Nimbasa City. Many abilities still have field effects like influencing the natures of wild pokemon. Running and biking become opened to the player as movement options as they progress. Many seemingly minor things that are far more important than they first seem.

When you’ve tired of all the single player content (which by itself will take some time anyway) then you can start dipping into all the connectivity options.

Trading is still a big thing and it has seen some improvements here. You are now able to select up to 3 pokemon to show to the other player, allowing for a bit of negotiation should it be desired. You can now also grab pokemon directly from PC boxes without having to place them in the active party, which is such an amazing addition, especially if you wandered into trading and forgot to actually add the pokemon to the party. Other elements are still relatively similar. Players can opt to check the summary screens of the pokemon being offered and can back out of a trade.

The Global Trade Station makes a return in two forms. The normal GTS is still as limited as before. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the system itself other than a need to have seen the pokémon before being able to request it but there really is no hack checks and it apparently allows for ridiculous and/or impossible requests. If you want to use it then be prepared for silly requirements like Lv9 Zekrom or Lv100 Mew for a Lv3 Lillipup.

GTS Negotiations are an alternate application but honestly it feels so useless. Essentially the idea was to allow for "random match trading". Which is fine in theory but your available seek options are limited to broad level ranges and choosing what kind of pokémon you're offering and seeking from a selection of unclear categories like cool or cute. Way too awkward to find a specific kind of pokémon.

Cute but you're not getting a Zekrom for her.

Players are able to transfer their pokemon from the fourth generation of games using the PokeTransfer – a system similar to the PalPark feature of earlier games. As before the transfer is purely one way but does allow players to retain the pokemon they’ve worked so hard on. The interface is strange, as you must shoot pokeballs to nab the pokemon as they move from one bush to the next. While it is interesting to play a few times, I do wish Game Freak would stop thinking we need a minigame just to transfer our own pokemon over. Restrictions also exist where pokemon cannot be holding items or possess HM moves. The item restriction is understandable given the change in item collection but still unfortunate that those hard earned items will now be lost and must be reobtained. The HM issue is less understandable but has more limited repercussions. The big hit is losing the special moves on pokemon like the surfing Pikachu. In most cases it isn’t a problem though.

Battles run off a similar format of the old games, where you can challenge players with your custom built team. The options sadly seem to be a bit more restricted, with no option to autolevel pokemon (there is an option to delevel pokemon for battles, but this won’t raise levels of pokemon below the limit). The new triples and rotation battles are naturally available here too and is probably where you’ll get the most exposure to them due to the limited number of ingame battles that use this format.

A few new things have been added as well as the battle styles. A Wonder Launcher is a system that allows for the use of items in multiplayer battles. However, before you shudder at the thought of someone revive spamming their ubers to infinity it should be noted that items used here cost points that are slowly generated with each turn, making it a much more balanced system. Team Preview is another element but far less favourably received. It essentially allows player to see what pokemon the other side is bringing in, which can potentially screw with certain tactics. Thankfully this only shows the pokemon and none of their details but many agree that such a feature should have been optional.

Random battles also make their debut, where players can omit the need for friend codes in order to randomly challenge anyone seeking a challenge of their own. Battle rules are set and a ban list is in force both to speed up the process and to maintain a sense of balance. The ban list itself could do with some tweaking (like many legendaries are banned but some curiously are not) but it is nice to be able to delve into random challenges. The obvious problem being people rage-quitting when they're losing, and sadly when this happens the result isn't recorded even if you were sweeping their entire team. It's interesting but just don’t take winning in them too seriously. The setup certainly is no substitute to the traditional method of exchanging friend codes.

While these connection features sans the random connections have been standard for the DS entries in the series, these games bring around a few additions. Entralink is a system where a player can enter someone else’s Unova. It’s the kind of interaction you might expect in a MMO and well overdue. You can interact and go complete missions around here that can in turn provide bonuses for the single player journey such as increased experience gain. It’s really nice and my only complaint is that it is restricted to local play only. I am sure this would have been huge if it was accessible over WiFi.

Dream World is another feature designed to allow players to upload save data to a special site where they can play games, grow berries and decorate a house. Players will even be able to befriend and transfer back pokemon who may possess abilities they wouldn’t normally have. Having now played the Dream World extensively I can report that it is... really boring. The problem is that visits consist of the same few minigames and tasks to the point is feels like a grind. Yeah, there are some benefits to transfer back to the game, but I lost interest very quickly.

One feature is kinda exclusive to those playing on a DSi as it makes use of the special features. The Xtransceiver is basically a tool for chatting with other people. Using it over local wireless seems a bit pointless but online it could be interesting. DSi owners can use the camera to "video chat" too. Speaking of the DSi, owners may be pleased to note that Black and White support WPA connections when played on the system. Those of us with the older DS models are still restricted to WEP connections though due to the hardware.

It’s sad to see a few select features disappear and some may lament that no major revolutionary changes have occurred, but my overall impression is a very positive one. Pokemon White has captured my heart and convinced me it is the best entry in the series yet. Detractors of the series won’t be convinced, but by building upon the groundwork laid before it the game provides an experience no pokemon fan should miss out on.

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