Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Game Freak
"When things change, I prefer the way it was, and when things don't change, I get bored. I guess I have a twisted mind." - NPC, Driftveil Continental Hotel 23F
That sly in-game dig sums up the biggest problem facing our favourite franchises. Changing too much can remove what we loved from the series. Changing too little is a recipe for malaise and boredom. When approaching a mid-generation Pokemon title, Game Freak usually tries to find balance by falling back on an age old trope: releasing a slightly improved copy of the existing two games and calling it a day. See also: Yellow, Emerald and Crystal. For the fifth generation, however, Game Freak decided to produce direct sequels to Black and White rather than a revamp. Two years have passed since the events of the previous two games, meaning that much has changed and much has stayed the same.
The result is two of the most compelling, balanced, value-packed and mechanically refined Pokemon games to date... and yet, also two of the least memorable.
Or perhaps I suffer from a "twisted mind?"
The core experience of catching over 300 pocket monsters, raising them with different abilities and throwing them into glorious battle is reassuringly intact. As always, you'll assume the role of a young boy or girl leaving home on an adventure to become the ultimate Pokemon champion while thwarting an evil crime syndicate in the process. You'll encounter (and name) your rival. You'll be given a choice of Pokemon and a Pokedex to record the critters you catch. A Master Ball will come your way. Beyond the troublesome Victory Road lies the Elite Four. More relaxed players can enjoy the journey to its conclusion, making virtual friends along the way, while the diehard fanbase can construct killer teams, breed future world champions and obsess over IVs and EVs. To the untrained eye or a casual observer, it's another iteration of exactly the same game.
But it's not the same as before, especially when compared to the original Black and White. Game Freak have added several new towns, plenty of new characters and encounters. Gyms have received complete redesigns, as have most cities and environments. For better and worse (we'll get to that later), the story takes Team Plasma off in a different direction while referencing the events of the first games, providing a few welcome nods for series fans. Seeing where your old rival ended up is an absolute blast, though the line between clever reference and lazy deja vu does admittedly blur from time to time.
Critically, thousands of subtle tweaks have been made to the monstrous database that lurks behind the scenes, with powerful moves swapped to different levels and less potent Pokemon given a chance to shine. It's impossible to fall back on the same tactics and teams you used in Black and White, making it feel like an entirely new game even for hardened regulars.
Game Freak's mastery of their mathematics has made for the smoothest challenge curve and progression in a Pokemon game yet. Grind plays second fiddle to intelligent use of your entire roster and the wild Pokemon within each region. The three starters have been perfectly balanced to ensure that they won't overshadow the rest of your roster, saddled with their own set of weaknesses (especially the potentially-overpowered fire starter Tepig, who becomes uniquely vulnerable with a Fighting dual-type in its second evolution). Double, triple and rotating battles shake up the established one on one formula, while Gym Leaders and fellow trainers often send out unpredictable Pokemon types to challenge your roster-building prowess.
Should you feel the need to grind or train up new recruits, it's much more convenient and accessible this time around. You'll be able to rely on healers who remove the long trek back to Pokemon centres from wilderness areas, arenas of battle-eager sportsmen that refresh each day and breeders who'll fight you whenever you want. Brilliantly, Black and White 2 take a much more relaxed view to HMs (permanent Pokemon skills designed to destroy or circumvent specific obstacles) compared to the previous two generations, tending to use hidden machines sparingly (often optionally), thus allowing you to create your team without creating two HM slaves. Progression is therefore silky smooth and enjoyable, while still providing a serious challenge depending on how you've decided to spec your team.
There's so much more to do, even after the 30-40 hour main storyline comes to a close. The new Pokestar studios throws intriguing puzzles at you, forcing players to think about the battle mechanics in an entirely new and cerebral way. Nearly every gym leader from the entire franchise is ready and willing to throw down in the new World Tournament, with other battles ready to download from Nintendo's servers. Starring in musicals and entering a subway-based fight club is only a short walk (or fly) away, not to mention plenty of post-game Pokemon to catch and new areas to explore. If that wasn't enough, there are 50 achievements too. Basically, Black and White 2 are the complete package. Packages. Whatever.
A ludicrous wealth of multiplayer options also makes its presence felt within a few hours. From a fussy C-Gear interface that dominates the DS' lower screen, you can send Pokemon into a PC dream world to bring back bizarre memories, accept timed challenges with friends, trade Pokemon online, battle remotely, register your home region on an enormous globe, pull friends into a virtual shopping mall and plenty more besides. Sadly, beyond the online battling and trading, most of this functionality is poorly explained and tends to be optimised for the local-centric Japanese market. Plus, the ailing DS hardware tends to some embarrassing load times and/or full-on time outs.
Graphically, Pokemon Black and White 2 strains and struggles against the DS hardware; desperate to make its debut on Nintendo's newer handheld. Many of the environments have been realised in full 3D, such as circular arenas that rotate around your character and enormous isometric roadways. Everything, from the badge case to the battle camera, pops out of the screen and makes you instinctively reach for the depth slider before realising that it's designed for a last-gen system. In many ways, this feels like a placeholder and a last hurrah for the series on its current platform, but there's still plenty of detail including improved Pokemon and character sprite animations. As far as I'm concerned, the jump to 3DS can't come soon enough.
Personally, I also feel that Generation V brings the Pokemon designs back up to scratch after a few shaky years, featuring some of the most ornate and memorable critters to date (including the gorgeously alien Sigilyph and menacing Kyurem, though occasionally stuttering with the likes of Oshawatt and Munna).
What we have, then, is Pokemon at its most refined and polished, at its deepest and arguably its best. Sadly, Black and White 2 is also Pokemon at its least immersive. In an attempt to provide the biggest and best game possible, Gamefreak forgot to disguise the fact that it's a videogame in the first place. Indeed, it's never been easier to see the well-oiled cogs turning beneath the surface.
A throwaway story relegates the once-interesting Team Plasma to one-note evildoers, refusing to answer some of the more provocative questions that the prequels threatened to ask. Besides a truly sensational new rival who quickly becomes a trusted ally with his own believable motivations (for once), you'll have little beyond the finely-honed mechanics and compelling level curve to push you forward. This is as it should be, mind you, since your story from young runaway kid to Pokemon master deserves centre stage, but Pokemon Black & White 2 make little attempt to turn Unova into a believable world.
You'll be given a bike for absolutely no reason by a random NPC because, as we all know, we need to have a bike. HMs are dished out by arbitrary characters at spectacularly convenient moments, not earned through gameplay (such as reaching the boat captain or end of the Safari Zone in Red and Blue). You'll sleepwalk into becoming a movie star without a single audition. You'll be granted ownership of an enormous shopping plaza by a complete stranger because, erm, you happen to walk past. NPCs obviously block the paths into the rest of the world, giving increasingly ludicrous reasons as to why they can't let you pass until obtaining X badge. Everything is so lazily coincidental and obviously staged that it's impossible to really immerse yourself into the world. Even young kids, the intended target audience, will likely be too savvy to suspend such a colossal amount of disbelief.
A little more context, thoughtfulness and genuine effort would have made Pokemon Black and White 2 truly great games. As it stands, they're merely terrific time sinks.
- Mechanics, systems and the beautiful maths are nigh-on perfect
- Deliciously smooth challenge curve and progression
- An enormous wealth of content, both during and after the adventure
- Best. Rival. Ever. Hugh ought to be the main character.
- Lazy premise and storyline does little to disguise the underlying mechanics
- Multiplayer and online functionality is poorly explained and held back by ageing hardware
- Franchise desperately needs to jump to the 3DS
The Short Version: The wheels keep on turning, but they've rarely fit together so perfectly nor been oiled quite so smoothly. Black & White version 2 refine Pokemon's gameplay into its most capable and enjoyable shape to date, despite several issues in the disbelief department.
Note: the differences between Black version 2 and White version 2 are broadly cosmetic at best, featuring only a handful of exclusive Pokemon for each version (many of which are available from previous generations).