VIDEOGAMES OFTEN ASK PLAYERS to accept ridiculous premises without question. Geeky physicist Gordon Freeman massacres hordes of aliens and human soldiers in Half-Life and never speaks and no one thinks it’s weird. You can knock over a bank in Grand Theft Auto and escape the cops by running over a floating badge in an alley. Bosses in World of Warcraft “die” hundreds of times a day and respawn like nothing ever happened. These are sacrifices common to videogames made in the interest of gameplay or storytelling, and players are used to looking the other way.
So I got a kick out of the plot to Pokemon Black. The general conceit of the franchise has always been that there’s nothing cruel or unusual about making these cuddly “pocket monsters” battle each other until they pass out, but in Black, someone’s actually upset over it: a group called Team Plasma who feel Pokemon shouldn’t be used for sport and want nothing less than to liberate the pets from their owners. Is the series poking fun of itself? Is it trying to be thought-provoking? In an day and age where animal cruelty is such a hot-button topic, you could argue that Black‘s plot is maybe even a little daring for raising the ethics of Pokemon treatment at all.
IF IT SEEMS LIKE I’m dwelling on the story, that’s only because just about everything else in Pokemon Black goes by the numbers. As usual, you start out as a young trainer, this time in the Unova region, tasked with defeating 8 gym leaders in various cities while also dealing with interruptions from Team Plasma. The path through the game is pretty linear from one city to the next, so how fast you progress depends on how high you want to level whatever Pokemon you’re toting around. Eventually you face off against a final Elite Four and League Champion before moving to the endgame. Afterwards, new areas of the game open up, giving you new places to explore and trainers to level up against, but it’s all pretty standard stuff for the series.
Thankfully, the familiarity isn’t a negative, partly because it’s been four years since the last original entries in the series, Pokemon Diamond / Pearl (last year’s HeartGold and SoulSilver were remakes of the second-generation Gold and Silver), and partly because the gameplay is so rock solid. Under the kid-friendly exterior is an outstanding RPG with both accessibility and depth: you can let a starter Pokemon carry your team through most of the game or invest more time to build a larger, well-rounded squad; you can stick to the main storyline or get sidetracked with any number of diversions. There are 17 “types” of Pokemon to catch in the wild (fire, grass, electric, water, ice, rock, etc), and the way the different types counter each other leaves you with an endless amount of strategic decisions.
ADMITTEDLY, I’M NOT a “hardcore” Pokemon player, meaning I won’t be up nights trying to catch all 150+ new critters or going online to battle other trainers, so some of the more subtle new features might be lost on me to some extent. You might notice things like UI tweaks, seasons that change each month and new types of events like Triple and Rotation Battles, but none of these radically change the game in a major way. Still, just getting through the core game should take about 30-40 hours, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re getting shortchanged if you have no plans on going online.
If I could make one request for the next installment in the series, it would be for the format to open up to some extent. The world isn’t exactly massive, so maybe make the next game 2-3x bigger and less linear; ease up on the gym leaders and give us more side stories and hidden areas to explore. Pokemon Black is a nice reunion with an old friend, but a few new tricks wouldn’t be out of line. Score: B+
(One amusing side story: while I was doing a little fact-checking for this post, I noticed an entry on the game’s Wikipedia page that claims Unova was based on New York City, which is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on Wikipedia. Granted, one city in the game has skyscrapers, bridges and ports, but the other 95% is made up of small villages, forests, mountains, deserts, beaches and caves. Unless there’s another “New York City” that no one knows about, it appears the Wikipedia entry could use some fact-checking of its own.)