Game Review: Pokemon White Version 2

The DS’ swansong is a real beauty and it’s a relief to get the review for it up on Vagrant Rant, at last. I’ve been playing the game when I can ever since its October 11 release.

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Platform:
DS
Developer:
Game Freak
Rating: G
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FIRE!

That thing’s power is honestly beyond ridiculous.

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674 hours, 18 minutes.
.

According to the in-game timer, that’s how many hours I have spent playing the first Pokemon White Version. As a gamer, the Pokemon franchise is my World of Warcraft. It is my Team Fortress 2, my Counter-Strike, my Minecraft. It is that one series that grabs the addictive part of my personality and doesn’t let go. So understand that when I review a Pokemon game, my opinion is slanted a certain way. I will probably be more forgiving than a more casual fan on some aspects of the game’s design, but I will also be harsher on others.

Having said that, Pokemon White Version 2 is the best and most complete Pokemon game I have ever played. There you go.

THE SET-UP

Pokemon Black Version 2 and Pokemon White Version 2 are sequels to their respective DS games, set two years after their 2011 counterparts (Don’t think about that too hard). You still explore the land of Unova, but things have changed quite noticeably. You play as a new protagonist and the story links in quite nicely with the first game(s), particularly if you “link” your two cartridges, unlocking some cool additional scenes in the sequel.

WHAT YOU DO

The same tried-and-true Pokemon formula that has made the main series games so easy to pick up returns in White 2, with all its hidden intricacies intact. There is still no invincible Pokemon and every possible team of six can still be beaten with the right tactics. The classic mechanics have now been inserted into yet another new context, and yes, it is new, despite being set in the same region as last year’s fifth-gen games. The first handful of towns and routes you visit are all-new, thanks to their location in the previously inaccessible lower left corner of the map. Several old areas have been renovated and pretty much every previously barren area has been filled with something entirely fresh. “Hidden Grottoes”, which can house rare items and Pokemon and work on a random cycle, now appear in certain routes as well.

There are even underwater bridges now! Yippee!

There are even underwater bridges now! Yippee!

Several small changes to the systems that have kept gameplay ticking over for years are present in White 2, most of them very welcome. The bag now adds items from the bottom of the list rather than the top, which is odd but handy when you just like to have your most used tools at your fingertips, and speaking of which, there is now an extra pouch called “free space” which holds just about anything you want to isolate. My favourite feature, though, has to be the auto-prompt that now appears after you run out of steps on a Repel. All you have to do is hit “yes” if you have another of the same type of spray and you can continue exploring free from interruptions from Zubats or Rattatas (yes, they’re back, and Gamefreak put them both in the same area this time). Organising boxes is also easier than ever thanks to a colour-coded movement system.

Though the story progression is fairly standard for a Pokemon main series title, it is notable for how little hand-holding there is within it. The development team has either acknowledged that it has plenty of fans who have done that lengthy tutorial phase to death, or it realises that kids these days aren’t stupid with technology anymore. Regardless, the fact that you can get right into normal gameplay within half an hour after choosing your name is unheard of for a Pokemon game. Needless to say, it’s a strong choice of direction for the series.

Pokemon White Version 2 also debuts a feature I’ve been wanting for quite some time, although it is executed awkwardly to say the least. A difficulty system is at long last available, but in order to access what essentially amounts to hard mode from the start you have to transfer a “Challenge Key” from someone who has already beaten the Elite Four on a cartridge of Pokemon Black Version 2. So I needed to jump through a few hoops to be able to play the game with higher trainer levels, extra Gym Leader Pokemon and better AI. It was certainly worth the effort, as I was surprised by how difficult previously hum-drum experiences were under the new filter, but I really hope the next Pokemon games have the feature unlocked from the start.

WHAT YOU SEE

It’s always odd when a new game for a console that isn’t even the latest in its line comes out, because visually it’s tough to adjust your expectations back to what they once were. To clarify, White 2 looks better than any Pokemon game before it, and it makes better use of rendered cutscenes than any other title in the series. Yet a lot of people will be playing this game on a 3DS, having gotten used to the visual joys of the likes of Super Mario 3D Land and Ocarina of Time 3D. Re-adjusting your expectations is recommended.

PokesW2_Beach

There’s always one town you just want to go to in real life.

Having said that, the sprite work of Pokemon White Version 2‘s artists is somehow even better than what it has been in the past, a fact highlighted by the returning trainer animations from Heart Gold and Soul Silver. A handful of Pokemon have new animations as well. Plenty of move animations have had facelifts and some of them now look so good you have to wonder why their old ones were ever allowed to stand. The game’s battle interface has had its customary facelift, as has the C-Gear, and both designs have done away with the hexagonal motif that seemed to be everywhere in Black and White. In a first for the series, a number of presentational flourishes actually differ depending on the version you’re playing, appearing in black-on-white or in white-on-black to match their corresponding titles.

The plot of Pokemon White Version 2 isn’t quite as mold-breaking as its predecessor, lacking the same twists or surprisingly high-minded ideals, but its status as the Pokemon series’ first dedicated sequel keeps things interesting. Particularly if you link your save file with a Black or White, the game neglects very few of the loose ends left over from the first story, and its many cameos, especially post-E4, keep everything intriguing enough to motivate players.

WHAT YOU HEAR

The music of the Pokemon games represent one of the most criminally underrated sonic traditions in gaming, and though White 2 doesn’t quite hit the consistent heights of some previous games in the franchise when it comes to its new tracks, the legacy of great tunes it inherits elevates it to a truly memorable audio experience.

Gee, that Vaporeon sure is going down!

Gee, that Vaporeon sure is going down.

The eight Pokemon Gyms the game takes you through are, as always, decorated with puzzles and neat graphical tricks, but for perhaps the first time ever, their music is the highlight of the experience. Each building now has its own remix of the classic Gym tune and each re-arrangement is tailored to the personality and flavour of both the Gym and its Leader. Battling on a catwalk feels even stranger, in a good way, with vogue-style music blaring through your headphones, and the game’s eerie and brilliant third Gym mix is now one of my all-time favourite Pokemon music tracks.

Then there’s the Pokemon World Tournament. Not only does this nostalgia-laden, endlessly replayable in-game event pit you against every Gym Leader ever seen in a Pokemon game, it also pits you against their music. Yep, pretty much every awesome track from every awesome Leader battle you’ve ever played in a Pokemon game is back here and celebrated with respectful remixes. Amazing.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

HA!

If you’ve ever played a Pokemon game and enjoyed it, you’ll know the answer to this question. Main series Pokemon games have always provided dozens of hours of replay value after you’ve bested the Elite Four. But Pokemon White Version 2 turns things up to eleven.

My beautiful war machines

My beautiful war machines

After finishing the main story, which took me just shy of 48 hours play time, a further six unvisited cities await you, each packing additional story content. There are a dozen or so legendary Pokemon to catch all over Unova, there’s the Entralink expansion, now known as Funfest Missions, to complete, as well as the addictive and highly customisable Join Avenue, the nostalgic Pokemon World Tournament, the version exclusive area battle challenges, the always popular Battle Subway, the PC-linked Dream World… There are even additional things I never even touch, such as the Pokemon Musicals and Pokestar Studios, each of which come with their own self-contained set of mechanics.

Competitive players will love the welcome time-saving improvements to the Pokemon breeding process and the drastically reduced BP cost of viable items. Completionists will adore (or rue) the all-new Medal Box, which awards you over 250 achievement-like ‘medals” for completing out-of-the-way tasks and passing in-game milestones. I’ve never enjoyed the sight of an NPC in a Pokemon game as much as I do when the medal guy appears in a Pokemon Centre bearing a shiny new accomplishment marker.

Meaningless collectible, or true show of worth as a gamer?

Meaningless collectibles, or something deeper?

Whatever kind of Pokemon player you are, yeah, you’re going to have your hands full with this game.

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THE VERDICT

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Good: Myriad tiny improvements, less hand-holding, intriguing story, SO much content
Bad:
Difficulty system is unintuitive
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5 VsP H E N O M E N A L

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