Last year’s Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver were just stopgap games to tide eager trainers over until the launch of Generation Five: Pokémon Black and White. Now the latest iterations in the series are here to eat up DS gamers’ spare time once again with a stack of new monsters and features.
Set in the brand-new Unova region, populated by equally brand-new Pokémon, you won’t see any familiar monsters as you progress through the lengthy story mode. That’s right: no Zubat, no Geodude, no Magikarp. It’s welcome and refreshing for the series, and will reignite the sense of wonder many felt playing their first Pokémon title – after years of encountering the same monsters in the same areas, the decision to start from scratch is a brave one that pays off. You can still encounter classic monsters after finishing the story and trade with other DS versions of the game, but while on your journey to become the Pokémon Master you’ll only see fresh designs. As you’d expect, the new monsters vary from the excellent to the mundane, but there are enough good ones to pick a squad of six favourites.
That’s the biggest departure for a story mode that otherwise hits most of the traditional points: you travel from town to town, defeating gym leaders and grabbing badges and abilities to let you explore the world more freely. The core structure is never likely to change drastically, and fans will find themselves in familiar territory here, but there are plenty of new features along the way.
The most noticeable improvement is to the graphics, particularly in battles. A new camera zooms in and out of the action, and each monster is now animated, both from the back and front, which give the fights a sense of dynamism that’s been missing from previous handheld outings. Some of the scaled sprites look blocky up close, but the addition of animation makes up for it.
Outside of battles, there are some neat uses of the 3D construction too: one city is circular, with the camera showing a side-on perspective, and one particular gym sends you flying through the air with the viewpoint altering along the way. It’s not the huge sea change some may have been expecting – you’ll still spend 90% of your time looking at the same top-down perspective of previous titles – but it does make a difference.
There's also a new Triple Battle system, which actually features two different 3-on-3 modes. Triple Battle is as the name suggests: you throw three monsters into battle and your opponent does the same. The Rotation Battle is what really intrigues – here you have three Pokémon on the field, as it were, but only one can attack, meaning you need to rotate your squad to keep your strategy working. It's essentially a regular battle with no delay between switching monsters: you can bring in a different Pokémon and attack without waiting a turn, and your opponent can do the same, so victory becomes a matter of prediction as well as luck. The game's rock-scissors-paper battle system becomes even more important here, and although such fights are infrequent, they prove good fun.
Pokémon titles have always been about communication, and here the new releases excel. The bottom screen holds the C-Gear, a communication device that lets you easily connect locally via wireless or infra red or go online to access the Dream World. Tapping the wireless stars shows how many nearby trainers are in the Union Room and whether other C-Gears are detected, letting you seek out other players more easily. You can’t do much until you get to Pokémon Centre, but it’s handy to know if that’ll be worth your while.
Other local features include the new Entralink, a mysterious area in which two players can embark on missions together. Completing a mission grants the player special abilities, such as double experience or a better chance of catching Pokémon, for a limited time. It’s only accessible through local wireless, so you’ll likely only get the best out of it with a regular playing partner.
One of the other big additions is the Xtransceiver, which lets up to four local players (or two online) to access live video and voice chat. The quality isn’t fantastic, but it’s a neat bonus for DSi, DSi XL or 3DS owners.
Lastly, there’s a section for infra red connections, which allow you to battle and trade at almost any point in the game without heading to a Pokémon Centre first – ideal for impatient gamers. You can still access the Global Trade, battle and enter the Union Room at any Centre, of course. Having all these connection features easily accessed through the touch screen during the game is a big improvement on previous releases, and should help to streamline the process of connecting players together.
With all the new graphics, monsters and wireless features, these are the best Pokémon games DS can produce, but with 3DS just a few weeks away, some will feel they could have been held back for the new console’s launch. What’s good about the game on DS may well have turned out better on 3DS, but this is true of almost any game, and shouldn’t colour your decision to buy one of the DS’s last big name titles from Nintendo.
Black and White are certainly up there with the best of the series: unlike HeartGold and SoulSilver they don’t have nostalgia as their main attraction, but they come closest to recreating the sense of discovery felt when embarking on that first journey with Pokémon.