It's fitting that the franchise typically relied upon to sell Nintendo handhelds is also the swansong that bids farewell to the mighty Nintendo DS. The enormously popular Pokémon series graces the highest-selling handheld console of all time for one last hurrah and the result is nothing short of excellence.
Pokémon Black and White 2 are the first direct sequels in the monster catching series. Traditionally after the primary paired versions have been out a while, an enhanced third version is released that adds some useful things but does little to chart new ground. This time around, however, the new additions are paired with a story that has you seeing and dealing with the repercussions of the storyline that unfolded in the original Black and White versions.
Pokémon Black and White set a new precedent for the series by placing a large emphasis on telling a compelling story. It was pleasantly surprising to see so much thought go into the plotline of a Pokémon game, especially one that challenged the very basis of what the games are about (and tying in perfectly with the “Black and White” title). While the sequels no longer have you questioning the morality of being a Pokémon trainer, it’s quite interesting to see how the world has been changed by N’s plight and how many people are still struggling to come to terms with things in the aftermath.
A neat feature is the Memory Link, which allows you to “link” your Black or White save file with the new games. This doesn’t affect your old save file in any way, but it does add interesting extra story scenes to the new games depending on what was accomplished in the originals. It’s nothing terribly groundbreaking, but they're neat asides for those invested in the lore of the world and definitely tie in with Generation V’s focus on story.
The slightly less interesting story aside, Black and White 2 improve on their predecessors in every conceivable way. There’s so much more to do this time around that it’s almost overwhelming, and Game Freak has added a lot of neat little touches that make the game much more enjoyable to play. It’s surprising that some things were added to these titles rather than saved them for the inevitable Generation VI Pokémon games for 3DS, but we're not going to look a gift Horsea in the mouth.
The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is the interface has been given a fresh coat of paint and looks fantastic. While the aesthetics of the HP and experience bars of your ‘mon seems like an insignificant detail, so much time is spent staring at it during play that it’s nice to see some care went into making it pleasant to look at. The colours actually change depending on which version is being played!
Other fancy touches are the eyecatches that pop up when entering a new area, the redesigned C-Gear and the fact that every Trainer battled now has a short animation. These are all small things taken at face value, but added together they help make Black and White 2 feel fresh even though the original games were released only a little over a year and a half ago.
One complaint about Black and White was that you had to actually complete the game before Pokémon from the first four generations would show up. While not a popular decision, it helped establish Unova as a distinct region in the Pokémon world with its own unique flavour. That goes out the window this time and you’re bombarded with familiar faces right from the get-go. Even some of the older legendary trios are included, making them much easier to obtain without having to go back to older games in the series.
Each of the gyms has been redesigned and they're all an absolute blast to experience. Long gone are the days of walking in a straight line to the gym leader; each one has a stylistic flair that represents the personality of the leader running it. As an early example, Roxie’s gym is a dingy grunge club where she and her band provide the entertainment. Defeating each band member removes a different stem from the backing music, taking away instruments until she's left singing by herself. They’re much more dynamic and interesting; gyms are no longer a chore that must be endured and are instead a joy to experience.
For those who always got a kick out of Pokémon Contests and Musicals, PokéStar Studios in Virbank City has you and your Pokémon taking on starring roles in various themed movies. The Pokémon and moves chosen, as well as script improvisations, all have an effect on the success of the film upon release. It’s actually quite engaging, and contextualising Pokémon and their moves in yet another way goes a long way to making the games feel more whole and thought out.
Hardcore battlers will be pleased once they stumble upon the Pokémon World Tournament in Driftveil City, which is similar in function to the Battle Frontier in previous games but with a larger scope. We don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a good chance you’ll run into quite a few familiar faces if you spend enough time there...
Players who tinkered with the social aspects of Black and White should also check out Join Avenue. It's a new area that allows you to employ the avatars of players you’ve tagged, via wireless communication, to populate a shopping mall with various useful shops. It’s not a very in-depth simulation by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s very fulfilling managing the Avenue and seeing representations of your friends managing shops in your game.
It's a friendly front to mess about with some of the series' most hidden factors, too: certain shops let you meddle with EV training far more simply than before, letting you pay to adjust your Pokémon's statistics. If that means little to you, don't worry too much: you can also use the Avenue for simpler purposes, such as speeding up egg hatching or entering lotteries to win wonderful prizes like Master Balls.
There are also a handful of other small additions, including an in-game achievement system. When you complete different tasks, a friendly chap will award you medals commemorating your accomplishments whenever you next visit a Pokémon Centre. It's not the smoothest implementation of such a system, but being able to peer at a case of shiny medals does add a little something.
Two new modes, Challenge Mode and Easy Mode, allow you to change the difficulty of the game for the first time in series history by raising or lowering the strength of opposing Trainer’s teams. The new move preview feature allows you to check the strength and effects of a Pokémon’s move by simply holding the L trigger when selecting it, a process that used to involve clicking through several different menus during battle. It’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into making Black and White 2 feel very fresh and easy to play.
Those who would brush Pokémon Black and White Versions 2 off as more of the same are sorely mistaken. On a superficial level the Pokémon games have not changed much, and for good reason; the foundation that was placed way back in Pokémon Red and Blue was solid and engaging. By adding more around it and tweaking things under the hood for each release the series has grown and evolved — pun intended — far beyond its humble monochromatic origins. The latest release adds so much to the formula and breaks so much new ground that writing it off as a rehash is doing it a massive disservice. Pokémon Black and White 2 are easily the best in the series to date and an absolute must-buy for fans. Even if it's been ages since you've picked up a Poké Ball, there's no better time to jump back in and start catching them all.