Pokémon Black and White, the start of the fifth generation of Pokémon titles, doesn't reinvent the wheel. After all, it doesn't have to because Pokémon has such a rock-solid foundation. What the new titles add is polish and freshness, the latter of which Pokémon usually lacks. It does that, chiefly, by adding in a whole new cast of more than 150 Pokémon, and for your trip through the main game, they're the only critters you can use.
Now, new Pokémon are nothing new - each new generation adds over 100 new monsters to the pot, but Black and White is nice because it's clear that there's a new design philosophy in place this time. For the most part, these Pokémon look sleeker and meaner, particularly at higher evolutions, and their type sets are not immediately obvious. The game's core mechanics are still in place, of course, but it feels like you're re-learning how to drive an old car. It's a nice feeling.
Sleeker can also apply towards the game's design as a whole. Game Freak has made grand strides to just give the game better pacing. Most long routes and caves have a character that will heal your Pokémon, thus limiting the amount of times you need to go back to the Pokémon Center, which also contains the Pokémart this time around. EAs usual, xperience points are scaled, meaning that if you have a lowlevel Pokémon, he'll gain more experience than a higher level Pokémon fighting the same foe. I had instances where I'd be training a new Pokémon and he'd grow multiple levels at once. It truly speeds up the pace of what is still a slow-paced game.
Some of the slow pace this time around comes from the fact that you don't really know the new Pokémon. I'm constantly swapping Pokémon in and out of my team because I want to see who is worthwhile and who is dead weight. The scaled experience, plus the new hold item - Lucky Egg, is a godsend in this regard. Game Freak didn't put as much effort into the menu system, however, which has needed an overhaul for a long time. In fact, they made it a little worse: the lower screen, by default, shows persistent online functionality (more on this later). You have to press X to get to the menu, and the items in the menu still don't automatically organize themselves within their larger categories.
What is new and nice, though, is that you can assign multiple items to the Y button, and then when you press Y, you can select the one you want.
Neal: I didn't have much issue with the menus, it was nice to always have your Pokémon listed on the bottom screen in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but the persistent online that resides on the bottom screen is interesting.
It's split up into three sections: IR, Online, and Wireless. The Online, currently, doesn't work. The Pokémon Global Link, as it's called, will launch on March 30. We'll tell you all about it then. The IR is filled with a hodgepodge of ideas. There's the Feeling Check, modeled after Nintendo's Love Tester, that forces you to press your fingers on the touch screen and tap out rhythms to see how compatible you are with the person you're playing with. You can also trade, battle, and exchange friend codes.
The Wireless makes use of Entralink, which is another weird addition. You can use it in the post-game to collect older Pokémon, but during the main game, you can go into friend's worlds to complete quests that do things such as give you double experience for a half hour and make shops have sales. Like the case with most of the multiplayer, it is fun only for a little while unless you're really into world of Pokémon.
It's pretty clear that Game Freak is being progressive about Pokémon online, which is refreshing. Maybe by the time we get to Pokémon 3DS, we'll get that long-awaited Pokémon MMORPG. Neal and I tried to play online, but kept getting the same firewall-or-specific-router-ports error codes. I'm betting that's why Game Freak bulked up the local multiplayer features, which is appreciated, but it still sucks that Nintendo's half-broken DS connectivity problems hold the game down.
The graphics are a new aspect to the game. They'rebeautiful. The overworld is more detailed than ever before, there are lots of rotation effects, and the games feature not just a day/night cycle, but seasons actually change in-game every month. Seasonality will affect what Pokémon you find, what routes you can take, and even what some Pokémon look like (think Arctic hares or foxes). It's crazy!
The graphics are really stunning at times. There's one moment early on that was disturbingly epic and awe-inspiring for a Pokémon game. All of the little particle effects and visual tricks that are present courtesy of the 3D upgrade to the environments are wonderful. The music features a lot of the same tunes from previous games, but the towns have new songs that are rather excellent.
In general, Pokémon Black and White feel more like a regular RPG than ever before. The story moves briskly, and it seems like you're bouncing around from story event to story event more than ever. There are even some minor twists and turns along the way.