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Pokémon Black and White Versions 2 take few risks but still offer classic thrills (review)

I have a reputation for loving Pokémon. My fellow GamesBeat staff members have even jokingly (well, half jokingly) called me this site’s Pokémon editor. My point is that I’ve been around the pokéblock a few times, but even I’m not sure exactly what to make of Black and White Versions 2, which on October 7 become the newest DS additions for Nintendo’s astronomically popular portable series. Are these really sequels? Are they enhanced editions of older games, like Yellow was to the original Blue and Red?

That’s a hard question to answer, but here’s an easier one: Is it still fun?

Abso-poking-lutely.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

It’s still Pokémon
OK, that might sound obvious, but, look, do you like Pokémon? I’m sure you have an opinion of the series at this point. You should know by now if the hunt for tiny, battling monsters thrills you.

The familiar formula is still here. You start out in a small town before having to choose among three starting Pokémon (the same trio from the original Black and White). You then set off on an adventure across multiple towns, defeating eight gym leaders before you reach the end of your journey and battle the Elite Four, a group of the toughest trainers in the region who you have to beat, along with the current champion, before you can claim that title for yourself.

Do I wish developer Game Freak would take a few more risks? Yes. But, frankly, it’s stuck with this rigid structure for five generations of games because it works. Capturing and raising your own roster of adorable fighters is as rewarding as it was in 1998. I still get that rush every time one of my Pokémon evolves into a stronger form, and I still feel a great sense of accomplishment when I win an especially challenging battle.

Pokémon Black and White 2, Joint Avenue #3

The few new things
Not that everything in Black and White 2 feels old and familiar. The first three towns you encounter were inaccessible in the originals. Even when you start coming across old territories, Game Freak did a good job sprinkling about new landmarks and features, so you won’t get bored rediscovering them. For instance, the Joint Avenue (pictured above), which lies between two old cities, lets you recruit shop owners in your own little mall.

And while Black and White 2 doesn’t feature any new Pokémon, it’s nice to see a greater mix of catch-able pocket monsters from the start. In the originals, only the then new 150 or so Pokémon would show up in the world’s tall grasses and caves. Now, you’ll find past favorites from the beginning, so it’s possible to have a party made up of monsters from across the series’ history.

The Pokémon World Tournament
You’ll also find some new activities in the Unova region (the continent the original Black and White and these sequels take place in), the most substantial being the Pokémon World Tournament, which lets you fight against characters from the franchise’s past like original gym leaders Brock and Misty. While you sadly won’t gain any experience for these battles, the game rewards your victories with points that you can exchange for rare items and moves.

This feels like a sort of “Pokémon All-Stars,” and while you could cynically call it fan service, it is fun to battle against old favorites.

Pokémon Black and White 2, Elesa

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Is it really a sequel?
I expect two things from a Pokémon sequel. First off, new Pokémon. Secondly, a new region to explore. Black and White 2 don’t have either of these. Sure, you’ll see new “forms” of old monsters (basically cosmetic changes), and the two years that separate these games from its predecessors do bring some changes to the familiar Unova region, but you’ll ultimately find little here that’s new.

That’s why I feel a little hesitant to call these real sequels. I mean, compared to the leap the franchise made from Diamond/Pearl to the original Black/White, which added about 150 new Pokémon, seasonal changes, new battle mechanics, and more, these new titles feel like a pretty incremental upgrade.

The forgettable story
While few commend these games for their stories, Black and White’s plots were more memorable than most, largely for exploring the ethics of capturing and battling (or enslaving, as some in that game argued) Pokémon. Black and White 2 try to pick up that story two years later, but it feels forced. Basically, Team Plasma, the evil group you defeated last time, is back! And it’s going to try to take over the world … basically the same way it tried to last time. So … you have to stop it again. Riveting.

Pokémon Black and White 2, Colress

But don’t worry! You’ll get swept up in the emotional journey of your rival who searches for his sister’s kidnapped kitty Pokémon and … yeah, whatever.

While it’s cool to see characters return and discover what’s become of them since the last game, the plot feels like an unnecessary retread. The narrative takes a step back, especially when Black and White’s story actually had me interested to see what would happen beyond the next gym badge.

CONCLUSION

Your enjoyment of Pokémon Black and White Versions 2 largely depends on your expectations. Do you want full-blown sequels with all the changes that we usually see between major releases in the series? Then you’ll be disappointed.

But if you think of the games as a substitute to a hypothetical Pokémon Gray Version (like what Platinum Version was to Diamond and Pearl), then you’ll be impressed with just how much Game Freak has added to this second trip around the Unova region.

But my advice? Go in with no expectations, and you’ll have just as much fun as you did the first time you went on a journey to become a Pokémon master.

Score: 80/100

Pokémon Black and White Versions 2 come out on October 7 for the Nintendo DS. Nintendo provided GamesBeat with a copy of Black Version 2 for the purposes of this review.


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