Games these days like giving you awkward choices to make. Morality testing role playing games like Fable, Mass Effect and Dragon Age often leave you trying to work out whether someone should live or die. As you wave goodbye to your companion cube as it slowly descends into the fire, you might wonder how tough these decisions can get. You haven't seen anything until you've tried to pick a starter on a Pokemon game...
Pokemon Black & White begins as it always does - with that fateful decision - the only thing that changes is the Pokemon involved. This time, there's a choice between the snooty snake-with-legs grass-type, Snivy (out before it even began), the REALLY happy fire-pig, Tepig, and the slightly down-in-the-dumps water-type - the otter called Oshawott. Whichever one you pick, I guarantee you'll feel a slight twinge at leaving at least one of the others behind - of course, if you have a friend willing to help, you can restart three times, trading a different starter over to them each time before you begin properly, so once they're all traded back you'll have the full compliment of starters, but that's a lot of faffing to heal a heavy heart. After a bit of dithering, I finally decided on Oshawott - Tepig looked like he could cope with the rejection; Oshawott looked like it would shatter his already paper-thin self-esteem.
If we rewind a bit - you're introduced to Professor Juniper, who's decided you and your friends Cheren and Bianca deserve some Pokemon. The game begins in Nuvema Town, where a parcel from Juniper has just arrived containing the selection of starter Pokemon, and it's up to you to choose first. It turns out the Professor didn't just send you lot a trio of Pokemon as a gesture of good will, though, as she's asked you to go on a journey to help her catalogue all the Pokemon of the Unova region in your Pokedex, a kind of electric encyclopedia that stores all sorts of information on the creatures you find and catch. Whilst on your journey, you'll be battling other Pokemon trainers, gaining gym badges (given to you for beating the 'boss' trainer in each city's gym) and foiling the plans of the dastardly Team Plasma - who claim Pokemon are oppressed by mankind and seek to liberate them by, er, stealing people's Pokemon. But you won't be able to do this without the help of your trusty Pokemon. Assembling a team of six Pokemon, by catching those you meet in the wild in Pokeballs, your Pokemon will stick by your side, growing stronger with each battle you have.
Battling works exactly as it always has, with you and your opponent taking it in turn to perform one of your Pokemon's moves, or use items, with the intent of reducing your opponent's HP to zero. Pokemon can learn all sorts of moves - from standard hurling a ball of fire/ice/electricity at your opponent; to ones that increase your Pokemon's stats, making him more resistant to attacks or dealing more damage; to all sorts of things that can hinder your opponent, like paralysing/poisoning them, confusing them so they attack themselves instead of you, or making them 'immobilised by love' so they can't bring themselves to attack such a lovely Pokemon (my favourite one of the moment). But your Pokemon only have limited memories, and can only remember four different moves at a time. As you can see, there's a fair amount of tactics going on here - although they never get to the point of being confusing.
The correct combinations of moves aren't all you need to think about though - each and every Pokemon has a 'type' (or sometimes a combination of two), such as Fire, Psychic or Poison that describes it, and each of these types are weak against certain other types, while being strong against others. For example, it's fairly obvious that Water types do well against Fire types, but did you know that Dragons are strong against Dragons, or Ghosts have no effect on Normal Pokemon? And that Pokemon that share the same elemental 'type' as one of their attacks boost the power of that move?
Battling Pokemon is only one - albeit big - part of the Pokemon games, though, as there's so much for you to do. A large element of the games appeals to the OCD in me - because, as the TV series says, you've 'Gotta catch 'em all' - and there's something strangely compelling about filling up the Pokedex with entries concerning all the Pokemon in the region. When you see a Pokemon - either in a battle against another trainer, or in the wild - you get a partial entry in your Pokedex, that just has a picture of the Pokemon and it's name. To get the full entry that tells you their type, height, weight, and a description, you'll need to catch one of them - which involves finding, and getting into a battle with one in the wild, whittling their health down (being careful not to make them faint) and hurling a PokeBall at them to trap them - personally, I like Heal Balls because they're a pretty pink and purple colour, but more practically-speaking, some balls give you a better catch rate on certain Pokemon than others, so if you're struggling to catch a certain Pokemon, you may want to try a different type of ball. Some Pokemon are a lot harder to catch than others, which makes your choice of ball almost as effective as your choice of Pokemon - Quick Balls are awesome, because they're more effective at the beginning of a battle, so if you lob one of them on your first turn, you might just get lucky.
Pokemon games have never really been known for having epic stories - normally, Team X are trying to awaken some Legendary Pokemon because they want the ultimate power that would come with being in charge of such a Pokemon. As with most villains, they plan to take over the world - but it nearly always backfires, and it's up to the player to put things right and stop them before it's too late. Pokemon Black & White turns this on it's head, having Team Plasma planning to free Pokemon from the oppression of humans, instead of trying to capture one big one. Instead of hoarding Pokemon and being mean to them, Team Plasma take other people's Pokemon with the intent of releasing them away from the human world - and, in their words, 'saving' them. Their Leader N releases his Pokemon after every battle, and is set on becoming the hero Team Plasma desire him to be, in what's an interesting story that actually gets surprisingly heated, for a Pokemon game.
In terms of what's changed this time round, veterans of the series will be pleased to hear that Poke Centres - the place to get your Pokemon healed and revived - and Poke Marts - where you buy your PokeBalls and various potions - have been merged into one giant red building, letting you do your shopping and healing all in the one place. There's also the odd character located in caves and forests that's capable of healing your little critters, meaning you don't need to hike back to the Poke Centre twelve times an hour because Petey the (pathetic) Pidove has fainted AGAIN.
And for the first time, there's been a complete ban on the old Pokemon for the duration of the game - so you won't be able to catch a Pikachu or a Togepi until you've finished the main story. Instead, the Pokemon team have come up with 150+ brand new Pokemon for you to pick your new favourites from. Some of the designs do seem a little too familiar (Pidove seems like Pidgy's long lost cousin), while some seem rather odd - mutant ice cream cone and a goth girl with a bright pink face anyone? - but there are some genuinely cute and interesting ones in with the bunch - so much so, I have too many I like for the six slots I have for my team... Forcing you to start with a bunch of brand new Pokemon means that you'll never know what you're getting into a battle with when you get interrupted in your stroll through the grass - let alone what attacks and Pokemon types are the best to use against Brand New PokemonTM. It's like playing Pokemon Pearl all over again (the first game in the series I played... for 487 hours...). And with the changing seasons (each of which last a month in our time), new routes become available with new Pokemon on them on a regular basis - and some Pokemon can even change their appearance.
New for this iteration too is the C-Gear, which lives on the Touch Screen, and -when turned on - lets you instantly connect to other people via infra-red, wireless or online to trade pokemon or have battles with your friends. Wireless also lets you use the Xtransciever to have video chat with up to three friends in the same room (not really sure what the point of that is, but still) or you can use it online to talk to another friend who's further away, using Wi-Fi (so long as you have a DSi). There's also something called the Entralink, which uses wireless to let you jump into a friends' Pokemon game and complete missions and - once it's up and running - you'll be able to capture any Pokemon you've befriended in the Pokemon Dream World, a website that links to your Pokemon game, and lets you play mini-games with Pokemon to befriend them (which seems quite similar to Pokepark Wii: Pikachu's Adventure), and decorate a house.Pokemon Black & White aren't wildly different from the games that went before them - but sometimes that's not a bad thing. The formula has been tweaked in places - like condensing Poke Centres and Poke Marts into one place - and the addition of brand new monsters makes it seem more unpredictable for seasoned veterans, but it's still the same game we've come to know and love.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo DS