Traditionally, the Pokemon games have always come in 'generations' of three games grouped together - with the original pair, a la Pokemon Diamond/Pearl, followed by a slightly expanded version (eg. Pokemon Platinum) a few months down the line. They may get a few story tweaks, a new area to explore if you're lucky and possibly a few different Pokemon (the cute animals-cum-monsters that inhabit the lands) to catch, but any major changes were few and far between. But this year, the series seems to be bucking the trend, as Pokemon Black/White Version 2 are the first games in the series' fifteen year history that are direct sequels, with the name and the setting being practically all they share - with a whole new story, new places to explore and new characters to meet.
Set some two years after the events of the first game, Version 2 kicks off in the same predictable fashion - plucked from the comfort of your mother's side, you're thrown out into the wilderness to forge your own path as a Pokemon trainer, where you begin the long journey to become the Unova region's champion. One of the characters in the previous game, Bianca, is now an assistant to the Pokemon Professor Juniper, and has been sent to your town in search of new recruits, giving you a choice of one of the three 'starter' Pokemon (the snooty grass-snake Snivy, cheerful fire-pig Tepig and the down-in-the-dumps otter Oshawott) with which to start your journey. Seeing as her mission is to survey the Pokemon that live in the Unova region, she also hands over a Pokedex, an electronic device that automatically records data on each Pokemon you encounter on your travels, for you to fill up with the critters you discover.
As always, though, the story is inconsequential at best. Having been defeated in the last game, Team Plasma are a fragmented shadow of the organisation they once were. However, plans are afoot for the group to reform, under the leadership of Ghetsis, with much more sinister plans up their sleeves; plans which threaten the Unova region as we know it. Before, the team were just stealing people's Pokemon under the guise of freeing them from the evil human oppressors that are their Trainers, but now they plan to rule the land with the help of the Ice/Dragon Legendary Pokemon Kyurem - and, as you may expect, it's up to you to put a stop to their schemes. OK, so it's pretty much the same plot as every Pokemon game ever, but then the games aren't so much about their story as their addictive blend of collecting, raising and battling Pokemon.
As you journey from town to town and city to city, you and your new found Pokemon pal will come across wild Pokemon as you run through long grass, dark sand or stroll through the sewers, which kick-starts the series' staple battling system. Sending out your Pokemon to do your dirty work for you, you choose a move for your Pokemon to perform, from a selection of up to four moves they've learnt, and sit back as your 'mon and your opponent take it in turns to duke it out. Win the battle, and your Pokemon will earn experience points, which, if you gain enough, will take it up a level, letting it learn new attacks, deal more damage, have more health, or even potentially evolve into a new form. The higher the level of your Pokemon, the easier you'll find battles, particularly as your opponents get tougher as you progress through the game, so spending time battling other Pokemon, and raising your Pokemon up is the series' bread and butter.
Encountering a new Pokemon adds some data about it to your Pokedex, but for the full in-depth entry on each, you'll want to catch it inside a Poke Ball, a somewhat magical device that can house any Pokemon, no matter how big or small. To increase your chances of successfully catching a Pokemon, you'll need to weaken them sufficiently first by battling with them, perhaps even sending them to sleep or poisoning them too, before throwing out a ball to capture them - once successful, their data is recorded in the Pokedex and the Pokemon is either added to you team (if you have less than six Pokemon travelling with you already) or uploaded to the computer system, where you can retrieve them later.
Of course, taking on wild Pokemon is one thing, but you're not the only trainer in the Unova region. As you stroll around the land, you'll increasingly find yourself being challenged by other trainers, who're eager to test their Pokemon out, landing you extra experience points and a decent sum of cash when you defeat them - cash which can then be used to purchase health-regaining potions, new moves and more Poke Balls.
Along with trainers, though, the main reason you set out on the Poke-journey in the first place was to become the best trainer in the land - and in order to do that, you'll have to beat the Gym Leaders. With one found in each major city, the Gym Leaders are effectively exceptional trainers, with a preference for one particular Pokemon type. The first Gym Leader you'll come across is your other companion from the original games, Cheren, who specialises in Normal type Pokemon. Pokemon are divided into different elemental types, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses, similar to a game of rock, paper, scissors - for example, fire beats grass, water beats fire and electric beats water. Smart Pokemon type match-ups will give you a much easier ride when it comes to battles, particularly when you're facing off against a Gym Leader, as each move will do double damage when you have an advantage. Beating each Gym Leader awards you with a new badge, all eight of which act as your ticket to face the region's champion at the end of the game.
Collecting and battling may be at the heart of every Pokemon game since the beginning of time, but that doesn't mean that's all you'll spend your time doing, as each game comes with its own little diversions. For Pokemon Black and White Version 2, this takes the form of the PokeStar Studios, where you and your beloved Pokemon can star in their own films. Don't get too excited though, as you're not really given free creative reign - instead, you just get to choose from a set of pre-made stories, and fill in a few scripted scenes with the right moves in battles or responses to conversations. Still, it's a pretty entertaining diversion, especially as the scripted films tend to have ludicrously naff plots that don't really go anywhere and the audience rave about them afterwards regardless.
One of the most notable additions to the franchise is the inclusion of in-game achievements, known as 'medals'. Rewarding you for all manner of things from saving often, to riding a bike for the first time, to acting in all the PokeStar Studios films, it adds yet another layer to the notoriously obsessive-compulsive collect-athon that is a Pokemon game. Dished out by a Mr. Medal when you visit a Pokemon centre (which heal your Pokemon), there's over 200 to collect during the course of the game - but to begin with, you'll have no idea what you actually have to do in order to earn most of them. Luckily, though, as you progress through the game, you'll sporadically receive Hint Medals from Mr. Medal, which reveal the criteria you need to meet in order earn certain medals. The more medals you earn, the more Hint Medals you'll receive, and the more you'll know what to do as you try to complete the whole list.
Unlike it's predecessor, though, Pokemon Black/White Version 2 doesn't have a blanket ban on creatures from previous games - meaning you can now catch your old favourites like Vulpix, Jigglypuff and Eevee right from the outset of your adventure. While restricting the Pokemon you could find before was a bold move that forced you to branch out and not rely on your old tried and tested teams, we felt that the new Pokemon just weren't *quite* as good as their predecessors - and when your whole game is filled with not *quite* as good creatures, the over-riding feeling tends to be that the game itself is just not *quite* as good. Despite the fact a mass pilgrimage of old Pokemon to the Unova region in just two years makes little sense, having the option for both new and old right from the beginning is a happy compromise that should please series veterans and newcomers alike.
In all, then, Pokemon Black/White Version 2 is a return to form for the Pokemon series after the slight hiccup that was it's predecessor - with a better selection of Pokemon to catch from the beginning, a funky new medal system and the same simple-but-strategic turn-based battles we know and love, it's nothing drastically different to the tried and tested formula. But that's what Pokemon games are like - static, dependable, and great.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo DS