Pokémon Black & White Playtest: It’s A Whole New World We Live In

We’ve been covering the Japanese version of Pokémon Black in-depth for weeks now, in a column called the Pokemon Diary, so if you’re looking for specific details, that’s what you’ll want to read.This playtest is meant to serve as a shorter look at Pokémon White (English) through the eyes of a lapsed/returning Pokémon fan.

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When Pokémon Black/White were first revealed, like a lot of longtime Pokémon fans, I was excited by the prospect of perhaps finally seeing something new in a series of games that I’d spent more hours of my childhood playing than I would ever be able to keep count of, and that I’d eventually outgrown as I started to look for something different, and perhaps more meaningful, in my games.


Once the initial reveal excitement had died down, that optimism turned to cautiousness, and for good reason. I’ll always cherish my memories of Pokémon, but I haven’t actually “enjoyed” a mainline Pokémon game since Ruby/Sapphire. Various design choices in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl kept me from playing those games for more than an hour, and while one can’t deny that Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver are fantastic updates of the best the series has to offer, once I owned them, I quickly discovered I wasn’t ready to replay games — no matter how well they were remade — that I’d spent close to 800 hours on in my teens.


Frankly, I wasn’t sure just how much I would really enjoy Black/White, no matter how much I wanted to enjoy them and return to investing myself in Pokémon again. Everything I’d read about them — including Laura’s fantastic Pokémon Diary column — sounded very interesting, but the fact of the matter is that, a lot of the time, you have no way of knowing how you’ll genuinely feel about a game until you play it for yourself. And so, I did.


I’m about ten hours into Pokémon White so far (for reference, I played SoulSilver for about three before putting it away). The thing is, it doesn’t feel like it’s been ten hours. Maybe half that duration. I’m not bored of the game, and I’m looking forward to playing more of it tomorrow. This is honestly the highest form of praise I can give Pokémon Black/White — that they succeed at what they set out to do: welcoming lapsed Pokémon fans back into the fold.


Black/White don’t radically change the game, but they’re supported primarily by two pillars that make them more feel accessible and welcoming than their predecessors: presentation and streamlining, both of which tend to complement each other in interesting ways. Let’s deal with presentation first.


You’ve no doubt seen the YouTube videos of the animated battles, the magazine leaks of the new user interface, and that one famous screenshot of Castelia (Hiun) City with the camera tilting to a fancy side perspective to show off the city’s skyscrapers. The odd thing is, none of that makes as much of an impact on the Internet as it does on an actual DS screen. Considering that I’ve watched numerous videos of how battles in Pokémon Black/White play out, I was genuinely surprised that experiencing them on my DS still felt as dynamic and fresh as it did.


It isn’t just the battles either. The games’ entire user-interface is the result of a fair amount of experimenting on developer Game Freak’s part, and it makes Black/White feel like the first pair of Pokémon games genuinely developed with the Nintendo DS in mind.


The UI is designed in a way that you won’t think twice before using the touchscreen to issue battle commands or navigate menus. Granted, Diamond/Pearl and HeartGold/SoulSilver allowed for touch control, too, but visually, Black/White’s touchscreen UI looks much more inviting because of the way the various buttons are shaped and sized. The third time’s definitely the charm here.


The second aspect, streamlining, is a little harder to explain. Let’s put it this way: Pokémon Black/White always seem to know what you’re going to do next, and try to make it easier and more hassle-free for you.


For example, the second gym in Unova houses a Gym Leader that specializes in the Normal type. What’s more, her Pokémon are no slouches, so unless you’re in the mood for some time-consuming grinding, you’re going to want to capture a Fighting type before you take her on. Luckily, the forest leading out of the city happens to serve as a habitat for two very formidable Fighting type Pokémon, and an NPC in the game generously points you in the right direction so you can go find them before taking the Gym challenge.


Even better, once you do find them, they’re at a fairly high level already, which means you don’t have too much levelling to do. And once you do start levelling, you’ll discover that Black/White are rather generous with doling out EXP for your effort. Naturally, there’s a catch to this.


Pokémon Black/White are more accessible, yes…but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy. You’ll find the wild Pokémon in the game to be much more of a challenge than you’re used to. Moves like Bite and Shockwave are learnt early on, and will often wipe the floor with your team, if you aren’t smart about Type-differences and monitoring your team’s average level.


If this sounds annoying, don’t worry — it isn’t. In fact, it’s a good thing, because it makes battles feel less monotonous, and the EXP rewards more than make up for the increased challenge.


A helpful tip is never to try and over-level, because this makes the game more “grindy.” Instead, start battles out with lower-level Pokémon and switch them out for a higher level one so you can share EXP and direct it to where it’ll have the most impact. Black/White encourage you to make the levelling process less monotonous for yourself by constantly rotating your team’s leader.


Another example of streamlining is the way the games introduce new Pokémon to capture. I mentioned that the wild Pokémon in Black/White are stronger than before, but this also means that you get access to a more formidable range of monsters early on. No more levelling up that early Bug type, only to have to switch it out for another Pokémon that needs you to train it all over again at a later point. By the time I challenged the second Gym, I had my Grass starter (Snivy), a reasonably powerful Rock type, a helpful Psychic type, a hulking Fighting type and a decent Water type who would suffice until I found something better.


This has an interesting effect on the feel (or presentation) of the game, and is one of the ways in which Pokémon Black/White’s two pillars complement each other. Because you meet and begin to acquire powerful monsters just an hour or so into the game, Black/White feel much more fast-paced than before. Thanks to the more challenging battles and increased EXP, the levelling process feels more rapid and you get the impression that you’re constantly moving forward and seeing something new.


The strength of the new Pokémon also helps give the Unova region its own unique identity. These are a far cry from the more laid back monsters you’d find in Kanto, Johto or Hoenn. Black/White’s equivalent of Pidgey will kick your butt if you give it half a chance, but it also feels that much more satisfying when you turn the tables on it.

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Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.