Thursday, January 31, 2013

GOT 'IM - Pokemon White Version 2

I'm still messing around in the post-game, but I've technically had it beaten for several days now.  The latest Pokemon joint as well as one of my 2013 targets, White Version 2. 

Usual background first.  I played Pokemon Blue and Pokemon Gold right when they came out in the United States.  Briefly obsessed with both.  Then years and years pass and I play Pokemon Leaf Green a few years after it's out, which rekindles my obsession and has me soon playing Pokemon Emerald shortly after.  In the fourth generation of Pokemon I fell hard again, playing Diamond shortly after it came out followed by Soul Silver on day one.  My obsession peaked with my Diamond Pokedex count of 480.  Then, for the fifth generation, I slowed down again and avoided the first Black and White, until now.

A few of my friends insisted that the fifth generation of Pokemon is something worth experiencing, so two of them conspired together to get me a copy of Pokemon White Verson 2 (henceforth known as "White 2").  They insisted that the new games are a major improvement over the original Black/White duo and that the best way to jump into the fifth generation of Pokemon is to pick up one of them.  Well, they were right and wrong.  There are a few story beats that benefit from playing Black or White first, but the extra content in Black 2 or White 2 is impressive indeed.

So first of all, White 2 is exactly as formulaic as every main series Pokemon game.  You're a youngster who leaves home to go on a Pokemon journey.  You catch Pokemon, defeat eight Gym Leaders, foil the operations of a Pokemon organized crime front, and eventually defeat the Elite Four and reigning Pokemon Champion to become a Champion yourself.  That formula totally works, because it gives you clear objectives and multiple collectible "trophies" of sorts (the Gym Badges and, well, Pokemon themselves) and sets up different gameplay "arcs" between large boss battles.  The Pokemon formula has been unchanged for nearly 20 years for a reason - it's effective.

Still, though, the formula is a little tired.  Your characters, villains, and party will be different with each game (new Pokemon, new setting, etc.), but the Pokemon main series games have been the same FOREVER.  I have to wonder if every Pokemon main character's mother is in the same book club or something, because goddamn they are similar.  I honestly hope that Pokemon XY change the formula a little, because honestly I would be impressed by the sheer BALLS of doing so.  I don't even care how, just make it a little different.  But I guess when the Pokemon series does things like take 10 years to differentiate between physical and special attacks, I shouldn't expect them to shake up the main series formula, even if it's in a small way like changing the final boss sequence. 

...and that's part of why I sort of wish I had played Black or White first.  From my understanding (derived from a few conversations with @Honya_chan and @miki_sei), BW had a really interesting interpretation of the evil Pokemon team in Team Plasma.  Team Plasma's leader, N, is something of a Pokemon savant who was raised by wild Pokemon and can communicate with them.  Not unlike an ultra-militant animal rights group, Team Plasma views all trainers' Pokemon as captured slaves and wants to see them all freed.  Very interesting premise.  N 100% believes in that creed, but his mentor, Ghetsis, intended all along to use N and Team Plasma's influence to take over the world, not unlike most prior evil Pokemon teams.  The final battle of Pokemon Black and White is interrupted by N, Ghetsis, and the game's cover Legendary, forming a gauntlet of final bosses before the credits.  You can challenge the Champion after you defeat N and Ghetsis, but the "official" finale is a surprise.

So where does White 2 fit into all this?  Well, White 2 stars a new young challenger, and faces a new Team Plasma without N.  Instead, a mysterious scientist named Colress appears to lead Team Plasma, and Colress's obsession is determining why certain trainers bring out the most in their Pokemon.  Since every Pokemon main character supposedly has an incredible bond with his Pokemon, this naturally makes him interested in you.  Eventually, you invariably shut down the new Team Plasma and even interact with and receive help from some former Plasma officials who have seen the error of their ways.  The game ends, like most Pokemon games do, with an epic trek through Victory Road and a clash with the Elite 4 and Pokemon Champion.

So... do you see what I mean when I say I would have liked to try the originals?  They had a really interesting twist on the evil team, maybe the coolest human villain in any Pokemon game in N, and a small tweak to the formula that was surely mind-blowing to some fans.  I would have liked to experience that.  Instead, from a story and character perspective, I get another Pokemon retread with a few interesting characters that feels more like an epilogue.  Some other non-villainous NPCs like Cheren, Bianca, and Iris would be more fleshed out if I had played the first one first. 

I will say, though, White 2's cast has a lot of personality.  The gym leaders and Champion often make game appearances outside their gym, and the gyms themselves are huge, elaborate, and colorful.  The gym leaders themselves (including the two new to White 2) are a good type balance and appealing in general.  I would even go so far as to say that they're my favorite collection of gym leaders in the series.  The Elite 4 are also a solid group, with a sensible type division and some really cool entranceways.  Most of the NPCs are throwaways entrenched in Pokemon tradition.  I mentioned Colress earlier, but there's also the Black & White rivals of Cheren and Bianca and the new rival Hugh, who's... basically a revenge-obsessed spaz.  Your protagonist, who is guaranteed to have completely ridiculous hair whether you choose male or female, is of the silent variety.  I like silent protagonists, but I know others don't.  To each his/her own. 

So that's about all you need to know about story - it's the same Pokemon story as ever, but it has some okay characters.  The gameplay... is also pretty much the same.  If you're asking me to explain the very basics of Pokemon, you're probably in the wrong place.  I'll try and make this short - you live in a world populated by Pokemon, beings who live alongside humanity as pets, assistants, and gladiators.  Pokemon combat is the world's great obsession, and your goal is to become the greatest Pokemon master of them all.  To do so, you travel the countryside, capturing Pokemon inside Pokeballs and defeating the strongest trainer in each town (the town's Gym Leader).  Once you defeat eight Gym Leaders, you are qualified to fight the Champion.

So capturing Pokemon and fighting Pokemon is pretty much the same as it has always been. You find Pokemon in the wild, fight them until their HP is low, and then throw baseball-esque Pokeballs at them to capture them.  You try and make a team of diverse, powerful Pokemon to capture new Pokemon and defeat other Pokemon trainers. Combat is turn-based, with each Pokemon knowing a maximum of four moves and keeping a maximum of six Pokemon in your active party.  Any Pokemon not in your party are stuck in the internet (sort of?) and can be called up or put away via any PC.  Visiting a Pokemon Center or meeting a doctor or nurse in the field can heal your party back up to full health.

So turn-based combat with a party of six, drawing from a pool of over 600 "characters", with an absurd amount of customization.  Without going into too many details, Pokemon's stats are customizable via random initial values, pokemon natures (25 random "traits"), and exp.-based effort values in addition to normal things like level.  If you go full-retard into Pokemon training, it'll take dozens of hours to find the exact nature and IVs for a particular Pokemon you want, and that's before you even start training it via combat or decide what moves to teach it.  For many years running now, Pokemon training is as deep as you want it to be - you can be like me and just play the game's storyline and mess around in the post game (my total playtime ended up right around 26 or 27 hours) or you can devote HUNDREDS of hours to Pokemon catching, training, breeding, and internet battling.  The breadth and depth of the Pokemon world is pretty staggering once you realize what's all there.

So combat is simple, but training and battling at the very highest level is anything but.  Luckily, White 2 is more battle-friendly than any Pokemon game ever.  Its dungeons are extremely short and simple compared to the earliest Pokemon games, with a doctor or nurse often located halfway through for a free heal, and nothing so brutal a dungeon crawl as the Moon Cave or Seafoam Islands from Pokemon Red/Blue.  Instead of a deep RPG experience, White 2 focuses on a deep Pokemon experience.  Obtaining rare items and moves is easier than ever, with numerous rare item shops available in the late game and the new ability to use TMs (move-teaching machines) multiple times.  If you put some time into the endgame events like the Pokemon World Tournament or Battle Subway, you can earn points to buy rare moves or accessories that in older games would be impossible to obtain without trading.

I think Pokemon has always been moving in this direction.  Since the endgame is all about collecting rare Pokemon and high-level battling, making both of those as accessible as possible is to its advantage, and bogging down the main story with long dungeons without healing opportunities is a minus.  It's a logical evolution and it was pretty fun.  Really, the only long and difficult dungeon in White 2 is Victory Road, which is as impressive as ever.  All of the settings in general are quite impressive, with large, colorful sprites and interesting, textured areas.  My favorites were the insane variety of gyms, from the basic soccer field of the first gym to the INCREDIBLE fighting dragon statues of the seventh gym.  Pokemon has never looked better.

And while I'm on about the endgame stuff, let's talk about the Pokemon World Tournament, which is a blast.  You enter Pokemon tournaments using one of several rule types, and fight any gym leader or champion from every Pokemon game in history.  Anyone from Brock to Iris, including Red and Blue from way back in the day (they use their Pokemon from Heart Gold / Soul Silver). Awesome fanservice.  I haven't unlocked the Champions battles yet, because my team can only beat faster Water or Ice Pokemon with a lot of luck, but the challenge, variety, and callbacks offered by the PWT are impressive indeed.  If I didn't have so many other games to play, I might be inclined to building a stronger team (with EVs, IVs, good Natures, etc.) that can take on the highest level of the PWT.  

In addition to the PWT, White 2 has features like a Transfer lab to move Pokemon from older games to White 2, the White Treehollow for a randomly-generated dungeon that can be replayed as much as you wish, the Battle Subway for competitive battling similar (but less fun IMO) than the PWT, and multiple Legendary Pokemon that are particularly challenging to track down and capture.  Really, this is the best Pokemon game of all time when it comes to post-game activities.  It's quite impressive. 

My Pokemon experience went by my usual strategy (which is great for the main game and awful for post-game stuff like the PWT).  I never kept my main "rotation" of Pokemon above five, and kept one or two Pokemon around to use HM moves (which are still around, but appreciatively less common than the days of Red/Blue).  By the endgame, my favorite Pokemon to use were Excadrill, Mienshao, Haxorus, and Reuniclus; this generation has a lot of weird Pokemon, but a lot of useful stuff as well.  From my brief research, it appears that Excadrill, Hydreigon, and Ferrothorn alone have really torn up the competitive battling community.

I should mention some of the little improvements that White 2 has done, I guess.  Having doctors and nurses in the middle of dungeons is often a godsend.  Getting rid of PokeMarts and just including them in Pokemon centers (and having them upgrade with additional Badges) is hella smart.  Touchscreen and backpack interfaces are great.  There are so many connectivity and wireless features that it's incredible, and the Pokemon Global Network is so effective in getting what Pokemon you want that it's kind of amazing.  White 2 gives players more tools and more control than ever, and makes some of the old, frustrating things about Pokemon either easier or more sensible.  Overall, White 2 succeeds at the little things. 

So, that was a disorganized mess of my thoughts.  Let's break it down, shall we?  Pokemon White Version 2 is still Pokemon, and its combat, plot framework, and basic mechanics are all the same as they always were.  Its story and characters are perfectly fine, but this is a direct sequel and there are references and benefits to playing Black or White first.  White 2 also represents a series evolution (har har) from an RPG monster grinder to an RPG monster combat game, with a strong emphasis on competitive battling.  It's a little on the thin side in terms of an epic RPG storyline, but extremely robust in its extra features, post-game content, and Pokemon fanservice.  Overall, this is a near-perfect Pokemon game for Pokemon people.  How much you love Pokemon White Version 2 will directly correlate to how much you love Pokemon.  And I think that Pokemon is very nice indeed. 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2

Targets: 2/13


I'm in the early stages of Tales of Vesperia but I'm already thinking I need a break.  3 big RPGs in a row is taking its toll.  So I'm putting Tales of Vesperia on hiatus while I try to identify a more lightweight title from my list of 2013 targets, but in the meantime I have some other blog posts to write.  Expect one tomorrow and at least one more this weekend. 

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