Here’s something unusual for Pokemon: a sequel! We haven’t had games which are clearly marked as straightforward sequels since Gold / Silver / Crystal, with the series preferring the now expected 3 game cycle for each generation. As sequels Black 2 / White 2 have a chance to carve out a unique niche for themselves, so let’s see how they did.
Pokemon Black 2 / White 2 (NDS)
Released Jun 2012 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 35 hours
The first challenge Black 2 / White 2 faces as a sequel is continuing the plot of Black / White. Like all Pokemon games, Black / White’s plot is resolved in a pretty standard way, with the villainous team defeated and the player getting to challenge the region’s best trainers to become the Champion. There were some unanswered questions for those who cared to consider them, like where did the redeemed leader of Team Plasma, N, head off to with his legendary Pokemon? And what about the ultimate fate of Ghetsis, the unhinged man-behind-the-man of the team who sought world domination after manipulating N and the team to his own ends? These are the kind of questions that normally aren’t considered by Pokemon games – they are for kids after all, and a neat ending is preferable to a messy one. These are some of the angles in which Black 2 / White 2 takes the story, but I’m not sure how successful I think it is.
As always we play as a random kid who gets given a Pokedex and a starter monster before being sent off on an adventure. One character, Hugh, continues a trend of Game Freak trying to add a bit more complexity to the rival; here we get a young lad who is fiercely protective of his family because of the impact of Team Plasma from the first game who stole his little sister’s Pokemon. Although Hugh is kind of hyper and overblown at times, his attitude can be quite infectious and his indignant rage at Team Plasma is a great way to show the effect of their actions. We’ve never really gotten to see the human impact of a villainous Team before; when Team Rocket takes over places or when Magma or Aqua attempt to ruin the world by awakening primordial forces of nature, once they’re beaten everything goes back to normal. Hugh’s attitude is a new thing for Pokemon, and although these games are, as always, primarily for a young audience, the fact he works to show the mental impact of Plasma’s actions is a surprisingly engaging and mature addition to the narrative in Gen V.
I also like the return of both rivals from the previous game, Cheren and Bianca; the former reappears as a Gym Leader, showing calmer and more dignified behaviour than how he was in Black / White, while Bianca has moved up in the world to Professor Juniper’s assistant and journeys around the world for her research, a far cry from her timid nature before. Both of these character arcs are quite satisfying and show significant growth although I suppose it would be lost on anyone coming to these games without having played the prequels. Team Plasma undergo a similar fate; they reappear in this game having splintered into 2 factions, one which seeks atonement for their past actions by trying to work for the good of society while the other functions as the villains of the game once again. Unfortunately having Plasma act as a recurring villain doesn’t feel anywhere near as good as before; stripped of the conceit that they stand for Pokemon liberation they become just a generic bunch of bad guys. In fact, their appearance here is probably one of the worst villainous teams in a main series game yet as they not only lack coherent motives but also the places their story goes goes off the rails in a really silly way.
In fact, the way Team Plasma is portrayed here genuinely irks me. It comes down in no small part to how the team was written in the first game and the sometimes odd relationship the Pokemon franchise has with its villains. The original Team Rocket remains my favourite team in the games because their villainy is very real. The things they do in Red / Blue are recognisable crimes; they extort and rough up trainers on Nugget Bridge, they steal the Silph Scope, they commit an actual act of domestic terrorism when they take over Silph Co., and to top it off they even murder a sentient Pokemon. In the games that followed, Game Freak dialed back on how they built their villains and instead opted for more cartoony baddies with more ludicrous goals. I might still like them, but no one’s drawing any real-world parallel or learning a moral lesson from Team Magma trying to erupt a volcano in order to expand the landmass or Team Galactic invading a parallel dimension. The reason I like Team Plasma in Black / White is because they manage to commit human crimes before escalating, cementing them as effective villains first and then letting the big silly stuff happen later.
For context, when we first meet Team Plasma in the preceding game it’s while they’re holding a rally in an early-game town. We learn about their ideals towards Pokemon liberation and meet their leaders in both Ghetsis and N. However, in the next town over we come across Plasma goons physically abusing a Pokemon, and after beating the local Gym Leader a young child comes to us crying that Plasma stole her Pokemon and we have to go get it back. The veneer of civility drops from the team and we realise that the rally we saw was a sanitised, public-safe front but in reality their members are vindictive and cruel. From then on, events in the story serve to underline that; soon after Plasma conducts a museum heist and steals an ancient artifact. Because we’ve already established them as actual villains who are capable of committing genuine crimes, by the time the plot shifts over into N’s emergence as a figure of legend who wants to use the power of his draconic Pokemon to rule over a Unova devoid of trainers, we’re already so committed to stop these crooks that it we’re ready to accept the scaling up of their operations into cartoon levels.
In contrast, Team Plasma in Black 2 / White 2 has neither any such development nor any of the depth. Their earliest appearances consist of dull confrontations with the player; by the late game we’ve fought off so many Plasma grunts that they become rote. Worse, the grunts don’t add anything to the characterisation of Team Plasma; because there’s no pretence of their loftier ideals from the previous game they begin as abominably evil and never grow. In general their appearances in this game are far more bizarre, relying on awkward fantastical additions to their armory; they travel around the world in a flying tallship for a start, and one of their leaders is a goofy scientist who seems to have no relation or interest in their goals. Even their big plan feels like a much lesser version of their previous one, and it’s up there with Magma, Aqua, and Galactic for goofiness. It is perhaps more kid-friendly than the darker, more realistic tone of some of Team Plasma in Black / White, but the purpose of villains in media aimed at kids needs some sort of moralising facet, even if it’s small, and I don’t see what you can draw from Plasma in this game except maybe just don’t be a massive technologically-advanced group of super baddies.
Being a sequel also means that Black 2 / White 2 can’t capitalise on the core thing that made their predecessors such immediate hits for me and that’s the fact that Unova and its Pokemon are no longer new. I talked at length in my review of Black / White about the power of the decision to restrict returning Pokemon to the post-game, about how it fostered an atmosphere of wide-eyed discovery comparable to the original Red / Blue, and how it triggered a realisation in me that I actually value those feelings more than I expected. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Black 2 / White 2 are prevented by design in engaging on that same level. Black 2 / White 2 do change up what Pokemon you can encounter to some degree, but they do it by adding in older ‘mons rather than adding new ones; these Pokemon can be exciting to see again for sure – one early area throws both Mareep and Riolu at players and both are among my favourites – but they’re comforting in their familiarity rather than thrilling unknowns. In an even more disappointing move Black 2 / White 2 doesn’t even go that far in changing the Pokemon distribution within Unova as many areas feature maybe one or two new regular encounters so sometimes you can work through an area and find just the same old critters as you had in the first games.
It’s not a surprise either that most of Unova is the same as well – it’s only been two years after all – but why then do we have to retrace our steps through most of it? Castelia City, Nimbasa, Driftveil, these are all places we’ve seen before and they return basically just lifted from the previous games and plopped back down. Sure, some of the NPCs are different and the Gyms have had redesigns but it’s hardly compelling to play a partially repeated experience. There are some new places to go at least; we begin off to the south-west of the map, amidst the bustle of Aspertia City and the industrial hive of Virbank but it’s quickly left behind to return to streets and routes we already know. A token effort is made to change things; after following a largely identical path up the left side of Unova we abruptly shift and move over to the right! Gosh, shock, wow, etc.
In general I think Black 2 / White 2 seem to get by on small enhancements rather than substantive changes. There are some visual updates, such as new sprites for a handful of characters, and fully animated trainer sprites when you begin a fight; on top of that, new areas continue the trend set in Black / White of looking marvelous and pushing the DS’s hardware to its limit. Tiny quality-of-life changes have been implemented like being prompted to use another repel when one wears off instead of going through menus. In short, some of the changes are nice but they’re not groundbreaking; they certainly aren’t the sort of modifications that make you thankful you spent more money on these. The franchise is no stranger to this but usually it more or less gets away with it because of the three game release structure it had employed up to this point: you accepted that the third game was generally just a slightly enhanced rerelease and so you didn’t mind if the changes weren’t huge. However I think that these being sequels carry a different set of expectations and those say that there really should be something more to the experience than just some token alterations and a largely repeated game.
Perhaps the two big additions that are worth talking about are the Pokemon World Tournament and Pokestar Studios. Every game since Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald has had some sort of alternative to battling such as the Contests and I’ve generally avoided talking about them in my reviews because I generally am not that interested in them. Even Black / White had the Music Hall, where you could play dress-up with a Pokemon and then enter it into a musical. Pokestar deserves special mention partly because there’s not much else to talk about with Black 2 / White 2 but also because it’s probably the most elaborate of its type so far. Early on you’re inducted into the world of Poke-Hollywood and you become an actor in Pokestar movies; what makes them a bit more compelling is the sheer range of distinct movies available for you to act in, and that your actions, dialogue choices, and performance in the filmed battles can change the direction of the film and in turn impact on the audience’s reception to your creation. For once it’s kind of enthralling!
The other big addition is the Pokemon World Tournament, this game’s implementation of the recurring battle arena feature which again has been part of the franchise since around Gen III. What makes the Pokemon World Tournament worth talking about though is the speciality tournaments which pit you against characters series veterans will recognise, including the old Gym Leaders (as in, Brock, Misty, et al) and even Champions from the previous games in the franchise. It’s a little love letter to the series’ roots and it’s a lovely little thing to have available. I certainly find it better than the usual battle arenas that we’ve seen over the years with their over-reliance on gimmick fights.
Players can also collect medals during their playthroughs. These are basically internal achievements; many of them are a little bit banal though, with not a huge amount of creativity on show: we’re talking things like medals for walking so many steps, saving so many times, or catching x amount of Pokemon of each type. I’d say they’re a draw for completionists but unfortunately that’s not even true because some of them can’t ever be achieved now due to the closure of the Black 2 / White 2 online services. It’s yet another reminder that tying online functionality into games can have a very real drawback as the years march on and support is dropped.
At the end of Black 2 / White 2 I sat back and asked myself: Who is this for? New fans won’t understand the significance of Team Plasma’s split or the stuff said and done by returning characters, and old fans run the risk of being bored with this half-arsed sequel. The new areas and very mildly changed Pokemon distribution really aren’t enough of a sell for me, but as I said earlier I think it could have been avoided purely with a change of branding – that this game was marketed as a proper sequel built up expectations. It seemed to promise a shake-up to the way the series as a whole was produced, but in reality it was just another “third game”, no different to Emerald, or Platinum, but split into two games. If you don’t mind the laziness you’ll find Black 2 / White 2 an adequate experience because underneath it all it’s still a Pokemon game and that does come with a general level of quality, but this time around it just feels thin.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.