Pokemon (the game), like Pokemon (the mythical pocket monster), is an interesting beast. Created in 1995, the franchise has achieved the kind of bewildering success that dwarfs its competitors and all but carved out a niche of its own, and the brand has gone on to become the second most lucrative in videogame history (first is, of course, that other Nintendo property - Mario).
The concept behind the first game, and this very latest one, is the same; go on a coming of age adventure, finding and battling cute little beasties as you solve the world's problems and become a superstar Pokemon trainer. It's a simple premise, no question, and that simplicity is also likely a big part of the reason that, 17 years on, Pokemon is still "a thing".
This core premise is played out by way of a mostly top-down role playing game, in which the monsters you find must be leveled up (by fighting other monsters) so that you can, in turn, take on ever increasingly high level monsters as you progress through the story. Combat is turn-based, and the core of it revolves around a rock / paper / scissors-like system where certain types of Pokemon (and their moves) are strong (or weak) when put up against other kinds of Pokemon (and their moves).
This fundamental concept still works, however - as we alluded to when the last game released in 2011 - the game has picked up a lot of quirks over the years and, yet again, developers Game Freak have decided not to address them. It's as if they're afraid of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
The first thing that's needed a rework for a long time, but completely fails to get one this time around, is the basic interface. There's a lot of menus in the game, as you might expect for a team-based role playing game, and the way in which you interface with them is perfunctory at best. It's inconsistent even with itself, quirky, and often irksome to use. The number of button presses, for example, required to progress through dialogue (or combat text) soon frustrates.
Arguably the biggest area in need of an overhaul is the combat. It feels dated and out of step with modern user interface paradigms, and relies heavily on the user having a detailed knowledge of the combatants (and / or, access to a guide, a pokedex, and the internet). Blizzard's latest World of Warcraft expansion launched with a Pokemon-like component and, while it's simple, it addresses most of the issues that continue to plague the actual Pokemon games.
What sorts of things, I hear you ask? For a start, instead of assuming you know which attack is strong against which creature, WoW's version of the game presents that information in the interface: an up-arrow on the attack button when that attack will be strong, and a down arrow when it will be weak. Here, it requires trial and error, mega memory, or frequently referring to external guides.
Another thing that irks is the constant text descriptions of what's happening: "it's raining" or "ted's asleep" - text that appears every turn, drawing oh-so-slowly on the screen, even at the highest text speed setting. Why not use some of that screen space to simply display an icon that the user can touch to find out about if they need to? While you're at it, why not allow the user to find out information about the attacks they can use or the Pokemon they're fighting from within the combat interface?
It's kludgy, basically, and feels like a game from 10 years ago. The fact that Game Freak continue to not advance this core area of the game suggests that they never will, either; something that grates with me in particular every time I play any version of the game (I own most of them).
Gripes aside, it's still the best version of Pokemon yet. There's so much to do, from the new story content (which works particularly well if you've played Pokemon Black or White, but should still make sense if you haven't), to the awkwardly charming Pokestar Studios (where you can make a movie, kind of) and the Pokemon World Tournament mode. There's no question that, if you like the game, you'll be able to play it for a long time without retreading old ground.
It also integrates with two 3DS applications, if you have Nintendo's newest toy (the game is otherwise playable on a DS or DSi), the first of which - Pokemon Dream Radar - is available now. The second, an enhanced Pokedex application called Pokedex 3D Pro, is coming later this year.
Dream Radar is an Augmented Reality game in which you must spin around like a loony toon and shoot clouds that have appeared in whatever room you happen to be in at the time. Doing so will score you dream orbs and, on occasion, items or even Pokemon to transfer into Pokemon Black / White Version 2.
It's a fun-ish distraction when considered alongside the actual Pokemon games, as you can easily forgive it its lack of depth and variety based solely on the fact that you can score bonus items to help you in the main game. This is particularly beneficial if you focus on it early in your Pokemon adventure, as some of the Pokemon you get here will give you a very real advantage in the early part of the game. Otherwise, it's a bit disappointing, especially given how few different types of Pokemon are actually able to be found inside.
I played through my adventure with the official Pokemon Black Version 2 & Pokemon White Version 2 Scenario Guide, a large-format, 464-page paperback book that's intended to aid would-be super trainers as they play the game. The book, which is very nicely put together, includes a number of sections, excluding an actual Pokedex - that's coming later, in a second guide.
As a walkthrough, it's not ideal; the structure of this part of the book is poor, necessitating frequent jumps between pages as you try to figure out what to do next. The instructions for each part of your journey, too, are lacking in detail, often simply repeating what you've already been told in the game itself. Fortunately, the tips alongside the walkthrough are good, and the other sections of the guide - especially if you're new to Pokemon - are worth reading.
Technically, while pushing the DS to its limit, Pokemon White Version 2 is clearly straining at the seams. With an increased focus on using its 3D engine, on a system (the DS) that was never designed to be a 3D powerhouse, the game can look a little rough around the edges. Fortunately, that's only really an issue outside of the actual game, where the graphics - despite the occasional black screen on loading - are generally very good.
Sound is functional, but lacks any real verve or excitement. Pokemon, as a rule, make few unique sounds, and effects are used repeatedly with very little variety. It's there, and it's fine, but you're unlikely to be excited by it.
In a nutshell, then, Pokemon White Version 2 is an enigma. It's simultaneously a solid Pokemon game, with loads of content and value out the wazoo, but also deeply disappointing thanks to the developers continued refusal to revamp the core of the age-old experience. Still, when considering my comments, also keep in mind that there are a large number of the Pokemon-playing audience that disagree with me, and think that the game is just fine as it is.
Note: While Pokemon Black Version 2 and Pokemon White Version 2 are different games, their contents is largely identical. Our review was performed using Pokemon White Version 2; Serebii.net has a breakdown of the differences between the versions. The guide, and Pokemon Dream Radar, which were both discussed in this review, are not factored into the score.