Surprisingly enough, I never played this game as a wee lad! It may have been a case of stubborn cynicism upon their announcement—”Why do these games need a sequel? I’m good with the originals.” Ironically, it wasn’t until much later that I would find out that this title and its White Version 2 counterpart are essentially pseudo-sequels. They take place at a later date in the same region, but it’s not all that necessary to play the originals to fully enjoy them.
Despite being wrong, I still never found the motivation to
buy play them before being swept up in more recent Pokémon news/games. Now, thanks to a friend of mine, I was provided a physical copy to try out for the first time. Interspersed between my playthrough of Metroid: Samus Returns, I would learn whether Gen 5 is all that a specific subset of fans promise it to be. That, and whether the original games are a better representation of what this generation has to offer.
Black Version 2 takes place two years after the events of Black. Things have changed in the Unova region, including various towns being re-worked, new gym leaders/Champion, and a post-Team-Plasma period of peace… initially. The player starts on the opposite side of the map as a brand new character, complete with friend/rival named Hugh, who will join you at specific points throughout the adventure.
Some things are callbacks to the prior game, though most of the experience is bereft of needing any context. Bianca and Cheren—the travel partners from the prior game—now have a semi-significant role in the story as Professor Juniper’s assistant and as a new gym leader, respectively. Team Plasma returns with some familiar faces re-appearing as needed. Characters, setting, and various plot devices are most of what are held over, with all else fashioned as a completely new experience.
Regular readers of the blog may as well skip until the next header. I’m gonna talk about the direction Pokémon as a franchise eventually took again, and how I don’t care for it.
Going through the first 5-10 hours of Black Version 2 was exhausting. Said feeling was only exacerbated when I realized about two hours in that I couldn’t just overwrite the previous save file; I had to go to the title screen, input some dumb button combination, and delete the save data there before I could save a new game. Two hours of progress—wasted.
Telling this to my brother, he theorized that that was put into place so that people couldn’t just start up a save file, save over it, and then possibly erase all the effort of a prior player. Kind of like the childhood story of mine where I started a game of Donkey Kong Country and saved over my father’s nearly-complete file at the very beginning of the journey. While I understand this in theory, not knowing this prior to starting a new file, it ended up tainting the experience somewhat.
That’s just a funny, miserable bump to start. What really made the brain start numbing was the amount of “help” the game provided me, especially within the first few towns. Talking—endless amounts of talking, tutorial exposition, structured sequences to show me how to play the game and learn the mechanics. Being handed a wide selection of healing items, pokéballs, berries, etc., practically every five minutes. Aside from damaging my pride, it slowed the pace down to a torturous crawl.
By this point in time, Pokémon is an expected bestseller. They need to appeal to everyone, veteran or newcomer; I understand. The franchise is gonna take the time to get players prepared and allow a relatively smooth experience, especially early on. Even so, I can’t help but feel alienated by the intense amount of filler, of hand-holding, and of being stopped every other minute to have a character explain something obvious to me. Old man (me) misses when the game expected more from the player.
When you hear about Gen 5, specifically, you’re bound to get a lot of fervor about its story. About how it questions the very idea of pokémon used as a companion to humans—whether they actually want to, or if humans are essentially holding them as slaves against their will. Admittedly, there have been times in my youth where I imagined if by catching a pokémon, would I be separating it from its family? Does it want to be captured? These are things that Gen 5 covers… in Black & White.
Black Version 2 basically sterilizes this deeper plotline in favor of a more straightforward “good vs. evil” story, because of course it does. The writing in this game, especially surrounding the active Team Plasma members, is hysterical. Full-grown dudes just screaming, “I LOVE BEING EVIL!” prior to battle. They’re not even trying to be complex anymore.
Only bits and pieces of the original story about the relationship between humans and pokémon remain, mostly via accounts of former Team Plasma members one meets along the way. Otherwise, it’s a pretty basic Pokémon story—only by this point, the franchise can now afford to be more cinematíque. Using legendary pokémons’ power to dominate the world, attack towns, and the rarely-implemented poké-fusion tactic. Kind of wish they leaned more into that; it’d be rad!
It’s been a little while since I played the original Black & White, so I can’t say definitively whether the experimentation of a deeper storyline really bore much fruit. I can say by default, however, that I’d prefer it over… whatever they were trying to do here. A weird imbalance of a very bare-bones JRPG plot with some underlying callbacks to the tender nature of the prior games. As alluded to before, it mostly comes off as cartoonish and hilarious. Didn’t care at all.
Characters, too, share a similarly cartoonish and simplistic essence. Hugh, especially, is pretty one-note throughout: “I’m gonna be strong so I can protect people! Where’s my sister’s Purrloin? I’m gonna wreck it!” (That last one may have been borrowed.) Like the writing team tried to take the eccentric nature of Barry from Gen 4 and mold it into this rival-esque husk of confidence reminiscent of Blue from Gen 1—only he likes you. Yet he fails to really grab me.
Other characters fair a bit better, such as the returning Cheren and Bianca. They were moderately enjoyable in the prior games, and here their expanded roles give them a little bit more flavor to their now-mature characters. Cheren’s serious studiousness provides a nice “ally” to call on when trouble strikes. Bianca is more of a sweet caretaker with a slight penchant for research and being an airhead. These two were more tolerable to interact with, and the game gave ample opportunity for them to appear.
Nevertheless, when I think of any character that stands out above others… none come to mind. Some do well within their given points of importance (like new gym leader Roxie), though don’t last. Still, it’s nice to see a Pokémon game actually attempt to humanize gym leaders past “Strong trainers that stand in a building that you have to challenge to progress.” If only they kept at it more consistently.
Story, characters, writing; yeah, things typically important when it comes to a JRPG-type game. Though when it comes to Pokémon, this has recently become less of a priority. Presently appealing more to kids than anything, it’s become expected that the story and writing will be surface-level and to-the-point. Wow, it’s sad to actually type that out as a “defense” of the game’s quality…
Fortunately, there is a lot more to Black Version 2 than its writing. To the purists, all that really matters is gameplay. Does it work? Is it fun? Here, I would say quite so—outside the opening barrage of exposition dumps.
Sleek in its presentation, quick in its feedback. Battling trainers and pokémon is as satisfying as it’s ever been, debatably more so. I’ve always been fond of swiftness with these games, particularly in turn-based battles. Black Version 2 ends up one of the speedier games in the franchise; despite my heavy grinding habits, I never felt I was anywhere too long. An invigorating sense of efficiency boils from this title, coupled with another gameplay mechanic I really like: Audino.
Audino is the single-greatest treasure to Pokémon. Its cute physical make-up and tendency to make grass rustle is but a cover for its true purpose: experience points. These lovely creatures can occasionally (more frequent if you run around like a maniac) be found in grass that shake around, offering a one-way ticket to experience-point paradise.
As an example, pokémon around level 7-8 would fetch me 40-70 experience points if my pokémon a few levels higher. Audino of that same level would fetch 200-300 points. Now imagine the amount a level 40-something Audino would yield… yowza.
Such a beautiful mechanic, allowing an option for those who would rather skip the grindfest and just take out a few of them to get their team up to par. Or, for someone devoid of sanity like me, overlevel like crazy. It’s a win-win. Only true detriment would be that it requires maybe a little too much running around. Though I also grinded like crazy, so I can’t say how accurate that’d be to others.
While I whine about accessibility measures in most cases, there are also some nice quality-of-life adjustments with the fifth generation of games. Asking if you want to use another repel after the prior one wears off; staying on the menu of party pokémon when using a healing item, instead of going back to the bag; being able to register multiple key items for use outside the bag, instead of just one. Things of this nature are fine, and do well to keep the pace of the game efficient.
Now the old-man soul will appear again: Black Version 2 is the best Pokémon has ever looked. The pixel quality… oh, my goodness. Delightfully animated sprites and gorgeous environments of all types—green and brown and red and black and gray and blue and [insert color here]. A healthy variety of different environments to explore and sights to see. Rural and urban, and occasionally fantastical. A film studio, battle tournaments, rollercoasters; the sights of towns and cities are almost as impressive as nature generally is.
And all of this is done with mostly pixel graphics. Because pixel graphics are great and amazing and lovely and good. This was the last mainline game before it made the jump to 3D
and ruined everything. It certainly shows. Whether in battle or traveling around, it’s pleasant and even extravagant.
Same can be said of the game’s soundtrack, which more than usually cements itself among the best in the series. When it comes to presenting the game, Black Version 2‘s graphical and auditory qualities come through brilliantly. How easy it was to simply coast through areas and listen along to the theme as I went around, searching for goodies. Extra kudos go to the battle themes, whether trainers, pokémon, or integral events (Hugh’s theme is also pretty good).
Almost like a strange seesaw effect, the beginning of this game was painfully slow and loaded with dialogue. The end, excluding the Team Plasma shenanigans (read: comedy), was free-flowing and paced brilliantly. I enjoyed the end of this game an almost shocking amount, more so than a number of other Pokémon games I’ve played previously. Such can probably be narrowed down to the wide variety of things to do along the way, whether battling trainers, exploring new places, or being reminded of impending things to come.
To close this out, I’ll briefly mention the decision to go from a Gen-5-only pokédex to opening it up to monsters of all generations to that point. I will always welcome that decision. Going through the game, I was always delighted to see the varied selection of pokémon available to collect, occasionally making the selection amongst my main team hard. It also does well to open up the world more; isolating a region to itself is a neat concept, but the more the merrier, as they say.
Separating it into parts, it goes something like this:
- Story: Hilarious
- Characters and Writing: Who cares?
- Gameplay: As addictive as ever
- Graphics & Audio: Fantastic
In truth, it reminds me somewhat of Fire Emblem: Awakening, a game that many fans of that franchise adore that I thought was neat but kind of overrated. Playing Awakening, purely for its gameplay purposes, it’s a very solid game that’s addictive in its strategy goodness. The story and characters, though… ehhh… If one can look past this, it’s a good recommendation.
Black Version 2 is essentially a reflection of this same stipulation. It’s a very good Pokémon game, serviced by its gameplay and approach to re-establishing the region. Although, this is at the expense of characters and story with any charm—except perhaps in a “So bad, it’s good” way. Enjoyable for what it is, though it may have been the start of the franchise diving deep into Casual Land™, for better or worse.
Final Score: 7/10
(All screenshots taken from a playthrough by Marriland. They played through White Version 2, technically, but I don’t care.)
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great day.