So, two high profile games came out recently for the Nintendo DS: Pokemon Black/White and Okamiden. Before submitting the reviews for these games, I thought I’d submit some initial impressions to the site so you guys can hear my thoughts. First of all, what an impressive send-off to the DS! It’s hard to think that the 3DS is coming so soon and that the time of the DS is coming to a close, it’s been an extremely impressive ride. These games easily jump to the front of pack in the DS library–they are excellent. But remember, these are just my initial thoughts on the games, and that the final reviews may differ.
Pokemon Black/White follows the same formula as the previous generations, but there are plenty of tweaks. These subtle improvements make this new entry the best one yet, from a gameplay and story standpoint. Battles seem to go faster than the older games, which I’m very grateful for. Some of the older games, especially the originals and the third generation on GBA were almost unbearably slow. Even the 4th generation Pokemon games (Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, Heart Gold, and Soul Silver) felt a bit slow. The attack animations and menu cycling is just a bit more intuitive, a bit faster, and in general, a bit better–the game flow has really improved. It’s also nice that the Pokemon are no longer static in battle, they actually shift and bounce around constantly. They even close their eyes when they are asleep or slow down when they are in critical condition. The music also changes frequently in battle, which is cool (for example, if your Pokemon is low on health, or if you are on the verge of victory). The soundtrack is surprisingly good so far, although not too memorable. The second I turned off my DS, I couldn’t recall any of the battle themes–they just aren’t as catchy as the original generation, I suppose. The graphics appear largely the same as some of the previous releases, but Black and White make far better use of the 3D engine. There are plenty of times, even early in, where the camera will shift or the perspective will change to highlight the 3D graphics rather than mask it. The other DS games weren’t designed in a way that complemented the new 3D engine, they were designed in a conservative way that mimicked the look of the originals. For example, in Black and White, after beating the second gym leader, you can make you way to a huge, bustling city via a gigantic bridge. While crossing, the camera will zoom out and change perspectives, giving a heightened sense of how large the metropolitan area is in the game. The area designs in general are far better, based on what I’ve seen just from the initial three gyms (on my way to the fourth)!
The story is easily the most improved part of the game. Every generation in the past basically followed some kind of evil team bent on taking the world (Team Rocket, Team Aqua, Team Magma, Team Galactic, etc). Team Rocket was extremely memorable and did serve as an interesting antagonistic force compared to other RPGs, but the later teams were just kind of…silly. Team Plasma in Black/White are far more interesting, because you can kind of agree with them. It’s crazy that after all these years, the creative team behind Pokemon would actually write a story that talks about the ethics of capturing and fighting with Pokemon. It’s essentially a violent, eco-terrorist group that is bent on Pokemon liberation. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s far more creative and engaging than past generations because it actually makes you think more about the world Pokemon is in, and how people treat Pokemon. Still, the game design is strong enough and the adventure is fun enough to manage to hook you into its premise while still making you question the ethics. Maybe I’m focusing too much on it, but that’s just cool. Nintendo deserves respect for actually trying to implement a plot with heavy themes. It’s also cool that the gym leaders in the Unova region actually appear as prominent characters in the adventure. It always drove me nuts that in past generations, everyone seemed oblivious to these evil crime syndicates (“The end of the world? Who cares, let’s have a battle!”). The gym leaders here actually appear to fight for the common good and be legitimately helpful to their communities. For example, Team Plasma tries to steal some rare item from the local museum, and the gym leader (as well as the leader of the next town) help with getting it back, rather than just ask you to do it alone so they can sit and wait for challengers. As a side note, it’s also kind of funny that the game touches on the problems of having a Pokemon battle indoors (you completely trash your room at the start of the game). I haven’t gotten the chance to see a Triple or Rotation battle yet, so I can’t comment on those.
The monster designs are probably the weakest in the series. Some of them just look…kind of dumb. Still, there is more of an emphasis on different types this time around (there are some awesome Dragon, Bug, and Ghost types this generation), and the creatures from this generation seem to benefit more from a gameplay perspective. Some have awesome abilities and movesets, and the Dreamworld abilities are nuts (like Snivy’s ability “Contrary,” which causes stat lowering moves to instead raise his stats). Visually speaking, the Pokemon can be hard to discern. One of the nice things in past generations was how easy it was to discern a Pokemon’s type. In this generation, it’s not always so obvious. Some could argue that’s a good thing, since it kind of levels the playing field and makes you have to investigate these new Pokemon though. Also, even though the Pokemon sprites are more animated, they don’t look at all that nice thanks to the low resolution.
Pokemon White is a great game so far, I’m looking forward to the end of the adventure.
Now for Okamiden! It’s really bizarre to play this game on the DS, mostly because it fits so well. The original for PS2 will always remain as one of my all time favorite games and was easily in my Top 5 for the system. I had expected and anticipated a release for the Wii, which I got, and it was great. The main problem there was that the Wii remote was somewhat imprecise though, and made drawing lines a little harder than necessary, even if the concept was solid. The Nintendo DS fits like a glove. The control and game feel are just right, and even though the lack of an analog stick is annoying, the game handles well regardless. Even the game world made the transition well. The visuals obviously can’t be put on the same level as the original, but the developers really pushed the DS to its limits to create a stunning world that retained the artistic quality that the series is known for. The world of Nippon unfolds like a beautiful painting. This is easily one of the best showcases for the Nintendo DS, and an appropriate send off for the system. The sound follows suit, and is largely the same as the original. I haven’t done any direct comparisons, but I think that many of the songs are recycled from the PS2/Wii version almost exactly. The sound quality holds up surprisingly well. Like the original, there is no voice work, but that’s forgivable.
The gameplay and game world also fall in line with the original. Obviously, the game takes place across a historical fantasy world version of Japan, so there wasn’t much of an excuse to change it. Even though there are fantasy elements taken from mythology, the places are inspired from ancient Japan/Nippon. Much of the landscape is a miniaturized version of the PS2 original, with some areas slightly condensed. Some places are inaccessible, but for the most part, the land is the same. If anything, the adventure is a re-tread of the original, with Chibiterasu going on a quest to gain his powers for the first time (as opposed to Amaterasu’s journey to regain her powers and restore Japan). Even then, there are still unique enemies, dungeons, and quests to embark on, so the game never looks exactly the same. I have played for about 7 hours so far and am currently in Ryoshima coast. Even in that time, I’ve fought several bosses and unlocked several brush powers. The game is paced briskly. Unlike the PS2 game, which focused on Issun and Amaterasu, this game focuses on Chibiterasu, a young pup. Issun serves as the initial guide, getting you accustomed to the game world and introducing you to the plot. Soon after, Chibiterasu partners with Kuni, the son of Susano. The game is almost just as much about Kuni as it is about Chibi. Kuni’s journey follows his path to maturity and the storyline emphasizes values like courage and kindness. In a market where most of the popular titles are about violence, war, and revenge, this is always a breath of fresh air. I was legitimately surprised by how the story moves, and it’s great that the developers didn’t just make Kuni into a “tag-a-long” character with no weight.
Stay tuned for the full reviews for both games!