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Pokémon Black/White 

The new Pokémon narrative just pokes along.

click to enlarge Pokémon goes panoramic.
  • Pokémon goes panoramic.

During a lifetime of playing videogames, I’ve learned quite a few things about myself. I’ve learned that I’m remarkably good at planning military defenses.

I’m a disastrous drug dealer. Never, ever ask me to drive the getaway car. The killer inside me prefers a knife to a gun. And most recently, by playing Pokémon Black/White, I discovered that I’m still a 10-year-old at heart.

Adulthood, you haven’t taken me yet! I was thrilled when my otter-like Oshawott evolved — all whirling double helixes and sparkles — into a sleek, feline Dewott. I felt clever when I went ahead of the game and caught a Pokémon that gave me an advantage in an upcoming battle. When they fought, the creatures’ movements were impressive. (They’ve never been animated before.) And yeah, I pored over my Pokémon collection, trying to complete the whole thing.

Like a serious 10-year-old, I also felt cheated by some of the new features. Growing berries — a peaceful, Pokémon-enhancing activity I enjoyed in past games — has been moved online and limited to one goround per day. And while Pokémon Black/White features an entirely new cast of Pokémon — which means that even longtime trainers begin blank — the surprise is ruined when half of the new Pokémon end up looking like extra cast members from a Muppet Show production of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Pokémon is a brilliant role-playing game. But it’s brilliant just like it was 15 years ago. It’s still telling the same basic tale and throwing the same punches in the same places. I’ve played this game before and I’ve loved it. But now I want to love something new. It’s time for Pokémon to grow up. It can always be a 10-year-old at heart.

THE GOOD: I don’t want my videogame to tell me a story — unless it’s a good story. And by good story, I mean a story that makes me explore the gameworld a little harder. I mean a story that tells itself with actions, not lines of dialogue. I mean a story that makes the gameworld come alive as much as the graphics and gameplay. Pokémon Black/White may be a first in the Pokéverse — a Pokémon game with a good story propelling me through the world, not just a map with numbered highways and a checklist of critters.

THE BAD: Over the years, the franchise has accrued some engaging additions — battles with two Pokémon on each side, day and night cycles, online connectivity. I was hoping for a similar step forward. Instead, Pokémon Black/White has seasonal cycles — as though I’m going to pick up this game in three months just to see what four Pokémon I missed this winter. The tag-team battles have become occasional threesomes, but they’re still just as vanilla as the first time they appeared in the series — no serious “fusion” powers between the critters. And the new wireless connectivity, with its inscrutable profusion of C-Gears, Dream Worlds, Tag Logs and Wonder Launchers, makes it harder than ever to reach out and catch ‘em all.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Pokémon Black/White is a meager makeover of a classic series that deserves a more energetic reinvention.

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