Review: Black & White represent Pokemon at its best

You’ve crossed the desert to find the Vegas-like city of Nimbasa in turmoil as the Pokemon-rights thugs wreak havoc. They’re hiding in the amusement park. You really should take action right now, but”¦You have a chance to feature your Pokemon in that stage musical across the street, and you want to see how your Krokorok looks in a top hat. Saving the world can wait.

Welcome to the weird, chaotic, wonderful world of Pokemon Black and White, the best entry to date in Nintendo’s record-shattering RPG franchise.

Pokemon RPGs are videogame comfort food: familiar, reliable and satisfying. If you’ve ever played one, you know what to expect here, from the tiny opening village to the eight Gym Leaders to the Day Care folks and the Nickname-Changing Guy.

So, what makes Black and White such a great entry? The words “more” and “improved” come to mind. You’ll find a slicker presentation, more animation, great cut scenes, better sound and quicker pacing. An avalanche of tweaks and improvements join with tons of extra content, optional quests and online modes to create Nintendo’s best-looking, best-sounding, best-playing Pokemon RPG in the series’ history.

The simple landscapes feel more “alive” this time around, due to great details, from the sound of a plane passing overhead to enormous trucks rumbling by in a sandstorm. The traditional journey from small village to big city has never had more impact; your approach to the central metropolis of Castelia City is an awesome sequence. Try playing a bit with stereo earphones to get the full effect of the game’s excellent sound mix.

Best of all, the story is truly compelling this time around. B&W’s tale involves Team Plasma, a mysterious group who make threats and bully folks around in the name of Pokemon Rights”¦.as if there’s something wrong with capturing animals in tiny spheres and forcing them to fight one another. It’s refreshing and fun to see the franchise examine and criticize itself in this light, as the motivations and philosophies of all the game’s characters are given a bit of depth that this series has rarely enjoyed before.

Add in the adventure’s sharp, clever writing and you end up with a game that’s funnier, sadder, crazier and more involving than previous installments.

It’s also unusual in that there are no classic Pokemon involved in the main quest. Don’t let that deter you: Within an hour of play, the parade of completely new faces turns out to be a welcome change of pace. It only took me a few hours to find six creatures I liked enough to keep as my “go-to” crew. Sure, you’ll find a bunch of clunkers in the new line, but no Pokemon cast has ever been free of a few less-than-thrilling designs (Metapod, anyone?)

After all this praise, however, let me make this very clear: If you’ve already tried a Pokemon RPG and didn’t care for the core experience, nothing in this game is going to change your mind. It’s still the same random-battle, level-grinding, evolve-your-Pokemon, collect-the-badges adventure it’s always been.

If you’re a fan of Pokemon RPGs, however, I highly recommend this game. If you’re new to the series, this is the perfect time to give it a try. Pokemon Black and White joins the ranks of DS’s very best and most feature-rich adventures.