I was recently asked my most anticipated game of 2011. The answer? Pokémon Black and White. This response was met with looks of bewilderment and disgust, gradually evolving into a chorus of laughter - I’d chosen a children's game over the likes of Uncharted 3, Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim. But as a big RPG fan, the most hardcore eastern offering of 2011 is arguably the new Pokémon. It hasn't been too long since I retired SoulSilver to its box, however, and the sting of losing in the first round of the 2010 national Pokémon championships still lingers, was I really ready to wave goodbye to another two hundred hours on a new poké-adventure? The endorphins swimming through my veins after finding the sleek black cartridge that had appeared on my desk alluded to a resounding yes.
The start of the game presents you the age-old choice of three Pokémon: Snivy, the serpentine grass starter; fire pig Tepig; and Oshawatt the otter. After making your choice, you're handed a Pokédex from female professor Juniper and then leave the small town of Nuvema to make a name for yourself in the Unova region. Sharing this quest are childhood friends Bianca and Cheren, whose paths repeatedly intertwine with yours over the duration. Unlike your rival in previous games, the two remain on good terms with you despite nagging for battles every five minutes.
It's good to have friends, though, because the nefarious Team Plasma is attempting to do what all villains want to do - separate Pokémon from their trainers. They justify their shenanigans with PETA-esque morals this time around, though, arguing that keeping these poor creatures cooped up in balls all day long is unethical. Their argument is militantly enforced by King N and the Seven Sages (the upper echelon of Team Plasma). This N (quite why his name is a single letter is never explained) is your true rival; a misguided youth who walks a path similar to your own, only on the 'dark side' of life. The narrative feels far more poignant than in previous titles, and despite being somewhat cheesy, with words such as destiny, truth and courage bandied around with alarming frequency, it's interesting to follow.
The biggest addition to Black and White is that each and every creature in the game (including older critters from previous titles) now has its own individual animations to accompany it in battle. They flex their muscles, wag their tails and flap their wings. My Emboar, the final evolution of Tepig, shifts his weight from foot to foot, as flames on either shoulder flicker with visible intensity. He looks totally badass.
With a few exceptions, the new Pokémon designs are excellent. Whilst more obscure creatures like Litwick (a candle) and Vanillite (an ice-cream) take some time to adjust to, you can't help but admire the creativity of Game Freak's art team, who have managed to add an impressive 156 new creatures to the 500-strong roster. In fact, until you reach the end-game content, each and every critter you come across is brand new. Interestingly, each pays homage to another of the original 150 Pokémon from 1996's Red and Blue. Tracing their roots feels like a game in itself for the long-time fan.
Black and White also makes use of 3D cutscenes for the first time in the series, alongside conversations taking place with character artwork in the background - a JRPG staple heavily reminiscent of Tales of Symphonia (and its sequels). Architecturally, this is the most ambitious Pokémon game yet, with cities spanning several screens, filled with skyscrapers, alleyways and dockyards. As you cross the several huge bridges in the game, the camera shifts perspectives, zooming in and out to give a sense of scale. The world of Unova is certainly impressive, complimented perfectly by new camera angles, fancy artwork and an upgraded graphics engine.