The Pokémon RPGs fill an odd space within Nintendo’s vast catalogue. They’re simultaneously cynically profit-driven (hence the two different versions and near-identical progression structures in each iteration) and extremely inventive, producing experiences that would be exceptionally unique if not for the fact that we've already played so many previous Pokémon games. They also sit in the weird position of being perceived as a throwback to childhood by many, as games made for kids, despite actually offering a far deeper, obsession-baiting experience than anything else Nintendo releases. People will spend literally hundreds of hours scouring these games for rare Pokémon, and Wikis are all but essential for tapping into the game’s numerous unlisted stats, evolution chains, breeding possibilities, item combinations, move combos and more. They are extraordinary games…but there’s also a lot of them now, so it’s easy to be blasé.
Black & White 2 are overwhelming, even for a series veteran. It’s not because they’re overly difficult – the different levels of effectiveness of certain moves against certain Pokémon types is so ingrained into my psyche now that it’s sort of scary – but because you can’t walk down the street without a new mechanic, item, move, important building, trade offer, or piece of information being thrown at you. The game is obsessed with proving that it’s not exactly the same as its predecessors, despite spending so much time in the same places, with many of the same characters and so few truly new Pokémon. NPCs constantly note the things that have changed in the two years since the events of the last games, but these changes don’t equate to much to those of us who invested a mere 40-odd hours into the prior game. Plus the fundamental gameplay model, the one I familiarised myself with extensively when I played through Pokémon Red 11 times as a kid, is still the same.
That said, the first Black & White games refined the formula quite a bit, and those refinements are still present. Pokémon get an XP boost if they’re involved in a fight with a Pokémon at a level higher than theirs, HMs aren't required the same way they were before, the graphics are vastly improved, and all the little changes that only the absolute top players (the ones who don’t need reviews like this one) will notice are still in place. As nice as these changes are, though, the experience is no longer as fresh as it once was.
Does this matter? Not as much as you might think. At its core, the system behind Pokémon is still as enjoyable as it has ever been, and it’s all but impossible to not get invested in the team you've built up, which can now be made up of both new and old Pokémon from the very start. The key to Pokémon has always been that you’re given complete freedom to catch, train and nurture your own team, subbing in and out different monsters and building up an odd rapport with the ragtag bunch that you've essentially recruited as your slaves. The surprising insight into the ethics of Pokémon that popped up in Black & White is followed up on slightly here, but not to the degree we would have liked. In fact, the narrative here isn't as interesting as the one the previous game offered, although that’s unlikely to bother many people.
As has been the case for a while, the really interesting new stuff doesn't pop up until the endgame, which makes the journey to the credits very enjoyable, but also somewhat perfunctory. Ultimately, it’s hard to get into these games the way we did when its predecessors hit a year and a half ago, but that doesn't mean that we’re not going to keep going until we've exhausted ourselves again.