Some time ago, Pokemon Black/White was released for the DS to rave reviews. I’d never played a Pokemon game (though I was quite a fan of the original television series when a teenager), and all this critical praise made me think that I might be missing out. I had a copy of Pokemon Pearl floating around, so I loaded it up and away I went.
For the most part, the game flowed pretty smoothly. Levelling up is a mechanic that taps deep into our reinforcement and reward mechanisms and in this game, as in every other, I got great mileage out of watching those numbers tick upwards. The design is classic Japanese RPG, cute sprites and cute landscapes, wandering within and between villages, and encountering random or scripted encounters. Usually this is a winning combination. Here, though, there were a number of problems — ultimately, I found myself frustrated and I think I’m unlikely to return to the franchise.
First, the pace was sloooooow. The speed at which the text of the inane conversations progresses is glacial. Likewise with the battles — there are constant pauses to tell you what’s going on (e.g., poisoning, weather effects, critical hits). After becoming used to RPGs transitioning to more real-time battle sequences, this woodenness was very hard to bear. Second, the story is unengaging. There’s some nonsense about a team of villains trying to harness the power of an uber-pokemon, but it doesn’t draw you in at all. Japanese RPGs are usually great at being epic on either a cosmic or a psychological level — this was neither. Further, characters usually have a bit of…character. Instead you have funny looking animals who have as much personality as a pet tortoise (not none, but not enough to hang a game on). This latter point is clearly a component in the franchise’s huge success, but it doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. There were numerous subgames (something about making your pokemon fashionable?), but they seemed utterly pointless and had no effect on the main game. Finally, after being very good at not requiring grinding for the majority of the game, the final encounters (which you must endure solely to have external validation of your ‘awesome trainer’ credentials) required about ten hours of mind-numbing levelling up in order to beat. This would be fine if there were interesting side quests for me to go off and do in the mean time, or if I had a younger sibling whom I could force to level up for me (a tried and tested approach). Here I had neither. I did it out of sheet bloodymindedness on planes and trains, but it is not something I am in a hurry to repeat.
So there you go. I have now played a pokemon game. I wish I hadn’t bothered.