Gotta catch ‘em all over again.
If you haven’t heard by now of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, the latest dual-release for the DS of everyone’s favorite orb-throwing, critter-catching RPG series, then chances are you’ve been living for the past year herding sacred yaks while living in a wind-swept cave in the isolated wilderness of northeastern Mongolia. Or else maybe you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t give a flying Zubat about Pokemon.
But since you’re reading this review, I’m going to guess that neither of those things are true, and so I’m going to indulge for a moment in what you fans must be thinking right now: “Oh my gosh, so much to do! Over 40 hours of story mode game play! Tons of new regions to explore! Battling and trading with my friends via WiFi! 150 new pokemon added to the pokedex!! Gotta! Catch! ‘Em! All!!!! Aaaaaaahh!!!!!”
OK, Pokemon fans, take a deep breath. The good news is that, unlike recent releases such as Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Pokemon Ranger, Diamond (or Pearl) is exactly what you would expect from a sequel to the the classic Pokemon RPG series. No drawing circles around critters to capture them, no puzzles to solve, no playing the game as a Pokemon (shudder). Just back-to-basics, old school pocket monster capturing and training. The bad news, however, is this: these two new games are exactly what you would expect in a new Pokemon RPG. So no, you’re not having a drug-induced flashback to the crazy times you had playing Pokemon Ruby and Emerald. It’s, well, pretty much the same game.
In a scenario that should be familiar to all Pokemon players, you start the game in the land of Sirroh as an eager but Pokemon-less young lad or lass who is perhaps a bit too adventurous for his or her own good. Through a series of events involving an absent-minded professor, your future rival, a cute assistant, and some lost luggage, you find yourself forced to choose one of the professor’s misplaced Pokemon to defend yourself against an attack. Once you succeed, the professor lets you keep your new furry, ferny, or feathered friend, and in exchange asks you to help fill in the pages of his Pokedex by encountering and capturing as many Pokemon as you can find.
He probably does this because he’s such a nice guy. Also probably because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be much to the game now, would there? Now that you have a purpose in life, you and your newfound pet head out into the wide wide world, capturing wild critters, challenging rivals, defeating gym leaders, and training, training, training your team of varmints to be the most elite fighting force in the land.
Okay, hang on a sec. Is it just me, or does anyone else find the whole process of catching Pokemon and training them to become your own personal militia slightly disturbing? Everyone in the game acts as though the little beasties should be happy to help us otherwise defenseless humans, but honestly, how could that be? I mean, how would you feel if you were minding your own business, walking through the tall grass, and some kid showed up and beat you to within an inch of your life, then imprisoned you in a tiny sphere and only let you out to fight against his enemies – including your own brothers and sisters?! Sometimes I wonder if the next title in this series will be Pokemon Panthers: The Revolution is at Hand.
But I digress.
Clearly, the basic gameplay hasn’t changed much, but there are a couple notable new features. Of course, the biggest buzz surrounds using WiFi to challenge other trainers and trade over your internet connection. This new component is admittedly cool, if somewhat limited. It turns out that you can’t connect to just anybody. You have to get your potential rivals and trading partners to give you their Friend Codes and add them to your Poke Pad before you’ll be able to see them in your game.
So, you can battle with your yak-herding buddy in Ulaanbaatar (It’s the capital of Mongolia – look it up), but if some kid you don’t know two blocks away is looking to unload that Bulbasaur you desperately need, you’ll never know about it. Forums and chat rooms across the net are already brimming with Friend Codes, however, so if you don’t mind a little data entry you’ll soon have all the pals you need.
Another new feature is the Poketch, which is not, as I had first assumed, named for the sound your MewTwo makes as he horks a Pokehairball onto your carpet, but is actually an abbreviation for ‘Pokemon Watch’. This little device fills your lower screen as you play, and offers a variety of modes such as a watch, a calculator, and a pedometer, so that you can gauge the amount of exercise your character has gotten while you’ve been sitting on the couch stuffing your face with Nutter Butters and playing Nintendo. While these initial functions have little value, eventually you get more useful pieces of software for your Poketch that help you track party status, berry locations, and the like.
But aside from the above two additions, this game is not exactly a great leap forward for Poke-kind. The graphics are brighter and crisper, but not much better. The game still exists on the same flat, two-dimensional grid that it did way back in the original Game Boy days. Yes, the buildings have shadows now, but you still can’t walk in a diagonal line. Even the battle screen is just a slightly nicer-looking version of what we’ve seen since the Blue/Red days.
The audio has evolved even less in this generation. I would have loved to hear new and inventive Pokemon calls, instead of variations on the same midi sounds that were cutting edge around the same time Paula Abdul was known for her singing. Likewise, I feel there was an opportunity missed with the Touch Screen. Certainly, clicking your way through the various menus and messages is much easier, but that’s a little bit like buying a brand new Mac Pro and only using it to play Solitaire. There’s so much more that could have been done with that technology.
I would go on griping about all of the things Game Freak could have done to revolutionize this classic title, but who am I kidding? Copies of Pokemon Diamond or Pearl are already flying off the shelves, and for good reason. It’s got solid, addictive gameplay and more content than the next two or three DS titles combined. Oh, and a couple of decades worth of fans eager to check it out. Even though it doesn't take the franchise to a new level, it still delivers plenty of bang for your hard-earned buck. And for those of us getting paid only a few tögrögs a day (it’s the Mongolian currency, I swear) to herd those dang sacred yaks, that’s a good thing.