Although they didn’t move quite as many units as the preceding set of games, the Black and White versions of Pokémon were the basis of yet another success story for the juggernaut franchise. Their scenario was especially praised for its sophisticated story beats, with many considering it the spiritual successor to Shigesato Itoi’s lauded 2006 effort, Mother 3. Having sold millions of copies, that there would be a follow-up to these games was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, previous generations had a standalone version to complement the initial two games. With the versions being called Black and White, many fans anticipated that a “Grey” version was just around the corner. However, the development team felt such a choice clashed with the theme of contrasting opposites that ran throughout the original games. Therefore, in defiance of enthusiasts’ expectations, the successors to Black and White were to be direct sequels: Black 2 and White 2. With many considering the fifth generation the series’ shining moment, the idea of returning to Unova for a second adventure was highly appealing.
Feeling satisfied with how Black and White turned out, director Junichi Masuda handed the reins to Takao Unno for this project, though the former remained to help produce the games. Because these games were to heavily draw resources from the set directly preceding them, the development process went without incident. Black 2 and White 2 saw its domestic debut in June of 2012 before being released the following October in North America, Australia, and Europe. Although these games were well-received overall, the critical enthusiasm didn’t match that of their predecessors. This reflected in sales figures as well with a little under eight-million copies sold by March of 2013. Could there be something about these games not reflected by the numbers?
Playing the Game
WARNING: The following review will contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.
Two years have passed since an aspiring trainer from Nuvema Town thwarted the nefarious Team Plasma. Since that day, Ghetsis disappeared from the public eye; his current whereabouts are a mystery. Although he evaded the law, he saw his meticulous plan that took several years to form crumble thanks to this trainer. The remaining Seven Sages that made up the backbone of Team Plasma similarly disappeared following the authorities’ questioning, and their followers soon after. Since that day, the Unova region has been at peace.
Depending on the player’s choice, the protagonist of this game is either a girl named Rosa or a boy named Nate. Hailing from the bustling Aspertia City, which is situated in the southwestern edge of the Unova region, the protagonist is about to receive their first Pokémon from Professor Juniper’s new assistant: Bianca. Upon selecting their first partner, they have a battle with a boy named Hugh. The two of them have known each other since childhood. The protagonist is encouraged to take the Pokémon League challenge in the hopes of becoming the new Champion. Hugh seeks to travel Unova as well, but for a reason that has nothing to do with his friend’s aspirations.
Black 2 and White 2 are notably the first numbered sequels in the history of the mainline series. The tentative titles of the second-generation games were Pocket Monsters 2: Gold & Silver, but the development team ultimately excised the number from the title. Even so, Gold and Silver are direct sequels to Red and Blue due to the two sets of games sharing plot threads. However, the treasure trove of new mechanics along with being set in a different region made them standalone experiences. Black 2 and White 2, on the other hand, exist within the same generation and region as their predecessors. Moreover, with a lot of care and attention going into the narrative, these games being sequels is impossible to ignore.
Logically, because Black 2 and White 2 were conceived using the same assets as their predecessors, the gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, identical. Most battles are fought one-on-one and a round is initiated when you select one of your own Pokémon’s four moves. You may find yourself fighting Double, Triple, or Rotation Battles on your journey, but they aren’t nearly as common. Furthermore, every major gameplay change Black and White brought to the formula has been retained for these installments as well. TMs are still reusable, there is less of a need to reassign HM move users to your team than in previous generations, and the formula for distributing experience points ensures you will not have to grind levels for too long.
Although one could get the impression from this brief description that Black 2 and White 2 are unambitious token sequels, it doesn’t take long at all before the experience they provide begins throwing curveballs at the player. The first such one occurs as early as your character’s initial battle with Hugh. While his predecessors made a point of choosing the Pokémon with a type advantage against whichever one you picked, the universe makes use of nonlinear quantum mechanics to determine the identity of Hugh’s starter. This is because Hugh reveals that he had raised a Pokémon from an egg. Its species is retroactively chosen the exact second you choose your own starter. Not coincidentally, it’s the one that has an advantage over your own Pokémon.
For that matter, a major difference from previous generations stares at you in the face when the protagonist’s hometown is revealed. Whereas their predecessors hailed from sleepy towns with low populations, they are a resident of a sizable city. It even has its own Gym and Pokémon Center. Although it seems like an unimportant semantical change, it puts an interesting spin on what constitutes a typical first act in this series. Despite living in the same city as a Gym, you can’t challenge its leader right away. To earn that right, the player has to run a short errand in the nearby Floccesy Town. To get there, they must traverse the connecting Route 19.
The first routes players get to explore in a given installment of this series tend to have a limited selection of Pokémon. Usually, you would find the region’s primary birdlike Pokémon alongside whichever one is considered a garden-variety creature used by beginners. These Pokémon could work in a pinch during the early portions of the game, but they would invariably be replaced by the stronger ones found in later areas. Diamond and Pearl broke the mold slightly in that its own birdlike Pokémon evolved into Staraptor, which were entirely viable all the way up to the endgame. Black 2 and White 2, on the other hand, proceed to dispense with the series’ traditions in a much more obvious fashion.
Among the common Pokémon inhabiting the first areas of the game are Riolu. Fans of the franchise recognize them as the Pokémon that evolve into Lucario. Ever since they made their debut in Diamond and Pearl, they have proven very popular with the fanbase – arguably being the single most famous Pokémon from that generation. However, there was a slight problem in that players couldn’t receive a Riolu until fairly late in the average playthrough of a fourth-generation game. It was fairly simple for players to get ahold of one via trading, that wasn’t a luxury they could take for granted. As it was, a handful of players who wanted to use one were left with no choice but to wait until the third act to do so. No longer is this the case as of Black 2 and White 2; you can catch a Riolu before you fight the first Gym Leader.
This aspect by itself goes a long way in addressing a minor issue many people had with the previous set of games. Although Black and White were deservedly praised, certain players expressed discontent with only being able to use new Pokémon for their playthrough. This was an intentional design choice on Mr. Masuda’s part in order to serve as a potential gateway installment for the series along with evoking the feel of the first generation. The team went as far as creating nearly 150 new creatures – a number commonly associated with original Pokédex in Kanto.
I personally did not have a problem with being limited to using Unova Pokémon, but I fully understand why some would. As was the case with Red and Blue, the evolutionary lines obfuscate the practicable number of Pokémon available in Black and White. Consequently, because some Pokémon are more viable than others, endgame teams would inevitably have many common members. It doesn’t help that, in the team’s endeavors to create roughly 150 Pokémon, many designs were underwhelming, boring, or even outright bad. Strictly speaking, it was also a problem Red and Blue had, but they also didn’t have four sets of predecessors fresh in many players’ minds. By making Pokémon from previous generations available from the start, it forces players to get creative with how they build teams, which, in turn, adds a level of replay value Black and White lacked.
In fact, the running theme with Black 2 and White 2 is addressing the few niggling issues weighing down their predecessors. While Bianca unavoidably tells players how the game works, subsequent tutorials can be skipped. Unlike in previous generations wherein characters would often give players the information regardless of how they answer, a simple “no” – or “yes” as the case may warrant – causes them to move on. For that matter, as you’re exploring a given route, you may find yourself wanting to use Repels in order to make the journey faster. When it wears off, the game immediately asks you if you want to use another. Because there are countless situations in which you will have no cause to encounter the local Pokémon, this one tweak makes exploration far less tedious.
Although Black and White did an excellent job reducing the amount of required level grinding with its new formula for distributing experience points, the proposal did fall flat because trainers could not be fought a second time. This meant if you ever needed a team of Pokémon with levels higher than what the local population had to offer, you needed to fight increasingly tedious battles for diminishing returns. Black 2 and White 2 address this issue soundly by giving players a Lucky Egg. The Pokémon that holds the Lucky Egg will receive twice as many experience points in battle. Normally, this helpful item would be found on a rare Chansey, yet Professor Juniper gives your character one in the second act – which is exactly when the player would find it the most useful.
The presentation of Black 2 and White 2 has been improved in subtle ways as well. Characters are still depicted as two-dimensional sprites, which notably contrasts with the three-dimensional backdrops. However, as you go through the game, it’s evident that Mr. Unno and his team were able to use it far more effectively. Once again, this is especially obvious when you visit the Gyms. Not only do the Gyms have unique remixes of the familiar theme that has featured in every generation thus far, they follow in the footsteps of Black in White by including exploratory gimmicks the Game Boy couldn’t possibly render. Even just observing the natural beauty of the player character’s starting town demonstrates just how much the series has grown since its humble beginnings in terms of aesthetics.
A subtle improvement of which I am greatly appreciative concerns how Unova is explored. The switch to a more linear world design meant that exploring Unova in Black and White conformed to a pattern. You would travel a route, arrive at a new city, and challenge its Gym Leader – lather, rinse, repeat. Unova features plenty of dungeons to explore, and the routes themselves were far more dynamic in design than those of older generations, but it did make for a somewhat predictable playthrough.
Although Black 2 and White 2 are also linear, the pattern isn’t as blatant. This protagonist ends up retracing their predecessor’s steps, but not completely so. In fact, there are two instances in which they end up boarding a vehicle to take them to a different part of Unova. After getting the second badge, they take a boat to Castelia City. Upon obtaining the sixth, they take a plane to Lentimas Town, allowing them to explore a section of Unova the protagonist of Black and White couldn’t until after they defeated the local Champion. This helps in giving players an experience that, while superficially similar to Black and White, never comes across as a retread of old ground.
The takeaway from all of this is that, the gameplay of Black 2 and White 2 excel exactly as their predecessors did with the added bonus of ironing out the remaining flaws. Even so, I will admit some minor issues remain. Being such an industrialized region, berries can’t be cultivated at all, forcing the player to rely on handouts from Pokémon Rangers. If your strategy involves berries in any fashion, these games will present a significant challenge to you. On top of that, for all of the trouble its predecessors went through to introduce new battle formats, they are still very underutilized. Even the fact that one can usually only experience one of the new battle formats, which depends on the version, is a little suspect. It’s also a little irritating that, in exchange for making HM move management easier, the game relies heavily on event flags to railroad the player.
Luckily, these flaws don’t get in the way of what is otherwise a highly enjoyable experience. Being unable to plant berries is irritating, but because there are no Pokémon Contests in Unova, this is ultimately a minor inconvenience at worst. A majority of the battles continuing to be one-on-one sounds slightly repetitive, but there are so many disparate challenges thrown your way within the format that you likely won’t notice. Finally, while it is annoying that the player character is deprived of agency in the programmers’ attempts to forego HM moves, it is the lesser of two evils compared to having to constantly swap party members in and out.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers for the Earthbound trilogy.
With the gameplay of Black 2 and White 2 being functionally identical to their predecessors, one could argue the main attraction is the storyline. Black and White broke the mold in a significant way by being the first generation of games to have a plot more advanced than “Become the new Champion”. Every protagonist’s journey involved stopping the ambitions of a criminal organization. However, these madmen and madwomen were mere speedbumps to the real goal – even if the stakes had escalated to the point where the protagonist wound up saving all of existence in Diamond and Pearl. In Black and White, Team Plasma couldn’t be ignored, and the leader of the Seven Sages, Ghetsis, served as the scenario’s final boss in Champion Alder’s stead.
When Black 2 and White 2 were released, many critics felt that their story beats lacked the sophistication of their predecessors’. With Black and White deconstructing the very premise of the series, it seemed like it would be impossible for the development team to successfully create a follow-up. Indeed, a main figure of a franchise handing the reins to a lesser-known name is a typical sign that the sequel will lack the ambition of the original. However, much like the case with Super Mario Galaxy 2 in relation to its own direct predecessor, I feel that those critics failed to give these games credit where it was due. In fact, I posit that Mr. Unno and his team successfully retain the spirit of Black and White in how they explore the aftermath of those games’ events.
To comprehend that Black 2 and White 2 continue to put subtle twists on the series’ formula, one need not look further than the character of Hugh. He is provides a significant contrast with previous rivals in that he is not interested in taking the Pokémon League challenge. Despite being a good person at heart, which is demonstrated through his interactions with the protagonist, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to label him an anti-hero. Rather than proving a desire to be the very best like no one ever was, he has a much different goal: revenge.
In their endeavors to separate Pokémon from humans, Team Plasma stole many partners from their Trainers. Among the victims of these crimes was Hugh’s sister. His grandfather had caught a Purrloin before passing away, giving the Pokémon to his granddaughter. Ever since that day, Hugh has had a deep-seated hatred for Team Plasma, and will stop at nothing to rescue Purrloin from their clutches. Even if he challenges the region’s Gym Leaders just like the protagonist, it’s with the goal of becoming strong enough to topple Team Plasma once and for all.
The members of Team Plasma proved to be an interesting conversation piece amongst fans of the series. With the revelation that Ghetsis, the most proactive of the Seven Sages, lacked his the altruism of his adoptive son, fans began to call into question just how ingenuous the low-level grunts making up the muscle of Team Plasma actually were. Did they take their idealism to illogical extremes or were they just as avaricious as Ghetsis and sought world domination? When you finally do encounter Team Plasma in Black 2 and White 2, it turns out the truth is somewhere in between.
After Ghetsis’s defeat at the hands of Hilbert/Hilda, Team Plasma was divided into two factions. One of these factions, led by Sage Rood, remains loyal to Ghetsis’s adoptive son, N. With N’s realization that humans aren’t a lost cause, they have vowed to atone for their misdeeds by taking care of abandoned and abused Pokémon and find kind Trainers for them. Meanwhile, Sage Zinzolin will stop at nothing until they see Ghetsis as the absolute ruler of the world. To this end, his faction continues the criminal activities that the other faction has disavowed. Those rallying behind N’s cause retain their original uniforms whereas the forces primarily led by Zinzolin are clad in black, militaristic uniforms.
Because of the primary driving force behind Hugh’s motivations, things get interesting whenever he happens upon a member of Team Plasma. For a majority of the experience, he has trouble accepting that half of the members of Team Plasma have earnestly turned over a new leaf, treating Rood and his allies with no respect. Such is the extent of his wrath that he often gets the player character involved in his vendetta. However, despite having an attitude and look that brings to mind Ethan’s rival, Silver, he still manages to be a good person at heart, even apologizing for dragging the player character into his quest.
It helps that his grudge against Team Plasma works in your character’s favor far more than it hinders their progress. Vendetta or no vendetta, it’s clear the faction of Team Plasma being led Zinzolin needs to be stopped, and Hugh is more than willing to help your character fight against them in Multi Battles. A far cry from the rather inept artificial intelligence guiding allies in Diamond and Pearl, Hugh can take advantage of your Pokémon’s to help you out. For instance, Pokémon with the Flash Fire ability are immune to Fire-type moves. When hit with one, their “Attack” stat is raised. Hugh will take advantage of this by hitting your immune Pokémon to power them up. It’s a little ironic how, while Hugh fulfills the designated rival role, you actually spend much more time fighting with him than against him. Given how stale rivals were becoming around the fifth generation in the face of the increasingly intriguing villainous organizations, this was a great way to solve the problem.
When analyzing the gameplay of Black 2 and White 2, I remarked that the developers did what they could to iron out the issues plaguing their predecessors. I feel they applied the same line of thinking when it came to crafting their story as well. To wit, Ghetsis’s closest servants were three enigmatic Trainers known as the Shadow Triad. Black and White limited their screentime to performing feats of stealth one would expect out of a ninja and indirectly inconveniencing the player. Although they certainly left an impression on players, many understandably found it disappointing that they weren’t fought at any point. To make up for Ghetsis’s notable lack of presence in this game, you fight against the Shadow Triad many times before the journey is over.
Along those lines, I enjoy how the narrative gives two of the Seven Sages an arc. In Black and White, the only sage who had any kind of presence or character was Ghetsis. The remaining sages, named after colors of the rainbow, weren’t even fought by the player character, making their role in the story interchangeable. Although three of the sages don’t appear at all in Black 2 and White 2, the writers manage to get a lot of mileage out of the two most visible ones.
On your journey, you will encounter an odd man named Colress. Much like N, he battles the player repeatedly throughout the story. He claims to disagree with Team Plasma’s old goal of liberating Pokémon from human, but something about him seems off. For someone who disagrees with their methods, he is quick to talk about them at length apropos of nothing. It is consequently not a terribly big surprise that it turns out he is in charge of the division of Team Plasma Zinzolin spearheads. Although he does seem to come out of nowhere, I do think his character was necessary to introduce the scope of the games’ central conflict.
Reshiram and Zekrom, the signature Pokémon of the heroes who created the Unova region, are actually part of a trio. The third Pokémon, Kyurem, is thought to have a much different origin than the Pokémon used by the twin heroes. A legend passed down in Lacunosa Town says that a third dragon descended upon the world in an icy meteor, crashing into a place in Unova called the Giant Chasm. Every now and again, it would take Pokémon and humans away from the town and eat them, which is why it’s surrounded by a large wall. For good measure, its residents refuse to set foot outside of their homes at night.
However, in the face of this backstory, the narrative ends up toying around with the common role-playing trope of all myths and legends being true. Drayden, the leader of the Opelucid City Gym knows of an old legend that tells another story of Kyurem’s origins. Shortly after the dragon of legend split into Reshiram and Zekrom, a third being was created from the remnants of its power. This being was Kyurem. Collectively, these three Pokémon are known as the Tao Trio. With Zekrom and Reshiram representing the concepts of yin and yang respectively, Kyurem symbolizes wuji – which is to say the absence of yin and yang. Yin and yang make up the basis of everything in the universe while wuji could be seen as the ultimate balance. Alternatively, from the absence of the universe’s fundamental forces, anything is possible. This facet is precisely what makes Kyurem the target of the Colress-led Team Plasma.
Black 2 and White 2 take an interesting approach when it comes to introducing its primary villain. With the sole exception of the second generation, the leader of the villainous organization in preceding installments was highly proactive to the point of being a reoccurring boss. Black and White appeared to operate on this premise by making players fight against N multiple times and leading them to believe he was the leader of Team Plasma before revealing Ghetsis’s ulterior motives in the final act. Not only was Ghetsis the first organization leader to serve as the scenario’s final boss, Hilbert/Hilda fought him but a single time. There was a bit of irony in how the smuggest villain in the franchise thus far also managed to put up much more of a fight than his predecessors.
Black 2 and White 2 appear to follow the story beats of the original set of games, including having an eccentric character turn out to be a major villain, but they’re not quite going through the same motions. Whereas Hilbert/Hilda met Ghetsis before they even obtained their first badge, he is conspicuously absent for a majority of Nate/Rosa’s journey. In fact, one would be forgiven for believing Colress to be the undisputed leader of the Ghetsis-loyal Team Plasma faction. This in turn builds up a lot of suspense for Ghetsis’s eventual return. When he finally enters the picture, the narrative makes excellent use of his limited screentime.
When I parsed the story of Black and White, I remarked there were several parallels between the story of those games and that of Shigesato Itoi’s Earthbound trilogy. In regards to how his character is handled, Ghetsis has several commonalities with both of the franchise’s major villains. In Earthbound Beginnings, Gigyas’s existence was kept a secret from the audience until the final act. Ghetsis being the main antagonist of Black and White was a fairly unsurprising twist. Fortunately, the writers anticipated this and instead opted to hide the sheer scope of his malevolence – an aspect that was not immediately obvious. Meanwhile, Ghetsis’s appearance in Black 2 and White 2 mirrors Gigyas’s reveal in Earthbound. Because returning players knew of the character by the time Earthbound Beginnings received its first sequel, the intrigue lied not in the mastermind’s identity but rather his state when you finally reached him. Although it’s not quite as overt as the formless insanity awaiting players in Gigyas’s stead, Ghetsis’s entrance is no less shocking.
Given that he dedicated a significant portion of his life to dominating the world, suffering a defeat at the hands of Hilbert/Hilda took a gigantic toll on his sanity. His garish uniform is worse for wear and any form of subtlety he may have possessed two years ago is long gone. As revenge for ruining his intricately crafted plan, Ghetsis intends to use Kyurem’s power to freeze all of Unova. When the player character attempts to interfere with his plans, he showcases a terrifying brand of villainous pragmatism by attempting to kill them. Specifically, upon gaining control of Kyurem, Ghetsis orders it to freeze them in a block of ice. The player character will then be doomed to die a slow death as they are forced to watch Ghetsis conquer Unova. It’s a testament to how far gone he is that he didn’t consider subjecting Hilbert/Hilda to such a fate – and Nate/Rosa only recently began interfering with his plans.
As it would be an extreme disserve for the game to end in the player character’s death before they could even reach the Pokémon League, they are thankfully rescued.
N, on the back of the Dragon Pokémon he bonded with two years ago, arrives just in time to save them. Like his adoptive father, N has limited screentime that is used very effectively. What his appearance in Black 2 and White 2 demonstrates is just how much his character has grown. While Ghetsis has regressed to a near-primal state fueled by pure insanity, N has shed his extremist views, becoming a hero in his own right. Indeed, one couldn’t imagine N pulling off such a heroic feat as of Black and White.
Naturally, Ghetsis doesn’t throw in the towel. Instead, he uses a machine called a DNA Splicer to fuse N’s dragon to Kyurem. The player character must then fight this Pokémon. Prudently, he uses his staff to emit a signal that prevents them from simply capturing it – in case you thought you could end the fight on the first turn by throwing a Master Ball at it. When the player character triumphs over the fused Pokémon, an enraged Ghetsis attacks them. If there is one disappointing aspect about this fight, it’s that he isn’t quite as challenging as he was in Black and White. Much like their master, his teammates appears to lacking their essence, and don’t possess the movesets that made them terrors to fight in the past. Nonetheless, considering how much of a monster he truly is, destroying Ghetsis in battle carries with it a sense of catharsis that couldn’t be found when confronting any other villain in the franchise.
Upon defeat, Ghetsis’s plans are irrevocably ruined. Even with all he has done, N offers his adoptive father a chance to redeem himself. He seems to consider it for a fleeting moment before rejecting N’s compassion. The Shadow Triad appears just in time to take him away. If the player character encounters them again, they inform them that Ghetsis lacks the mental capacity to formulate any more plans, thus saving Unova from his wrath. In the end, his delusions of grandeur were the only things keeping him sane. Once they were shattered, the man was rendered permanently catatonic. He now has to live in his impaired state for the rest of his days – an ironic, fitting parallel to the fate he would have befall the player character.
With this final development, the examination of human morality is allowed to hit home. While both sets of games make a strong case that, despite their flaws, humans try to do the right thing, there will be outliers. No matter how many chances the world gives them, they can never rise above their vices. However, it’s not because humans are inherently evil, but rather because they’re capable of making meaningful decisions. What therefore makes Ghetsis such an abhorrent person is that he actively chooses to be evil. Considering the fantastical nature of these games, their themes are surprisingly grounded in reality and the sheer amount of nuance lends them a degree of applicability many message-driven narratives simply don’t have. In light of the original games’ light plot, this is highly commendable.
Drawing a Conclusion
As mentioned before, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 are very similar to Super Mario Galaxy 2. They were numbered sequels in series not typically known for them. Starting in the fourth console generation, there would be only one Mario installment per platform. Similarly, Pokémon was known for its self-contained installments. Some, most notably, Gold and Silver featured lingering plot threads from their predecessors, but by the 2010s, these were the exceptions rather than the rule. It was to the point where some sets of games took place concurrently with other ones. With Black 2 and White 2 being the first true set of sequels in the mainline series, it was easy to conclude that the developers merely wanted to recapture the success of their direct predecessors.
However, much like Super Mario Galaxy 2, I feel that anyone who dismissed Black 2 and White 2 as token sequels let common critical sensibilities blind them. Yes, the games do go through very similar motions as Black and White, but the experience they offer is much more polished due to actively addressing those minor issues. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that Black 2 and White 2 were not only the pinnacle of the Pokémon franchise upon their 2012 release, but also some of the greatest games of the 2010s. Being sequels with a heavy emphasis on story, they do require players to go through Black and White to get the most enjoyment out of them, but the journey through Unova is one worth seeing through to the end.
Final Score: 9/10