An interesting visual update and the Pokéwalker peripheral add variety to an overused formula.
The original Pokémon Gold and Silver were released 10 years ago for the Game Boy and are considered masterworks by fanatics of the series and critics alike. These games continued the gigantic success of the franchise while Pokémon was still establishing and Gold and Silver sold millions of copies worldwide. Not only did Gold and Silver introduce a hundred new Pocket Monsters, a time system, new items, new legendaries, the Pokégear (an accessory that functions as a watch, map, radio and phone), new types of Pokémon, Full color support, Pokémon Breeding and new moves, but also the games were twice as long as Red & Blue. For the past decade there has been a lack of major changes and the core experience stayed the same, but at the same time, the Pokémon franchise managed to maintain a constant addictive quality.
In these new iterations, the story is simple enough as the plot isn’t their main focus, it’s all about immersing yourself in the adventure. Just like Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen retell the story of Kanto, HeartGold and SoulSilver are set in the fictional region of Johto. The game follows your progress as a young, brave and determined child (either a boy or girl) in your quest to become the Pokémon Master as you capture, battle and evolve little monsters. At first, the town’s professor lets you choose one of three Pokémon (Chikorita, Cyndaquil or Totodile) to help people battle the crime organization, Team Rocket and to become a well-respected trainer. Then, you can explore new places where you can encounter and hunt creatures as you increase your critter’s power while you fight repeatedly against wild little monsters. This involves trying to defeat rivals and opponents in a turn-based style battle system using the abilities of the creatures in a rock-paper-scissors approach. Once you are powerful enough you have the possibility of challenging gym trainers who give you badges that not only symbolize your strength but the special abilities your Pokémon can use. Besides battling you can play various mini-games, seek out powerful items, accept several side quests or simply chat with people. It’s a really interesting concept, the problem is that the developers haven’t changed the basics of it and the static battle system has remained the same.
For those who have already played the original Gold & Silver you’ll find new content that is well worth playing again. The games focus on the 100 Pokémon first introduced in Gold and Silver and they fit in perfectly with the rest, especially as they were the first new monsters to be introduced in the series. With literally hundreds of Pokémon to capture, there are plenty of options and endless possibilities to create a perfect team as new attacks and abilities can be taught later on when the monsters grow and become more powerful. One of the objectives is to balance-out the party itself and the skills they possess. Another objective is to complete the Pokédex and if you have played Diamond, Pearl and Platinum not only can you obtain previously caught Pokémon but some that were previously unavailable in the regions of Johto and Kanto.
From a graphical perspective and even though a heavily modified version of the Diamond and Pearl engine is used, new (but recycled and plain) animations were included. Fortunately, most settings, the characters and specially the Pokémon have been redrawn with new sprites to provide a fresh and attractive look. Throughout the game and starting from the title screen, refined 3D graphics are used often in a more than suitable way. One of the most popular additions is that a Pokémon can now accompany you on your epic adventure walking beside you (just like Pikachu did in Pokémon Yellow) and you can interact with them by pressing the A button and see the monster’s feelings, moods and health or even take unique items they can be holding at the moment. Aesthetically is great but there is some practicality to it also. This adds an unexpected sense of attachment to the little monsters and considering all 493 Pokémon are capable of following you (yes, even legendary) you’ll have plenty of critters to bond with. Artistically, the game creates an amazing atmosphere especially for a handheld system. To nostalgic fans the game retains and resembles the old versions, and those who have played them before will be able to recognize particular places like Victory Road. These places were carefully recreated once again delighting veterans of the series with more than satisfactory looking environments.
Gameplay is what Pokémon is all about and Game Freaks decided to refine and enhance it completely, but retaining the revolutionary qualities. The strange structure of the menus of Diamond, Pearl and Platinum has been remodeled completely in Heargold & Soulsilver and the DS touch screen can be used to select items and attacks. It is not a very quick and easy way to use the menus, but it represents an addition which proves that the developers are willing to make changes when necessary. The interface is a step in the right direction but still, it takes a lot of time to choose the right item in your inventory collection. On the other hand, organizing the collected Pokémon has never been easier and the ability to set two items on screen is very good, but the battle screens should have been updated totally instead of polishing them up a little bit. As previously mentioned, a Day/Night cycle is present into the game, the game syncs to the internal clock of the Nintendo DS system allowing you to capture certain species depending on the time of the day, and daily and weekly events encourage you to play often. The Pokéathlon for example, which lets you compete in different athletic events and contests, changes the available items daily for players to constantly come back and accept the mini-games. The inclusion of this time element added variety ten years ago and it is great to be able to have it today. Some smaller features are well received too, like being able to take commemorative photos with your team, Gym leaders and some citizens.
The sound design is suitable and the many effects create a unique ambience emulating forests, the ocean and small cities. The sounds of your own steps (that vary according to the terrain you walk in) water and wind are particularly well accomplished. The soundtrack has always been a trademark in Pokémon games and this is not the exception. There are plenty of memorable tunes and themes, but some notably stand out, for example Ho-Oh and Lugia have their own battle music and the rest of the legendaries were provided with masterfully remixed versions of the battle theme in Crystal. There is in fact an impressive key item that you can find that lets you change freely between the arranged music and the original soundtrack. Overall, music is really catchy and easy to remember and mixes of old tunes were brought back for nostalgic fans but to enjoy it completely the use of headphones is recommended. Sadly, the sounds the Pokémon emit haven’t improved a lot and somehow resemble the ones of the old 8 bit era as they shout loudly in a very unpleasant and messy way.
If you are a die-hard fan and you have played every single game of the series it would be difficult to recommend Heartgold & Soulsilver to you, but there’s an accessory that can change your mind. To fully experience Pokémon you need the PokéWalker, a Pokéball shaped pedometer that comes bundled with each copy of the game and fits in your pocket. For a long time critics and fans of the series have been claiming a serious change in the gameplay demanding innovation and fresh ideas and this clearly seems like one. With the ingenious PokéWalker accessory you can take a monster to the real world and catch or train exclusive Pokémon and look for new items on different routes. The accessory communicates wirelessly to your DS exchanging necessary information to take any Pokémon you want to the streets and you can even link it to a friend’s Pokéwalker to receive gifts. The steps you take earns you Watts that you can save, spend on items, new creatures or level up the monster you took for a walk (they can level up once per trip) providing an extremely rewarding experience. Similarly to a Tamagotchi, the PokéWalker functions as a parallel handheld as you don’t need a DS to capture Pokémon and if you lose it or break it you can always bring back the monster you had to the peripheral instantly. Depending on how many steps per day you take you may unlock new routes creating an addictive concept that allows you to exercise and even lose weight in the meantime.
When you first start your adventure the game may be uninteresting or exciting at all. You can choose a monster and immediately start training it to evolve it, talking to a lot of people and going various places without a specific purpose. Eventually, when you get bored with battling there are plenty of additional features to keep you busy. It all starts to make sense as soon as you fight powerful trainers. Probably the most exciting action to perform is to catch legendary Pokémon as it is really rewarding and all your hard work and hours of training pay off. After you beat the elite four a new game opens up, as you have the possibility catch even more Pokémon than ever before, it’s ironic that the end of the game is just the beginning of your adventure.
In conclusion, veteran of the series or not you can play Heartgold and Soulsilver for a long time. It has lasting appeal and an infinite replay-value that no game has been able to achieve so far. Pokémon games always lasted for hundreds of hours and this one take that to an extreme with two main quests and lots of side-quests to achieve. The main adventure can last between 50 and 60 hours and you can spend many more perfecting skills or completing your own personal collection of Pokémon. It’s a little disappointing that the dated formula is still present in the gameplay, but an engaging and deep single-player quest, online multiplayer options, the charming graphics and nostalgic music make this a game easy to recommend. Newcomers will find in Pokémon an immersive RPG, fanatics will find new engaging features, but no matter who you are you will surely want to “Catch ‘Em All”.