Version tested: DS
As marketing strategies go, it's a pretty successful one. Every few years Game Freak and Nintendo release a new version of Pokémon, split into two separate titles usually defined by subtle differences in the bestiary, 2007's Diamond/Pearl being the latest example. Roughly two years later a mildly altered 'director's cut' version hits the shelves, combining the pokédex of each and papering over any cracks in the narrative to provide a definitive edition for the generation. And so, predictably enough, Platinum is to Diamond/Pearl as Crystal was to Gold/Silver, polished thoroughly yet expanded to a disappointingly minor degree.
For those of you who have never dabbled in the world of Shinx, Togapei and Squirtle, and for whom Platinum would be an excellent place to start, here's a quick overview. Pokémon are intelligent monsters living in the wild. Hang around in the right places and they will attack you, or at least the tame Pokémon at your side. Beat them heavily enough and they'll join your party to fight for you instead, like the masochistic little turncoat Pavlovians they are. They can level up, learn new skills and be traded with in-game characters or friends via Wi-Fi. And there are loads of them. 493 are available in Platinum, although many are accessible only via inter-DS trading.
The bulk of the gameplay consists of strolling around, battling wild Pokémon and subduing them to add to your repertoire. Once captured, up to six can accompany you at once, with the rest stored in a box on a PC accessed at any town's Pokémon centre, allowing trainers to fine-tune their parties for any challenge. As you roam, building your squad and skills, new gameplay elements, subtleties and gimmicks are drip-fed into the experience. Soon, players encounter their first gym, a training centre based around an area's local Pokémon where you can battle the gym leader to obtain a badge, increasing your kudos and enabling new moves. Once the eight gym leaders have been bested, trainers must take on the 'Elite Four' - master trainers in possession of powerful Pokémon.
Battles themselves are turn-based and feature a strong element of traditional RPG elemental one-upmanship, with various flavours of Pokémon excelling against certain others. Status effects, criticals and hit points are all part and parcel of the combat system, which offers considerable strategic options. There are items to be equipped, recipes cooked, eggs hatched and fashions designed. It offers a surprisingly in-depth traditional role-playing experience, and a huge chunk of gameplay.
The main story is probably doable for a skilled player in about 15-20 hours, but you'd miss a huge chunk of what's on offer, including various other challenges, taking on all-comers in the one-on-one Wi-Fi battles and collecting every single bastard one of the Pokémon on the list so you can finally call yourself a man. A 100+ hour investment isn't too excessive for a completist. And don't confuse the younger skew with an absence of difficulty. There are challenges here that would sweat an experienced role-player, and the competitiveness in the Wi-Fi arena is immense.
Now, I'm not a perfectionist gamer, not a high-score tracker or a MMO PVP master. I'm really not all that fond of grind. The obsessive nature that personifies really keen Pokémon players is anathema to me. But playing Platinum has altered my opinions of the series somewhat, because it's made me realise you don't have to play it this way - it's just one of the many, many options.
For example, you don't actually "gotta catch 'em all", which is grammatically painful but good news for people without 12 months of spare time on their hands. Played as a straightforward RPG - the genre-standard quest of growth, discovery and being sent to dangerous caves by morally ambiguous older men - Pokémon is an enjoyable and escapist romp with an intriguing twist to its battle mechanic. And then if you want to scour every nook of the impressively sized gameworld for each and every last animal, the option is there (and you won't face as much playground ridicule).