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).
Whilst collecting Pokémon might not be as insanely addictive as the Pokémon company's marketing would love you to believe, it is an excellent hook to keep you interested, especially during the inevitable periods of grind. It's a tricky balance between compelling and compulsive, however, and it's easy to get swamped by the hundreds of varieties on offer, or to feel like you've missed a really top-quality ally by not spending eight hours running up and down each single patch of grass in every area. It's very possible that you have, but it's really not necessary to have a full roster in order to progress and enjoy yourself.
In terms of improvements over Diamond/Pearl, Platinum is a little lacking. There are the obvious advantages of new pokédex entries, including the traditional addition of the box-art legendary. If you're a big fan of Diamond/Pearl then you might also notice the slightly tweaked gym layouts and minor graphical improvements, but others probably will not.
The big draw for single-player is a new dungeon: the Distortion World in which new ghost/dragon legendary Giratina resides. As the only major change in the gameworld for players of Diamond/Pearl, it's not that great a prospect. Accessed roughly 80 per cent of the way through the single-player quest, just after achieving the status of Pokémon champion, the Distortion World is a 3D puzzle zone which has trainers traversing ceilings and walls in an attempt to guide a block to a switch. There are precious few battles here, and although the puzzle element is a welcome respite from the grind, there's a good reason that people will be playing Pokémon in the first place rather than say, echochrome.
The real big improvements come in the form of new multiplayer features. Pokémon can still be traded both wirelessly and via a Wi-Fi internet connection, but now an automated email can be sent to your Wii to notify you that a trade has been accepted. The Wi-Fi club also now allows players to tackle the challenging Battle Front along with a buddy. Beyond this is the Platinum-only Wi-Fi plaza, an area stashed away in the basement of Pokémon centres across the world - allowing access to a carnival-based multiplayer arena featuring mini-games. It's casual and unrelated to the story in any meaningful way, but offers another break from the capture/kill progression of the main quest.
The Battle Recorder is another innovative feature, allowing you to crib on other players styles before battling them by watching archived footage of their fights, or pick up a few tips on beating the toughest opponents. Recording and uploading your own fights to friends and foes is simple to do and a satisfying way of rubbing the proverbial salt in after a particularly satisfying victory.
Pokémon is not a particularly pretty, welcoming or original prospect, and there's not really a great deal here to recommend it to anyone who's played a significant portion of Diamond/Pearl. Nor will it convert anyone who really can't take the grind and repeat of much of the gameplay. However, it is a solid, and incredibly polished, RPG. It feels like a first-party Nintendo release, with all of the pleasing quirks and satisfying balance which that often entails. If you want a true DS RPG then you might be better off picking up Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest IV/V or one of the Final Fantasy remakes instead, but if you want to lose your Pokémon virginity, or re-ignite your passion for it, then Platinum is undoubtedly the definitive version to have. That is, until next time.
7 / 10