Version tested: GameCube
As you sit there with your shiny new Xbox 360 suspended in its aeratory harness, pity the poor GameCube: its games, cast off the shelves of all but the most dedicated shops, now languish in Woolworths bargain bins and eBay fire-sales.
You would think, or at least hope, that Nintendo would still care about its beloved diminutive purple frinkahedron, even if nobody else does. Alas, it seems not - not in this case.
Last year's much delayed Pokémon Colosseum was not nearly good enough for many Pokémon fans. It did the bare minimum to qualify as an RPG, threw in some cute critters and some other spin-off frippery, and that was about the size of it. Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness seems to be much the same.
Actually, scratch that. It seems to be almost identical. It's still fun, it's still easy. It's barely changed at all.
It's all set five years after Pokémon Colosseum took place, and concerns the plight of powerfully dangerous Shadow Pokémon - regular Pokémon that have gone evil and become Republicans, and now demonstrate a distinct dislike towards being kidnapped and enslaved by humans.
It emerges that a shadowy Cabal, Cipher, is on a mission to collect all the Shadowmon to form a super-evil army of darkness. It falls to you, a young boy and wannabe Pokémon trainer, to save the world from these dastardly villains, by purifying all the escaped Shadow Pokémon.
As with the previous game, XD starts out with a long and impressive cinematic introduction, and this is quite unusual for the modern gaming canon, it adds something and manages to set the scene well and prefigures what is about to unfold.
Alas, the startling pace of the introduction doesn't really survive beyond the initial burst of excitement, leading into possibly the most tedious, most drawn-out, most lumpen, lumbering and unbearably slooooow introductory RPG chapter ever committed to bits. And I use the word 'committed' advisedly. It's painful, and so awe-inspiringly wasteful of the player's quality time it's easy to imagine a significant proportion of the audience will never quite get past it.
By the time the game has extensively belaboured the lead character, his talents, and how the Pokémon Universe revolves around him in its gut-scorchingly dull fashion, it's already become difficult to care, let alone find the energy to persist with it beyond the point at which it finally picks up and you get to learning the art of sponging up Shadowmon and cleansing them for your own depraved, illicit purposes.
Assuming you do, your starter Pokémon is Evee, and with her you'll instigate or get caught up in various creature confrontations - with pedestrians, in Colosseums and other places like hideouts. As you progress, you'll be awarded a device that makes Shadowmon visible, and allows you to steal them from other trainers. Kidnap, Slavery, Theft. So far, so wholesome.
Once caught, a Shadow Pokémon needs to be purified, to make it "open its heart". This can be done by taking them into battle with you, or by popping it in the enormously sinister "purification chamber". This Pokémon Inquisition takes place at Research HQ. Within, you place one of your bad boys in a ring, and then purify it by surrounding it with a selection of your faithful slaves. You can leave up to nine sets of Pokémon purifying as a background task, while you get on with the game. All a bit peculiar, and the only really new thing in Gale of Darkness.
Other than purification, you now don't cruelly abduct and cleanse the 'Mon in the wild like a lunatic Pokémon Bader Meinhof gang member, but rather "snag" them away from trainers during a fight. It's not much, but it's something that the handheld outings don't have, for what it's worth.
There isn't much beyond that though, apart from the ability to catch wild Pokémon as well as ones in battle. Again though, it's nothing to get excited about, because it isn't anything like as flexible or powerful as the games of yore, allowing you to capture any wild Pokémon you found. This time around, you have to trap the wild Pokémon and lure them to their doom with Pokémon Goodies, and when you are alerted via your PDA that a wild Pokémon is in the area, you can go to that area and battle the Pokémon with the hopes of capturing it. It's a kerfuffle, so you won't want to spend much time looking for rare wild creatures.
There are basically only three spots to capture wild Pokémon, which further demonstrates how lacking this game is compared to the GBA games in that regard, in which one can snap up the creatures all over the extensive world maps on the Earth's favourite handheld. At least with XD it is now somewhat possible now to amass a Pokémon army outside of battle, but it doesn't count for much.
Disappointing, then. Indeed, XD is largely the same experience as Colosseum, a multiplayer Pokémon Stadium game with a bit of a single-player train-steal-purify adventure, which is somewhat dull. The average Pokémon Game Boy RPG is far more detailed and expansive in every sense.
On the visual side, the game has notched up the detail of the graphics a bit, but otherwise the graphics in Gale of Darkness look much the same as Colosseum's. The characters are, in true Nintendo style, cheerful and colourful, and there's oodles of blue sky all round. The critters look fab in full 3D, but they don't really move or do much, unless they attack, in which case they look unerringly smooth and stylish.
So, is any of this enough to justify a new purchase if you've already bought and played through the first? Not by any stretch of anybody's Pokémon-addled imagination.
As far as Nintendo seems to be concerned, at least until the first DS outing, Pokémon begins and ends with the Game Boy. Pokémon XD is tedious and restrictive. The message is clear: if you want Pokémon, crack open a GBA.
4 / 10