It's as good as you expect, but not much better.
Pokémon Black 2 is a Pokémon game, so its level of quality shouldn’t surprise. But Black 2 is a little different. The first official sequel rather than successor, the game’s new plot and updated landscape follow the original Pokémon Black and White after two years. It's a game exclusively built for those familiar with the story of original, and those who have not played Black and White may have trouble following along.
Unlike past Pokémon games, which, despite a few sly references, were self-contained, Black 2 makes no concessions for those unfamiliar. The game directly references characters and plotlines, and takes no time to explain the identity of Team Plasma, its split into two factions, or who in the world "N" is. This change works for Pokémon: despite limiting its scope, the series shows signs of taking its plot seriously, beyond "eight badges, an evil team, and an Elite Four" (though rest assured, those things are still present).
As someone who got into the story of Black and White, I was excited to see how Unova and Team Plasma had developed in the past two years. The story has its moments, but the pacing is atrocious. The game addresses little of the plot until the player obtains at least six badges, and 90 percent of the narrative occurs in a multi-hour block between the seventh gym and the Elite Four. This represents a departure from Black and White, in which the story receives reasonable pacing throughout and even slightly after. Interesting characters don't get as much time as they deserve; a particular "mysterious person with a complicated backstory" makes only two or three appearances before just explaining his motives in his final, story-centric appearance. The rest of the game is a traditional romp to get badges, capture a few legendary Pokémon, and become champion.
That's not to say the game is otherwise similar. Black and White 2 starts you in a new city in Unova, as a new character with a new rival, and with a new way to traverse the region. The first few cities and towns from Black and White sit as post-game areas, the gym leaders have a new order and completely new gym puzzles (not to mention the addition of two new gym leaders to the fray, alongside a new champion), and characters from the previous entry do new things. Cheren, a rival of the original protagonist, now works as an esteemed gym leader; Bianca, another friend and rival, acts as assistant to Professor Juniper. Even with all these changes and updates (as far as I can tell, the game takes no dialogue or trainers from Black and White), don't expect anything too drastic. The region still looks like Unova, and most of the locations are identical or similar to their shape from two years ago. It feels like two years passed naturally in the game.
Plenty of new locations balance out the old. The first 10 percent of the game, and most of the last 10 percent, is entirely new, with a sprinkling of fresh locations spread throughout. In addition, areas have received significant updates; the desert on Route 4 formerly under construction now bustles with people, and certain places have undergone similar renovations. These changes make the game come across as more ambitious than “third version” entries of the past, and give the impression that Game Freak went to the effort of constructing a unique Pokémon experience.
Black 2 makes some subtle gameplay improvements as well. The barely seen triple battles and rotation battles are now spread evenly throughout the game, and the pacing of trainer battles is more brisk. Where older games in the series may have several trainers with four to six Pokémon, Black and White 2 trainers frequently have less than three, giving encounters a progression that feels faster and less like grinding.
Black 2 comes with a mess of new features. While I could devote an entire review to things like Medals (essentially achievements for Pokémon), and Join Avenue (which allows the player to manage a shopping center and sell unique items), there are three main features worthy of discussing.
The first is Pokémon World Tournament, the heavily advertised new "Battle Frontier"-type mode. Within, you can enter tournaments of varying difficulties against various opponents. Eventually, you gain access to tournaments against the gym leaders from Unova, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Kanto, and Johto, and a final tournament against champions like Lance and Cynthia. While it may prove too challenging for inexperienced players, those with any kind of background in the series should have a blast fighting against trainers from the past to earn Battle Points (which they can use on prizes).
In the new PokéStar Studios, players can make their own movies by picking one of several scenarios, completing a battle by meeting conditions (like using a certain move), and choosing one of several dialogue options to push the story in a certain direction. One example places you in the role of Riolu Man, a super hero who must beat an equally silly villain to save a fair. Afterward, the movie is put together through green screen, your dialogue options, and some other plot insertions. Doing well and appeasing the audience generates box office revenue, which unlocks fans (who can give items and praise your genius) or new options in the mode. Although there are plenty of scenarios and plenty of ways to make a movie, doing so isn't that fun, and movies drag on after a while.
The game also features Funfest Missions you can participate in over wireless with up to 99 other players at the same time. In it, you attempt to complete tasks, like getting five berries faster than the other players or capturing a number of Pokémon as fast as possible. Funfest Missions unlock items and prizes, and though it was impossible for me to test (the feature supports local play only), I imagine it could provide great joy from simply making such a connected Pokémon experience possible.
On a technical level, Black and White 2 looks as good as ever. The animations of Pokémon during battles are fantastic (despite some pixelation), and some of the in-game animations (which get crazy-good when the story hits a climax and the legendary Pokémon make their appearances) are even better than before. More surprising, much of the music has been remixed, changed entirely, or is entirely new. For the first time, some parts of the soundtrack have vocal parts, which I'm happy to say actually work for the most part.
For everything nice I have to say about Pokémon Black and White 2, a few negatives need to be addressed. Apart from their role in the story, many of the new locations aren't interesting (outside of the new cities and routes). The new progression through Unova also feels forced, as if Game Freak decided making it different was more important than making it better or seamless. For everything new it brings, nothing about the sequel feels nearly as fresh as Black and White.
That's likely the largest issue with Pokémon Black and White 2. Yes, it's as excellent as ever, but it doesn't strive to eclipse its predecessor. The poorly paced plot and lack of freshness leads me to believe the original may be better. Black 2 is fully worth a purchase, but beating the game only left me wanting more, and not in a good way.
Thanks to Serebii for his assistance!