When you wander into Pokémon Black/White 2’s second city, the young pocket-monster trainer in your control stumbles upon a drama in the streets. The local Pokémon gym leader, a woman named Roxie, is arguing with the a captain whose ship is blocking the harbor. He refuses to move the boat for unusually whimsical reasons. “I’m going to PokéStar Studios. I’m going to be a movie star and a ship captain!” Roxie returns to her gym—which is also a punk-rock nightclub—where she raises enormous poisonous bugs to fight for her. Turns out she’s extra angry because the captain’s her dad.
This moment is a microcosm of the Pokémon world, a place fueled by the logic of a manic toddler drunk on Juicy Juice—where every major town is within walking distance of the next, every animal you meet is a potential best friend, and every person can be whatever the hell they want to be. It’s a dreamy realm of animal obsession, but as with previous games, the drudgery of raising those animals weighs the fantasy down.
The game is split across two differently colored versions, as is common in Pokémon tradition, the major distinction between them being access to a handful of exclusive beasts in either one. Black/White 2 marks the first time that the series has resorted to a numerical sequel rather than just another new color. That doesn’t mean it’s especially concerned with continuity. The original Black/White villains—terrorists that kidnap Pokémon under the guise of liberating them—return alongside a couple of other characters, but that’s about it. Your generic-child character is brand new. Like all young people in Pokémon, you’re given a pocket monster of your own by a local scientist and sent out into the world to train and study the beasts.
It’s the same formula that has fueled every entry since the 1996 Game Boy games, but this setup remains a good way of getting your adventure off the ground. The roads are filled with strangers challenging you to impromptu cockfights, and unkempt grassy fields hide ecosystems of bizarre cartoon animals. Even when the story gets inflected with world-changing incident—god-like Pokémon, megalomaniacs bent on domination—it never loses its unpredictable, slightly unhinged wonder and optimism.
Want to join the ship captain and become a star of the silver screen? Go to PokéStar studios and film an alien invasion movie series—the filming plays out just like regular fights, but you’re battling to stick to the script. If Pokémon worked like the real world, fame would be followed by an addiction to Potions, scandalous affairs with co-actors, and sci-fi convention appearances with your Oshawatt (an adorable otter Pokémon) signing autographs for $20 a pop. The real world this isn’t. Film stardom gets you paid in lemonade.
Watching the world bloom and fill up with life is the carrot tied to Pokémon’s stick of animal fights. Monster fisticuffs are as simple as ever: Fire Pokémon are weak in the face of water attacks, for instance. It’s a stringent rock-paper-scissors version of Dungeons And Dragons-style fights, and the hook is that you choose how your pet friends change as they grow stronger.
Getting them stronger, and capturing ever more powerful Pokémon, requires an intense time investment, though. At 300-plus monsters, the game’s menagerie feels as diverse as an actual rain forest. There’s a mix of old classics like Psyduck, a befuddled chubby duck with psychic powers, and newcomers like Reuniclus, who looks like a teddy bear with an exoskeleton of Jell-O. There inevitably comes a point in Black/White 2 when you need to halt your continental gallivanting to fight and fight, getting your critters up to snuff. Then you move on, accrue new monsters, and do it all over again. Black/White 2’s landscape eases the Sisyphean aspect of battle-beast husbandry by always inviting you forward into new cities, seas, and forests. But the game still feels like a slog when its monster training stands between you and its big, strange world.