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While the Pokémon series has long succeeded at delivering lengthy and involving roleplaying game experiences on handheld systems, the track record when it comes to home consoles hasn't been nearly as good. However, there seemed like a ray of hope when in 2003, after a slew of releases that included such spin-off titles as a photography game, a puzzle game and not one but a pair of virtual Pokémon simulators, Nintendo announced Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness for the Nintendo Gamecube. This, fans were told, would be the game that would finally bring the addictive RPG action of the old Game Boy titles to the big screen. Consider that promise unfulfilled.
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Pokémon XD is essentially two games in one. The first play mode is the much ballyhooed story mode, in which you choose a character and set off on a series of adventures tying into the plotline (see below). Along the way, your main character and his trusty Eevee will need to battle a series of opponents, acquiring new Pokémon along the way. However, instead of wandering around waiting for random encounters, the primary way in which he acquires new Pokémon is by snagging a specific type of them from the villains he fights. You see, the enemies in this game tend to use something called Shadow Pokémon, which are critters that have been corrupted by the powers of darkness. So our hero needs to go around, rescuing them and "purifying" them in order to restore them to their regular normal condition. Unfortunately, battles are pretty few and far between here. You'll spend far too much time reading text and running errands and not nearly enough actually playing the game.
If the story mode was all there was to the package, I'd be tempted to give it a pretty low score, but thankfully the game also includes a Versus Mode as well, which allows you to not only jump into battle quickly using a premade team but also allows players to upload Pokémon from their copies of Ruby and Sapphire for the GBA. Up to four players can battle at any one time, or if you choose to play against a CPU controlled opponent, you can select from four different difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard or Ultimate. In a neat twist, battles aren't simply fought by using the control stick to move the cursor around. Rather, when you use the Gamecube controller (rather than a connect GBA), you move the C-stick in a different direction to select an attack. This is akin to hiding which play you select in a football game, and allows you to battle without worrying about your opponent knowing what move or attack you plan to use. This play mode helps add some much needed depth and value to the package.
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With better writing, the game's plot could've actually been interesting. You see, as the Story Mode opens, we witness a scene in which a cargo ship is attacked and captured by Shadow Pokémon Lugia. From there, players are introduced to the protagonist, a young boy who is living at the research facility where his mother works. You see, the lead professor suspects that someone is trying to turn regular Pokémon into Shadow Pokémon, so he and his staff are working on a series of machines that can be used to purify them. As it turns out, he was right, but the sinister organization behind the scheme kidnaps him before he can finish his work. The research must go on, however, so while the hero's mother and the rest of the staff set to work creating a machine that can purify Shadow Pokémon, his mission is to help her gather parts; find, snag and cure Shadow Pokémon, find out exactly who is behind it all and put a stop to their evil schemes.
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Sounds like a pretty good premise, does it not? Could this finally be a Pokémon game with a decent plot? Sadly, no, because whatever potential the storyline might have had is absolutely ruined in the execution. For one thing, way too much of the game is made up of nothing more than inane fetch quests. For example, early on in the game, you're asked to go pick up a machine part for your mother. So first you need to go to Gateon Port to the shop where it's supposed to be. Only, once you get there, the shopkeeper is nowhere to be found. So then you need to go track him down and talk to him. He'll tell you to go back to the shop and talk to his grandson. Of course, once you get back to the shop, the grandson isn't there. He's off fixing a bridge. So now you need to find him, trigger a scene to get him to return to the shop, and finally you can get the part and take it back to the research facility. On top of that, a few of the characters and just flat out annoying (the main character's sister comes immediately to mind) and some of the dialogue feels incredibly stilted and forced. They had a real chance to craft something really special, something memorable, here, and they blew it by making it too silly, too inconsistent and too dull.
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Graphics and Sound
It's a good thing that the music is good and there are a few interesting special effects here, especially when a Pokémon evolves, because everything else here is abysmal. There's no voice acting to be had, but plenty of way too loud, annoying screeches and grunts from the various Pokémon you'll find. The character designs lack detail, the visuals are somewhat blurry looking and the environments are sparse and bland. If you ask me, this looks like a glorified Nintendo 64 game, a far cry from what other Gamecube RPGs (Baten Kaitos, Tales of Symphonia) have managed to accomplish using the same hardware.
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Sadly, the search for a good console Pokémon game continues, because Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness doesn't fit the bill. The writing wastes a promising concept with a script that is filled with absolute nonsense and fails to take the material as seriously as it should. The visuals are embarrassingly bad, especially when compared to other entries in the same genre on the same system. The gameplay is riddled with dull fetch quests and lacks the kind of addictive action that helped make the Game Boy Pokémon titles so addictive. The only real bright spot is the decent Versus Mode, but in truth, even that might be obsolete in this day and age of the Wii, the Nintendo DS and Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. Still, if you have a GBA and are looking for a way to battle using the old Pokémon games, this might actually be worth a look. Everyone else should stay far, far away.