IGN Review of Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Sign
If you've already blazed through HeartGold or SoulSilver and are jonesing for another fix of Pokemon-related adventures, Nintendo has you covered. No, I'm not talking about Black/White that was recently released in Japan (though if you speak Japanese, go for it!) I mean the latest iteration of the spinoff series, Pokemon Ranger. Unlike Pokemon games, this isn't about catching them all. In fact, gameplay takes a backseat while the story leads in Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs.
Donning the Ranger uniform of red goggles and a yellow scarf, you assume control of either a male or female protagonist sent to the tropical region of Oblivia to investigate a group called the Pokemon Pinchers. These baddies ride segway-hovercraft-things and the leaders have extremely complex plans that are slowly revealed as you go along. Based on Pokemon legends, the narrative is satisfying, but the pacing can feel a bit slow.
Now, although typical protocol is catching Pokemon and training them until they're the very best, Rangers don't. Instead of battling, Rangers signify their feelings of friendship to Pokemon by sending swirls of good intentions around them with their bracelet gadgets called Stylers. This works just like it did in Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia -- you furiously scribble circles around a wild or controlled Pokemon on the bottom screen and every successful circle fills up a meter located directly under the creature (if it's a boss the bar is at the top of the screen).
The Styler isn't just a mechanism for capturing Pokemon, the power meter also acts as your health bar. If you get hit by Pokemon attacks too many times and your Styler runs out of gas, it's game over. Although you don't need to capture all the Pokemon in the area, the action garners experience points, which boosts your Styler's energy (therefore your health) and friendship level. But that's not the only way to upgrade -- completing missions nets Ranger Points, which you can use to customize your Styler. Eventually you'll be able to "charge" your Styler up by holding the stylus on the screen for a while, but if you're facing a fast Pokemon it's really difficult to execute. Initially, I found the battle system frustrating because my circles wouldn't register, but I realized that the faster you go the easier it is, so I tossed my slow, careful method out the window.
The simplistic "draw-a-circle" (it really turns out to be more of an oval though) motion gets tiresome quickly and it's very easy to bond with wild Pokemon and when you do they join your posse. The only time you'll experience a challenge is when you're up against a boss, trying to juggle multiple aggressive Pokemon at once or if a creature gets agitated.
Agitated Pokemon are much harder to capture and you have to soothe their tempers before you can bond with them. Trying to calm down an agitated Pokemon (you can tell it's agitated if the meter is red) by yourself is a slow, arduous process so it's easier to let other Pokemon communicate for you. You can select a companion from your squad and place him or her onto battlefield. The same hierarchy of powers apply here—water types are strong against fire, fire is strong against plant types, etc. so that element of strategy comes into play when you select your battle buddy. Proceed with caution though, if the friendly Pokemon gets hit by an attack while on the field, it will run away and you won't be able to use it anymore.
Using a Pokemon friend in battle is slightly risky, but thankfully you have a partner Pokemon at your disposal that's immune to attacks. Although you don't get to choose your partner Pokemon this time around you are paired with a ukulele-playing Pichu appropriately called Ukulele Pichu. This is a much different direction than Shadows of Almia's whopping 17 options, but Pichu is damned cute and he plays a freakin' ukulele. Ukulele Pichu strums his instrument in battle and the musical notes appease whatever beast you're up against. His song also gets more powerful throughout the game, so he's a great ally to use in boss battles.
As I mentioned before, befriending a wild Pokemon gives you the option of bringing it into your seven-creature squad, and each has a different move and power level at their disposal. For example, a Leafeon has a level 4 cut ability while a Magnemite can re-charge your Styler and a Staraptor allows you to fly to different places. These skills come in handy when you encounter a blockage in your path, and you'll usually need to recruit strong Pokemon somewhere nearby in order to clear it out of your way. These Poke-pals are a one-time-use-only deal though, so once they've helped you out they will abandon the pack and return to their respective homes.
One of the new features in Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs is the Ranger Signs – when you encounter certain Pokemon like the three legendary dogs Suicune, Raikou and Entei they will leave behind an emblem. After registering the sign into your Styler, you can call upon the legendaries to help you cross chasms, smash large boulders and even walk on water. This feature is a nice touch and it's cool to ride around on their backs. While the new option is used fairly well, it's not frequent enough to make you forget about all those circles.
Although you will be best friends with circles very quickly, that's not all the gameplay consists of. There are segments that take place both in the air and under the sea. These sections are a nice change of pace, and your set of Pokemon pals changes depending on your location.
Cooperative multiplayer has also been added in Guardian Signs. Up to four of your friends can join in multiplayer missions using the local wireless connection. These quests are still connected to the story, but take place in the past so it's a neat way to continue the narrative even after you've finished the main campaign. While in this mode you have access to several different partner Pokemon that you unlock as you complete missions, and you'll level up again since your stats are wiped at the beginning. The only problem is that this mode is fairly simple. You start out with a couple objectives (i.e. capture four Pidgeys) and once you complete those you face off against a boss. I played with one other person and we were flying through the levels, so with three others the missions should be a piece of cake.
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