IGN Review of Pokemon Ranger
It's only been a little more than a month since Pokemon Mystery Dungeon started shipping for the Nintendo DS, and yet in that short amount of time Nintendo thinks you're ready for another Pocket Monster adventure on the dual-screen handheld. Pokemon Ranger, like Mystery Dungeon, is another spin-off that has elements from the true Pokemon RPG design, but takes its design into a different direction so as not to step on the toes of the game everyone really wants: Game Freak's own Pokemon RPG. In the case of Pokemon Ranger, this is more action-based than RPG based, and unlike Mystery Dungeon it's a game that uses the DS for its more unique design. It's not really mindblowing but it's a neat diversion with its own charm, and it's a cool branch out of the familiar Pokemon universe that sticks to the fun and familiar "gotta catch 'em all" attitude.
Mystery Dungeon put players in the role of an actual Pokemon critter whose purpose in this new furry life is to join a rescue team and help other Pokemon in need. Perhaps HAL Laboratory overheard what the designers at ChunSoft were working on for that game, as Pokemon Rangers has a similar theme: you're not a Pokemon trainer, you're a Pokemon Ranger whose talents lie in helping others by recruiting the talents and abilities of wild Pokemon critters. See, you don't use Poke-balls to grab or snag your animal teammates -- you instead use what's called a "Styler" to wrangle in these critters. Once you've wrangled your Pokemon, he'll tag along with you until you either utilize his skills or simply release him in the wild.
So how does this Styler thing work? If you ever stumble upon a Pokemon critter in the wild, you'll enter the "combat" phase where the task is to utilize the touch screen and stylus to quickly circle that creature and weaken it -- the stronger the Pokemon, the more you'll have to circle, and when it's continuously on the move and constantly attacking your Styler gadget this "drawing circle" mechanic gets tougher and tougher to accomplish. There's a little strategy involved as you can bring in partnered Pokemon to assist with slowing up the target creature -- zapping it with electricity, trapping it in a water bubble, surrounding it with grass to limit his movement all becomes required play later in the game because some of these necessary Pokemon become a real pain in the butt to wrangle without getting injured.
These wrangled Pokemon are useful in situations outside of the "battle" aspect of Pokemon Ranger. Many of the puzzle elements require the use of a Pokemon's special abilities: a fighting Pokemon, for example, can help shake a tree, or a water Pokemon can take care of a burning tree or building. And an electric Pokemon can "recharge" your health in case you're about to die. The catch is, once that Pokemon does his selected business, that's it for him...he's released back in the wild. So if you need that type of Pokemon later in the adventure you'll need to find another and wrangle it in. Luckily they're not as rare as a normal Pokemon game -- most Pokemon stick to the same location, so you'll find the same Pokemon in that location if you come back later.
The adventuring in this design is extremely linear, so much so that it's near impossible to stray from the path. When one task is done, players run through the storyline, wander a bit in town and -- surprise, surprise -- end up being stopped by another non-player character needing assistance. The puzzles in the game aren't entirely taxing, either -- if there's a log in the way or a fence blocking the path, there's obviously a specific Pokemon in the area that has the needed ability to burn the log or destroy the fence. The adventure also takes an insane amount of time to get started; because the game uses play mechanics that aren't the usual fare, the designers felt that this game needed an extensive tutorial. And it goes on forever. Just when you think you've learned everything there is about Pokemon Ranger, a character pulls a Columbo: "Oh, and one more thing..." Gah. The "intro" itself lasts a couple of hours. You're going to need a little patience if you're the type that can't stand a lot of reading in adventures.
But even with its forced design and overly drawn out tutorial the adventure in Pokemon Ranger is pretty solid. Everything can be controlled by the stylus if you choose, and it's recommended since you don't get any benefits controlling your character using the traditional D-pad way. Visually the game uses mostly 2D effects but the graphical style looks far more detailed and colorful than past Pokemon adventures on the DS and GBA. And each of the hundreds or so Pokemon have been 2D rendered with a good amount of animation detail so they can follow your on-screen character along in the adventure...after all, they don't spend their time in Pokeballs in Pokemon Ranger.
Pokemon Ranger feels very much like a Pokemon game, emulating the style and adventuring without really being the true Pokemon design. Players wander the land looking for tasks to accomplish, level up their abilities by capturing more creatures, and grab random critters to fill up their brag-list Pokedex database. The only thing missing is a multiplayer option.
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