Pokémon Ranger is, like many of its characters, an odd critter. It’s a game of compromises, a stop-gap that no one really wanted in the first place. Instead of pushing forward for the release of the new canon Pokémon iterations, Diamond and Pearl for the DS, Nintendo has chosen to release a precursor spin-off to the main games, due this Autumn in Japan. This philosophy of a swiftly released cash-in seems to have been applied to the entire series (and indeed, the game ties in with the next Pokémon film and a recently released manga in Japan), but nonetheless, it’s a curious title, if only as the first portable Pokémon RPG to deviate from the set formula.
The beginning of the game is itself a departure; a short cut-scene results in your transportation to a small town, where you’re rapidly made a Pokémon Ranger, and charged with defending the environment and Pokémon. From there, you’re swiftly given an introductory mission; it’s fairly easy to understand your objectives, even though the Japanese version of the game doesn’t contain a shred of English. Unfortunately, for the best part of the game, it’s even easier to complete the objectives than it is to understand them. This aside, the gameplay concept at the heart of the title is an innovative and solid one; there’s no more random battles (Pokémon are visible in the field at all times), and catching them has been turned on its head. Instead of fighting them to weaken them, you now use your stylus on the touchscreen as a ‘lasso’ named a Styler, looping round the Pokémon a set number of times in order to catch it, with the number of loops required varying based on the strength of the Pokémon; while a Pichu will be caught with a single loop, a Golem will take nine. It’s an enjoyable concept, the difficulty of which can be varied surprisingly by the nature of the Pokémon you’re attempting to lasso. In fact, although the game is ostensibly an RPG, it’s by no means one in the traditional mould, following the beaten track of the simplest of action RPGs, rejecting levelling and items in favour of a focus on the central gameplay technique. More accurately, the gimmick.
Catching and defeating Pokémon by the use of your touch-screen lasso isn’t just the goal of the game, it’s also a means to an end. Pokémon you’ve captured follow behind you, and can be brought into action in battle to add time-limited special effects to your Styler. Each effect is unique to a Pokémon type; for example, water Pokémon allow you to inflate bubbles with the stylus, temporarily trapping your target creature inside to prevent it breaking your lasso as you loop around it. Once a Pokémon’s ability has been used once, it’s gone. In fact, Pokémon are actually treated more like one-use items in the game, with electric Pokémon serving only to recover the HP lost by the attacks of target Pokémon on your lasso. The idea of Pokémon-as-glorified-items makes up somewhat for the loss of the inventory and PokeMarts, but does have a significant weakness.
However, Pokémon also have a second role, and one that is intrinsic to the structure of the game’s puzzles; each ability fits a certain task in the game-world, with, for example, ground type Pokémon having the ability to smash through barriers. This concept is deepened by each Pokémon not just having a type, but a ‘strength of type’, indicated by how many icons they have depicting their element. This allows the game to forcibly ramp up the difficulty of catching the creatures required to progress, and adds an element of exploration as you attempt to find a Pokémon to suit the requirements for the next section.
Structurally, the game is also a major departure from the traditional Pokémon road-map. The player is given missions as a Pokémon Ranger, and is limited to a specific area while completing their task. The main goal of the game is to defeat the nefarious Team GoGo, foiling their evil plans by (predictably) lassoing their Pokémon. One of the most comically unthreatening villains since Count Duckula, their mission appears to be to do evil by...playing music. In each encounter the player has with them, they play their musical instruments, before running off...and that’s it. The plot is weak to say the least, nothing new to players of Pokémon games, and it’s telling that even without understanding Japanese you can still pick up the basic gist of what’s going on.
After each mission, the player is awarded a medal, and every two or three medals, the player is rewarded with either the ability to allow an extra Pokémon to follow him (the protagonist begins restricted to four Pokémon), or with a new ‘Special Attack’ bar to fill up. This bar fills up every time a wild or enemy Pokémon is circled with the Styler lasso, and affects your Ranger Pokémon, either a Minun or a Plusle, depending on whether you chose the male or female protagonist. Your Ranger Pokémon is given to you in an opening cutscene as you become a Ranger, and remains with you throughout the game, failing to vanish even after its attack has been used. This is in contrast to other Pokémon available for capture, which disappear after an initial use as previously mentioned. Instead, you must fill one or more Special Attack bars in order to be have the opportunity to use the Ranger Pokémon in battle. The more Special Attack bars you’ve amassed and filled, the more powerful the attack by your Ranger Pokémon is, but the longer it takes to completely fill them. It’s a useful but ultimately uninspiring addition that allows a last resort in the case of all the player’s auxiliary Pokémon being used up, and the ease with which the bars are filled leads to it rapidly becoming a non-event.
Ultimately, Pokémon Ranger is a fun and innovative game, but only up to a point; it suffers from being repetitive, with a single basic mission template repeated again and again, and it’s clear that even the developers realized this, as there are only ten medals available with little opportunity for extra depth of play. The subtitle of the game is ‘Road To Diamond and Pearl’, and this is an accurate summary of how the developers clearly felt while creating the game, as it suffers from being both weak and limited structurally, and far too brief. Perhaps that condemnation is too harsh. Pokémon Ranger is enjoyable, and looping Pokémon with your Styler lasso is addictive...at first. Scrape the surface of ‘Ranger, and you’ll find there’s almost nothing underneath; thanks to the lack of missions, at least the disappointment, like the game, is short-lived.
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