Pokémon RangerQuick, name three of Nintendo's biggest franchises. OK? Good. Did that list include Pokémon? If not, welcome to Earth! You did? Good, because it might give you an idea of the sheer size of the franchise, so it comes as no surprise that the series has built up quite a collection of spinoffs to rival Mario's. This is the first entry in the Ranger subseries spinoff, where instead of ruthlessly capturing pokemon and forcing them to fight forever, you still capture pokemon but use them briefly. While the idea of constantly losing your "team" over time might be a shock to regular players, this is an interesting spin on the usual formula.
So let's get the basics out of the way. You're a newly recruited ranger, having gained the position by apparently badgering the ranger leader into submission. You're assigned a few rookie missions before the typical bad guy team turns up in the form of the Go-Rock Squad, who intend to capture and use pokemon for their own purposes. Yeah, it's a kind bland story so I wouldn't really expect much in the way of interesting development.
Whatever. The key feature of the game is the way you interact with pokemon. Much like the core games, you'll find yourself capturing creatures in order to gain their assistance. Likewise, your team size will be limited, with the limit increasing as you progress through the game. That's pretty much where the similarities end, as Pokemon Ranger goes down an entirely different route. For one, you don't lower a pokemon's HP and through pokeballs hoping one will work. Rather, when you touch a pokemon in the field, you transition to the capture view where the creature(s) freely roam around onscreen. The idea is to use the touchscreen to draw loops around them. Each pokemon species has their own number of successive loops that must be completed before they are captured.
Of course, it's not as simple as that. If a pokemon touches the capture line then it breaks and you have to start capturing again. Different pokemon will have different movement patterns, so while you start off with creatures that move slowly and predictably, later challenges will include creatures that dash around erratically and some may even purposely try to jump or dash out of a capture. In addition, many pokemon will try to attack, either randomly or in response to the player's capture attempts. You might face electric shocks emanating outward, streams of fire/water/ice etc fired in a single direction or gusts of wind being whipped up as they move around. If an attack hits your capture line not only does it interrupt the attempt but causes damage to your capture styler. Lose all that health and it's game over.
If you're struggling to capture a pokemon using just your looping skills then you can call upon the assistance of partner pokemon. Any creature currently in your party can be called in to assist, with the effect depending on the assist type. Grass types can restrict movement, fire types can stun and fighting types halve the number of loops required. These assists only remain active for a limited period of time though and their effectiveness is still affected by type relationships (like grass assists won't be very effective when trying to capture a fire type). In addition, any pokemon except the one designated as your partner will leave afterwards. That partner pokemon is one that joins you early in the story and stays with you throughout. The game limits its use though by requiring you to charge up a special gauge to use its assist, done by completing successful loops.
This immediately creates an interesting alternative to the capture mechanic in the core games. You may not be aiming to lower HP, but you can call on other pokemon to help and it requires more physical input as the player tries to figure out how best to throw in capture loops.
There's also a level up system in place, where you gain experience points for successful captures. In this game though, it's the capture styler you use that levels up, increasing the amount of health it has and the length of line that it is possible to draw. It's a good setup that gives you a sense of progression, but it's also nice that the game doesn't place such a large importance on it as you might think. You can run from battles and sometimes you may want to in order to avoid tedious rebattling, but you don't feel notably penalised for doing so.
When a wild pokemon is captured it joins your party. In addition to being able to help capture other pokemon you can also use some of them to clear puzzles or obstacles, and this is where the other half of the gameplay lies. Your progression through the game often requires you to clear some challenges like smashing boulders to dust, putting out fires or cutting metal fencing apart. As a ranger, it's up to you to capture pokemon whose abilities can help with this. The game is very helpful in pointing out the type and strength of ability you need if you click on the object you need to clear, and once you've captured a species of pokemon the relevant data for it is revealed, displaying if it has the necessary ability or not. Therefore the challenge lies not so much in figuring out how to clear them (since the game pretty much tells you) but then going around exploring and finding the pokemon you need for it.
The setup of this system is generally very strong. The game is quite happy to throw a good number of obstacles at you and in most cases the pokemon you need isn't very far away. There are also some purposely put along your path that you can't clear until later when your journey ends up bringing you back to that spot. There is a little backtracking here and there but it's rarely an issue so it was fun hunting around for just the right kind of creature. Much like in capture attempts, once a pokemon has helped it then leaves, making it important to get the right ones. That said, while I did enjoy the whole idea of recruiting pokemon to clear obstacles, I do wish there had been a little more puzzle solving involved too. A few times you'll actually have to go and figure out a solution, but these are distinctly rarer than the clear obstacle scenarios.
Since random playing might be a bit directionless the game assigns you various missions to complete, whether it's escorting a NPC to a location, finding an item or a general investigation. There's a good variety to test you on and you can always check the status menu to confirm your current objective. The game is fairly linear in progression so when you finish one mission story progression inevitably leads to an assignment of your next mission. It makes things easy to follow, but of course leaves little room for player choice. There is a little incentive to explore. Sometimes you can find some special and/or powerful pokemon if you go off the intended trail and there are a few special capture challenges you can take on if you want, but the scope isn't anywhere near as big as something like a RPG. The towns are pretty uninteresting for the most part though. Unless a mission explicitly required me to walk around talking to the NPCs I didn't see the point, as the chat dialogue of random characters rarely gave me any useful or interesting insight or any kind of rewards. Although the game only has a handful of towns to begin with anyway.
The difficulty of these missions mostly scale well, starting you off with some reasonably simple challenges both in terms of pokemon captures and obstacles, then slowly ramping things up. There are a few pokemon whose difficulty doesn't really fit with the rest around them, proving a bit more frustrating than you may expect. At times these pokemon simply decide to fill the screen with obstacles or you face multiple pokemon at once that love to dash completely off-screen repeatedly, but otherwise it's a solid steady difficulty curve.
Visually I dare say the game surpasses the core games. It's all 2D spritework with beautifully crafted environments like lush forests, a town on the water or icy caverns. They manage to get some significant detail into the character sprites too and the designs, especially those of the playable ranger boy and girl characters, are striking and reflect the style of the series well. Where the game really excels though is with the pokemon themselves. Whereas the core games had been mostly content going with static sprites in battles with perhaps a few frames of basic animation, Ranger scoffs at the notion and fully animates every single pokemon. Each creature scurries around the game screen, visibly reacting to events whether it's unleashing an attack or getting stunned by an assist. With so many creatures in the game it's an impressive feat and certainly makes the battles all that more interesting. Likewise, the effects going off are also impressive, like the eruptions from a fire assist or the spiritual energies emitted by ghosts.
The music wasn't as strong as I thought it was going to be. There are some nice tunes in here for sure, some of which strike a good harmony with the setting and none of them could exactly be bad. However, this just isn't the standard I now expect from Pokemon. The "title opening" is very forgettable for example. The battle music, while energetic and great, simple struggles to measure up to those battle tracks used in the core games. If a game is going to carry the Pokemon name then I would expect it to strive for the same very high standards. The Pokemon do at least have all their own recognisable cries and you have all the usual sound effects.
Well, I love Pokemon Ranger. It's an interesting spinoff in that it still maintains the essence of the core games to a degree while still going down its own unique route. Better still, the game is fantastic in its execution, stumbling only in a few respects but otherwise providing an experience that really appeals and makes good use of the franchise it's split from.