Review: Pokemon Ranger (Nintendo DS)

Pokemon Ranger
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: HAL Labs
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 10/31/2006

This has been an excellent year for Pokemon. Although it started off with a mediocre game in Pokemon Trozei, it was then followed up with an excellent twist on the turn based RPG format via Pokemon Mysterious Dungeon. Now we have our first ever ACTION RPG featuring characters from the Pokemon world. I can’t tell you how happy I am about this. It seems like such a natural evolution for the game considering all the characters and thew fact that Pokemon has constantly branched out into new genres since its inception. Oddly enough though it took a full decade for this to come about.

Now we all know I love Pokemon. I’m arguably the best known Pokemaniac over 18 in North America. I get paid to write about Pokemon. I love the series and nearly everything about it. Yet I’m also able to put aside that love I have for these cute and cuddly cock fighting seizure monsters and give honest scores to games. Pokemon Emerald, Ruby, Sapphire, and Trozei all received scores in the 5-6 range. I feel that a reviewer can’t be trusted unless they put their own personal bias aside when reviewing a game or series. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t do it myself.

That being said, I’m going to level with you: Pokemon Ranger is the best Pokemon game since Pokemon Crystal and is definitely in my top 5 Pokemon games of all time along with the aforementioned Crystal, Hey You, Snap, and Puzzle Challenge. Sorry Pokemon Channel and your adorable Pichu cartoon, you’ve been bumped off the list. The game is fun, highly original even with some familiar characters showing up, unlike most action RPG’s, you’re forced to think rather than hack and slash. Pokemon Rangers is to Action RPG’s what Shadow Hearts was to Turn Based RPGs: it changes your most basic concepts of the genre and reminds you why you started to play RPG’s in the first place.

So why is this game so great? What makes it worth picking up and seeing just why Pokemon has been the most dominate game franchise for ten years running?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Pokemon Ranger is so vastly different from the regular Pokemon RPG’s I don’t know where to begin. There’s no young children becoming masters of a mutant animal shoot fighting competition before they can do long division. There’s no beating of wild and sometimes endangered animals into a near death state and them locking them inside a cylinder until they develop Stockholm Syndrome. There’s not even a “Gotta catch ’em all because we here at Nintendo want you to develop OCD.” theme. Sure there’s Pokemon and the game even takes place in the same universe as the turn based RPG’s (as Johto and Hoen are both mentioned), but other than that, everything you knew about Pokemon is gone.

To start, you have a choice between a male or female main character who is in their mid to late teens. Yes, a Pokemon main character past puberty. It boggles my mind. Your gender also determines which of two Pokemon (Plusle and Minum) will be your ONLY Pokemon for the entire game. Yes, let me repeat that as that’s got to be a hard thing to come to grips with for a Pokemon game. You get only a single Pokemon as your own for the entire game. Uno. Ichi. Ein. That’s it. Thankfully it’s a bunny!

Your character has signed on to become a Pokemon Ranger and the game revolves around your training for your new profession. You’ll be protecting the environment, cleaning up toxic waste, protecting wild Pokemon from poachers and subduing angry and scared wild Pokemon before they can hurt themselves or others. It’s such an amazing shift from the previous games, you need to experience it to truly fathom it.

One of the most interesting things about the game is that there are occasional subtle jabs at the earlier Pokemon games and their “Catch ’em to fight” mentality. I was surprised by this, but it almost made me fall in love with this game even more. You will not have a single “Pokemon Battle” in this entire game. Indeed all “combat” revolves around restraining Pokemon and them setting them back in their natural habitat once their rage has been tempered.

You’ve got a new team of bad guys in Pokemon Ranger, you’ve got one hell of a plot twist towards the end, and you have a game that focuses really on the world of Pokemon outside those pesky Trainers that have do be doing massive property damage when their Metagross does battle with a Tyranitar.

Pokemon Ranger is an about face from your normal Pokemon RPG. If you’re a long time Pokemon fan, you’ll find everything you loved is still here, and there’s even more to enjoy. For those Pokehaters, you’ll find all those complaints (aside from the cuteness) you had are more than likely gone and you stand a very strong chance of being converted by this game with its light-hearted and yet deep and intelligent (for a Pokemon game) story and the allegory beneath it all.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Pokemon has never looked better. Mysterious Dungeon was a step in the right direction, but Ranger takes the graphical improvement to a new level. Before, there was very little difference in the upgrade of graphics from Pokemon RPG to the next. In fact, even the N64 and Game Cube games still had pretty much the same graphical setup, just with shinier polygons and textured blah blah blah. The character designs are the best I’ve seen, and the Pokemon themselves are finally filled with life! No more standing around and having a stationary attack. Here your Pokemon run across the screen and display their powers in real time. You’re going to finally see what a Fire Blast or a Thundershock looks like.

You can have several Pokemon in your screen at once in capture mode and there’s no slow down. That surprised me, as generally when a cart based game has this much action going on, slow down isn’t a possibility; it’s certainty. Maybe we’ve finally gotten to the point where slowdown is a thing of yesteryear?

The graphics are bright, crisp and clear. If you normally go “OOOOH! PIKACHU SO CUTE” before, get ready to squeal time and time again. Pokemon Ranger really is an excellent looking game. There are better games out there on the DS visually, but this is certainly my favorite Pokemon game when it comes to sheer eye candy.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

I don’t think it’s possible for any Pokemon game to score poorly here. Like the Castlevania series, Pokemon has one of the best track records in the industry for catch and classic music. Pokemon Ranger is no exception. In addition to some very familiar (and slightly remixed?) tracks from previous games, PR offers some great new scored pieces that I found myself whistling or humming even hours after I put the game down.

There’s no voice acting in the game, and Pokemon still have their trademark midi squarks that differ depending on the breed of Pokemon in question. I still get annoyed that they don’t just bring in some voice acting clips from the show for these games when said voice acting has appeared in other Pokemon games like Pokemon Puzzle League and Pokemon Channel. What can I say? I want to hear cute little Poke’voices. It’s part of the overall Pokecharm. Look at me. I’m making compound words like I was McDonalds. Soon I’m going to Pokevomit.

I was very happy with the soundtrack and the range it offered. Each piece fits the current mood and location you are at in the game perfectly and helps to enhance the overall mood of the game. The overall soundtrack isn’t as amazing as the original Pokemon RGBY quartet, but it’s still one of the best scores I’ve heard in a long time gamingwise.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Pokemon Ranger offers some highly original and very addicting gameplay. Most of the game is exploring with either your D pad or stylus to see what’s happening in the various cities and their outlying areas that you’ll be traveling to. Maybe you’re be stopping the nefarious deeds of the Go-Rocks. Maybe you’ll be helping a crazy lady collect all of her Skitties. But when it comes down to it the heart of the game revolves around your capture styler

Your capture styler is the meat and taters of your RPG’ing here in Pokemon Ranger. It is what gets the experience and hit points and does all the would-be combat. As I said before there’s no combat like what you are used to in Pokemon games. Instead your capture styler is used to hold and calm a Pokemon. To do this, the screen shifts to a battlefield. Your goal is to draw circles around the Pokemon. How many is determined by the type of Pokemon you are trying to capture. A Pichu requires only one, but something like an Entei…hoo boy.

You’d think drawing circles would be easy right? I mean, you were doing this while still in diapers. However, there are some catches. The first is you can’t draw gigantic circles. The max size of your circle is dependent upon your stylus level. The higher your level, the bigger the radius of your circle can be where it will still count as a capture circle. As well, Pokemon won’t just sit there. You’re going to have to work for your capture. They will move around, try to disrupt your capture line, and worst of all they will even try to attack your capture styler.

If a Pokemon touches your capture line, it is disrupted. If a Pokemon attacks your styler, it takes damage and loses hit points. If it goes to zero, well, you know what happens then. With a lot of skill and a little luck, you’ll be able to capture the Pokemon and have him as a temporary member of your team. Once on your team you can use them to help out by say, moving crates, putting out fires, or even adding their Pokemon type power to your capture styler. This takes different effects such as Fighting Pokemon making each or your circles count as two, Poison Pokemon stunning your opponents, Grass Pokemon making hedges that slow down the wild Pokemon and so on. It’s a very nice twist on the series, and it gets even more interesting when you realize you can only use each Pokemon (save your bunny) ONCE. Then it gets to go free back into the wild. Like i said at the onset. “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” does not apply here. And it’s liberating.

Finally, you also have your Minum or Plusle who can temporarily paralyze a wild Pokemon allowing you to get some capture circles in while they immobile. Your electro-rabbit levels up as your Pokemon Ranger level rises and can eventually use its attacks more and more frequently. In the past, all Pokemon attacks had a set limit, no matter the level. Here you actually gain them. Again, a wonderful twist on an old favorite.

Pokemon Ranger is a joy to play through with amazingly easy controls to learn. The difficulty is in improving your skills as the difficulty level grows with each succeeding mission and/or new Pokemon to catch. I can honestly say the action parts of this game are the most fun I’ve had with the DS touch pad, and I’m impressed with how well the collision detection holds up, even when you are dealing with multiple Pokemon. The gameplay is highly original, the controls are fluid and smooth with no complaints here. This is easily the most fun I’ve had with the DS and it’s hard for me to imagine the pad being used in a more enjoyable manner.

Control and Gameplay: 10/10

5. Replayability

Pokemon Ranger is a very linear game, and if you play through it a second time, everything will still unfold as they did the time before. Thankfully this is Pokemon we’re taking about and that means you never have to do that. Like all Pokemon games, once you beat the game, you learn you’ve only just started! There are many more missions to do, Pokemon to see, and even a little something that allows Ranger to interact with Diamond and Pearl. You will never need to start a second game with this cart, as your first game will last forever if you let it.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

Pokemon Ranger can be difficult. Even if you try to the usual turn based RPG standby and fight battle after battle without advancing the game simply to level up. Even the toughest Pokemon have patterns though. You just have to patience and figure them out. This is another great twist where with the turn based games it NEVER paid to be defensive. Here however, playing defensive is key. It’s like using Geese Howard in a KoF game.

No matter how good you are, there is always a degree of challenge to this game, and that’s what makes it so great. Even a low level or “easy” Pokemon can surprise you on occasion. Overconfidence gets your styler killed. If you’re looking for a game that will constantly offer you something instead of a cakewalk, you’ve got it right here. The puzzles and catching will keep you on your toes for days.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

This is HAL we’re talking about. This is the team that created The Adventures of Lolo, the original Kirby games and have designed all the Super Smash Bros. games. HAL has constantly been a bastion of originality and creativity since the 8 bit era. Indeed, there’s even an homage or two to their early games. YAY LOLO!

Pokemon Ranger continues the constant streak of Pokemon being the most innovative series in the history of gaming. Pokemon is constantly reinventing itself and branches out into new directions and genres. Pokemon Ranger not only tips the entire concept of the Pokemon Franchise on its head and forces you to look at the franchise in an entirely new light, but it also changes how one looks at action RPG’s. This is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokemon RPG since Crystal, and I can’t emphasize enough how the game feels oddly familiar and yet amazingly innovative at the same time. Even the fact that you can have 5-7 Pokemon running around on screen with out instead of shoved into Pokeballs is a great touch. If you are looking for something completely different from your next game, Pokemon or otherwise, Ranger is for you.

Originality Rating: 8/10

8. Addictiveness

I was sucked into Pokemon Ranger. Some of the missions were really long though and my arms really do not like the DS for long periods of time as compared to the NGPC or GBA, so I that hampers all my DS playing experiences. Still what was here was highly enjoyable and I would just keep going a little longer, then a little more and then…ooops. I should have been in bed a while ago. You just want to keep going.

I will say there are some things that dampened the “OMG! MUST KEEP GOING” feel for me besides the controller. Sometimes you have to backtrack to find a specific Pokemon with a specific field power to advance in these Lolo esque puzzles and I would get annoyed at the time and walking. As well, Poison Pokemon can hit you with smog that slows your movement rate down to a third of what it normally is, and you move too slow for my liking as it is. So there are some negatives, but for the most part, it is highly enjoyable.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

There are only three types of gamers I can not see falling in love with this game:

1. People who automatically hate things that are cute graphically and must have blood, guns, and boobs in their gaming experience to be happy.

2. Reviewers who are pissed because Nintendo doesn’t participate in the “Swag for scores” bullshit so many sites and mags force on publishers.

3. People who prefer turn based RPG and won’t be able to adapt properly to Ranger’s action gameplay in the same way people whine about Shadow Hearts forcing them to actually pay attention during gameplay.

This is an amazing game in so many ways. Hal has an undeniable track record and their games are always considered top notch. Is there anyone that hates Smash Bros? And in truth, only a gamer’s sad pathetic attempt to garner some sort of electronic machismo will keep them from loving this. It doesn’t matter what your age, gender, race, socio-economic status, or preference for clam chowder broth is, you will find something to really get enthused about in this game.

Appeal Factor: 7/10

10. Miscellaneous

Pokemon Ranger has everything I could want in a title. It’s fast paced and yet requires strategy and concentration. It is light hearted, yet it offers a deep plot filled with metaphor and morales. It is adorable and addicting. It offers range of missions in length and options and it makes the best use of the touch pad I’ve yet to encounter in a DS game. I can’t think of anything I wanted from this game that wasn’t in this…except Pokemon voices instead of midis. Ah well, nothing’s truly perfect. Except Valkyrie Profile.

Miscellaneous Rating: 9/10

The Scores
Story: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
Control & Gameplay: 10/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 9/10
Total Score 78/100
Final Score:8.0 (GREAT!!!)

Short Attention Span Summary
This is the first game to get higher than a 7.5 from me all year. And it’s NOVEMBER! As of right now, this really is my GOTY contender. It has absolutely no major flaws, and even the minor ones are more opinion based than anything about design or tech wise. I can’t recommend this game with any more enthusiasm. It makes everything old new again and finally gives me a reason to not be apathetic towards the DS. Thank you HAL for making yet another amazing game.

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