Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia
Developer: Hal Labs
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 11/11/2008
The original Pokemon Ranger proved to be a popular title two years ago. Not only was it the first action RPG for the Pokemon franchise, but it allowed you to download a Manaphy egg into your (then upcoming) Pokémon Diamond & Pearl cartridge. I loved the first one and it was in my top ten games of 2006. Many of you agreed with me and so did the staff here as we voted it the best Action RPG of the year (with Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Red/Blue Rescue Team taking best Turn Based and Disgaea 2 taking best SRPG).
Two years and two weeks later, the Ranger series returns with new moves, a new story, new battles and even new Pokemon for your turn based games. The question is, can a game that was so outside the box two years ago still hold be an engaging and interesting today when the DS has become the best selling system of all time? People complained about how much harder Ranger was then its turn based progenitor and some Pokemon fans were unable to adjust to the real time gameplay. Let’s take a look if Hal made it two in a row, or if the Mystery Dungeon spin off is the only Pokemon branch to improve this year.
Welcome to Almia! This new region is the latest area in the Pokemon world. Here you’ll be starting as a rookie Pokemon Ranger. You’ll be working up through the ranks on the Ranger Guild with the help of your handy Capture Stylus. Beginning missions will involve tests put out by the Ranger School or catching a wild Tangrowth, but the farther into the game you get, the more you’ll encounter the newest Team of bad guys (Team Dim Sum) for the Pokemon world and their plan to unleash Darkrai upon the quiet coastal region you call home.
The main story is pretty standard Pokemon fare. You rise through the ranks and catch ’em all. However there’s a lot of bonus side story content which brings the game up a little in my opinion. You’ve got a massive post Darkrai battle which is the real ending of the game, and it only occurs after you’ve caught the 266 Pokemon available in this game. Once you’ve done that get ready for a four on one battle against the Regis.
There are sixty different side quests which can lead to bonus items or even new partner Pokemon. That’s right. Unlike the previous game where you only had a single partner Pokémon (Plusle or Minum), there are seventeen possible partner Pokemon for you. You start off with a choice between Pachirisu, Starly and Munchlax. I suggest Pachirisu as he’s one of the best Pokemon in the entire game and unlike his fellow electric type Pokemon, you get Pachirisu for more than one use. There are also six extra missions, three of which net you Pokémon for Diamond/Pearl and even more for you to explore.
You’ll find that what Shadows of Alma lacks in characterization, it more than makes up for it with side quests and optional content. In this regard it’s a lot like Morrowwind or Oblivion in that no characters are truly fleshed out but that the adventure itself and the actions you take tell the story for you. SoA won’t win any awards for plot, but what’s here is fun and moves the game along nicely.
Story Rating: Above Average
Much like the original Pokémon Ranger, Shadows of Alma is a beautiful game featuring lush backgrounds, vivid colours, excellent character design and the best animation in the Pokemon franchise. Even if you’re not a fan of Pokemon, you’ll be able to appreciate the amazing use of colour and easily the best looking water I’ve seen on the DS yet. Lava flows, shrubbery and a lot of the Pokemon abilities look amazing.
The only real downside to the visuals I can think of come in the actual battles you have with Pokemon. Graphics shift to a battle mode where the Pokémon is displayed on a dull boring background. Granted the background changes depending on your locations, but they’re all still pretty drab.
One of the things that really impressed me was the lack of slowdown in the game. At times you can have multiple Pokemon on the screen all doing different attacks. There is one boss battle late in the game featuring Magmortar, Gallade and Rhyperior that is pretty action packed. Yet not once does the game’s action hesitate. Very impressive.
Shadows of Alma is a very pretty game, and because it’s not held back by turn based settings, really allows you fully animated Pokemon to interact with and catch. The Ranger series is by far the most visually pleasing Pokemon spin-off, and it’s hard not to enjoy the graphics in this game.
Graphics Rating: Great
The audio aspects of SoA are a mixed bag to me. On one hand, I absolutely hate the sound effects that pass for people speaking. It’s this shrill tinny noise that hurts my ears and you hear it a lot. This isn’t the only awful sound effect you’ll hear throughout the game, but it is the worst.
As well, the music is a step below the original game as well. While some tracks, like the Arabian-esque music you here in desert areas is wonderful, the music of SoA can be a bit lackluster, especially during key scenes like when the professor is giving you a mission. It just doesn’t have the lasting appeal of the classic tracks from the turn based games. Those manage to lodge themselves in your head for weeks. Here? It’s just nowhere near that consistent level of quality one expects from a Pokemon game.
Don’t get me wrong. The music’s not awful. It’s just merely passable. The game still had the MIDI noises for each Pokémon’s voice, and the soundtrack just feels like what you would have heard in a generic 16 bit RPG. Besides what passes for computer effects, alarms buzzing and that hideous “someone is talking noise” the game is adequate aurally. Audiophiles will be highly disappointed here though and it’s my sad duty to report this is the word SOUNDING Pokemon game ever. Yes. EVER. Decent but underwhelming music plus awful effect noises makes me a sad Pokemon Ranger. At least the good tracks from the original game (Such as the default theme) are back and intact.
Sound Rating: Poor
4. Control and Gameplay
To make up for the last category, I can easily say that Shadows of Alma is the best PLAYING Pokemon game ever. In my original Pokémon Ranger review I said: 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.
Guess what? It turns out I was wrong. They made the gameplay EVEN BETTER. At times the changes can seem subtle, while others are quite substantial. Let’s take a look at how the gameplay has evolved.
Once again, you’ll be catching Pokémon with the Capture Styler. You won’t be using other Pokémon or Pokeballs. In order to capture a Pokémon, you have to successfully draw concurrent circles around the Pokémon using the touch pad and your stylus. If the Pokémon attacks the line before a circle is complete, it is damaged and you have to start again. If it attacks the Styler, it is damaged and loses hit points. You see, your ranger does level up, gain hit points or improve, your styler does. In the first game Pokémon didn’t have hit points. They had a number of circles you had to draw. Now, each Pokémon has a hit point bar (Called a friendship meter in the English version). With each circle you complete, the friendship meter begins to fill. When it is filled completely, you calm and catch the Pokémon. This is more an aesthetic change than anything else, but I’d have to say it is an improvement as you can see how close you are to finishing off your Pokémon opponent. Boss Pokémon have a HP bar that goes across the entire screen. This is done simply to make them look more menacing.
In the first game, bonus experience was determined by how many extra circles you could draw around the Pokémon after catching them. The downside to this was they could attack you while doing this and all your hard work would be lost. Now in SoA, the battle ends as soon as the Pokemon’s HP hits zero, but you receive bonus experience (and a rank) based on how well you handled the Pokémon. Time, use of Pokémon helpers and how many times your lines were broken or how much damage you received all play a factor in your rank. Again, I prefer this change and I think you will too.
The biggest change however is in the gameplay itself. With the first game, you basically had to keep the stylus going. It stayed on the battle screen and there was a degree of pressure to keep drawing circles no matter what. Now though you can take a quick break and even stop circling the Pokémon for a time. This sounds like the game has been made incredibly easy right? WRONG. To make up for it, the Pokémon’s friendship meter will start to deplete if you leave it alone for too long. This is a nice little checks and balances addition to the game play and although it does make the gamer easier overall, it does also cut out the biggest complaint people had about the original Pokémon Ranger in that it could get quite frustrating and difficult at times.
Pokémon Assists have changed a bit too. In the original, you just had Plusle or Minum with their powerful paralyzing attack. Now, because your Pokémon can change, all Pokémon to their respective type attack. This does make things a bit weaker as those bunnies packed a huge punch and could be charged up quickly. Assists vary based on the type of Pokémon you have. I find Steel, Electric and Fighting to be the best assists, with Ghost and Dark to be helpful as well. Don’t bother with Normal. Pokémon Assists can occur by drawing circles either around the Pokémon or from far away and then flicking them at the opponent with your stylus. There are some big changes here to Pokémon Assists – some good and some bad. I’m pretty neutral on them.
There are also field assists and these can range from cutting through vines, riding on a Doduo, or even using Darkrai’s void ability. Creepy! These Field Assists are the puzzle aspects of the game and in order to get by obstacles, you’ll need to catch a Pokémon and then use its Field Assist ability to help you pass by. Remember that each Pokémon can only be found in certain areas and that you can only have a certain number on your team, so expect some backtracking at times.
There’s one final addition worth talking about, and that’s capture cards. There are 47 capture cards in the game, almost all of which are obtainable in optional quests. These cards do anything from enhance your Styler’s resistance against specific Pokémon types to power ups that let you do more damage, increase the amount of time you can use Pokémon Assists and even the ability to regenerate after a successful catch. This is a fun addition to the game and the cards make great rewards for doing all the optional bits in the game instead of bum rushing through to get those bonus Pokémon.
Much to my surprise, Shadows of Almia has greatly improved the Pokémon Ranger experience. Considering I thought the first game was the best use of the touch pad and dual screen system I’d played up to that point, this is a pretty big compliment. I’m still shocked at how HAL improved a system I honestly thought was impeccable in the first place. Truly excellent gameplay.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled
Not only is the main game quite entertaining, but you have 60 optional quests, downloadable missions a second hidden ending, and the ability to port over a special Riolu, Darkrai and Manaphy to your copies of Pokémon Diamond or Pokémon Pearl. This means Pokémon fans will get a lot of mileage out of this game. One of the most frequent complaints of the original Pokémon Ranger was that it was too linear. Now that problem has been solved. I’m still a little shocked by the side quests and the extra missions.
Remember though, the missions that allow you to download two legends and Riolu are downloadable through wi-fi connection and are not normally part of the game. At the time of this review, it is unknown if NoA has localized all of the missions or if only Riolu and Manaphy’s missions will be available (and even then only until the end of January)
If you don’t have Wi-Fi access for your DS, it does tend to cut down on the Replayability of SoA, especially as the big selling point is getting a Manaphy and a Darkrai. If you do though, the sky’s the limit for Pokémon fans with this game.
Replayability Rating: Very Good
Although I thought the original Pokémon Ranger was nicely balanced, I can’t deny that there were times when that game was tough, bordering on cruel. I loved it, but the game was a bit hard for this current generation of children who didn’t grow up with Castlevania III and Battletoads. As such these poor tykes found it hard to beat the game and get the Manaphy egg they so lusted after. Alas.
With changes to the Pokémon Assists, actual battles and the addition of Capture Cards, the game does feel a bit easier. I do notice Pokémon require more circles to catch however, and the loss of Plusle/Minum is definitely felt. I’m not sure I’d say the game is easier per say. It’s more that the complaints have been addressed.
Although the plot and was weaker, I do feel Shadows of Almia offers superior gameplay and balance. This is definitely the most fun I’ve had with an action RPG this year…although I’ve yet to get my hands on Fallout 3.
Balance Rating: Great
The first Pokémon Ranger was highly innovative and original. It was a whole new way to play Pokémon and it was a huge change to the action RPG genre we’d been taking for granted for so many years.
SoA? Although there are some core gameplay changes, I can’t deny it’s mostly the same exact game, just expanded and improved. The Pokémon Ranger series is very different from any other action RPG series out there and I understand why the two games are so similar it might as well be compared to Super Street Fighter II Turbo vs. Super Street Fighter II. Both games are VERY different to those that are hardcore into the 2-D fighters, but 95% of gamers will just go, “Oh Super Specials and Akuma.” The changes are there, and this franchise is pretty unique, but the changes will be unappreciated or unnoticed by the vast majority of gamers.
Originality Rating: Decent
I got pretty sucked into this game but then a) I draw a paycheck from Pokémon and b) I really love Pokémon games in general. Will the average gamer be drawn into this latest addition to the most successful gaming franchise of all time? I’d like to think so. The gameplay is so out of the ordinary and the graphics are so well done for a GBA game that SoA has the ability to bring back people to the Pokémon fold that were otherwise sick of yet another 100 hour turn based RPG. At the same time the sound is below average and again, I have to state it’s the worst sounding game in the Pokémon empire. Music can really ruin a game for a lot of people, but thankfully with a lack of voice acting or any special sound cues, you can play the game with the DS’ sound turned off.
I think once a person starts playing Pokémon Ranger, they will be hard pressed to turn it off. Missions are laid out in such a way that they are just long enough to keep you engaged without starting to make your eyelids flutter for repetition or boredom.
Addictiveness rating: Good
9. Appeal Factor
I can’t deny that a lot of people bought the first Pokémon Ranger just for the Manaphy egg. Crazy isn’t it that tens of thousands of people would buy a 35 dollar game just to complete a Pokedex? The great thing is that after the game was purchased, those people realized Pokémon Ranger was actually a lot of fun! Critics and gamers alike loved it, and with the gameplay changes, SoA might prove to be an even bigger hit. Of course, the ability to get Manaphy and Darkrai doesn’t hurt either.
Will SoA prove to be as popular as Diamond or Pearl. of course not. That’s just crazy talk. But it’ll still be a big seller for the Nintendo DS and it has a nice amount of cross over appeal with those that normally eschew Pokémon for its turn based structure.
Appeal Factor: Good
Generally I devote this section to the extra, bonus content, unlockables and downloads for a game. As I’ve already covered all those above, I just want to mention I actually prefer this game to Diamond and Pearl. Why? Because as one gets older, you have less time to devote to a long spanning 60+ hour RPG. Factor in how Turn Based games can get pretty monotonous at times with their battles and annoying with random encounters, and you can see why the Pokémon Ranger series is my preference. The game is a lot shorter, I don’t have to catch them all, but if I do, I get a bonus. There is bonus content for me to upload to D/P as a thank you and to help complete my Pokedex if one chooses to get that anal about catching every Pocket Monster out there. The game is much shorter so I can beat the game and not give up my social life or neglect the other games companies send to me for reviewing. It’s fast paced and keeps my attention and it’s still fresh enough to stand out from the back of other handheld action RPG’s like Star Ocean or Dungeon Keeper. Even if the game wasn’t branded with Pokémon, I’d still love this thing and it would be one of my favorite games this year. It’s exactly the type of face list Pokémon needs to stay fresh.
Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled
Story: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Good
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a great follow up to the original Pokémon Ranger. Is it a better game? Well the gameplay and balance have improved and there are three downloadable Pokémon for your D/P carts, but the story, sound and originality have all taken a hit, so they’re about equal in my eyes. If you’re looking for a fast paced action RPG, this is great purchase, even for those of you not normally into the Pokémon franchise. For those of us who are, this is a sure fire hit.