I am what you might call a Pokémon purist. I’ve been a fan of the core series ever since the North American release of Red and Blue way back in 1998, and I even got my Pokéwalk on with SoulSilver earlier this year. Still, in my 12 year quest to “Catch ‘Em All,” I’ve always made it a point to avoid the series’ various spin-off titles.
From puzzle games and console RPGS to on-rails (photography) shooters and on-foot racers, Pikachu and company have cut a wide swath through gaming history with varying results. Still, aside from the traditional, portable turn-based cock-fighting sims that are the license’s bread and butter, the two most enduring aberrations seem to be of the Mystery Dungeon and Ranger varieties. After stumbling across some gameplay footage of the newest iteration of the latter — Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs — I found myself rather intrigued by the stylus-heavy controls and departure from the run-of-the-mill captures sequences. With my own kids, a second generation of Pokémon fans, in tow, I set about playing through this odd and sometimes rocky little diversion from the Poké-norm.
For those — and I imagine there are a number of you — unfamiliar with the Ranger flavor of Pokémon games, it represents a series of action RPGs available on the Nintendo DS that place the player in the role of Pokémon Ranger as opposed to that of a typical Pokémon trainer. Members of this unique sub-class dedicate themselves not to capturing and battling Pokémon for sport, fame and profit, but to protecting the wild creatures that inhabit their assigned geographic areas.
After being introduced to this concept (and the as-yet unfamiliar tropical region known as Oblivia) via a very Japanese-y introductory cut scene, I found my Ranger defending his turf against a cadre of scoundrels known as Pokémon Pinchers. These hoverboarding malcontents would dog me every step of the way as I traversed a fun if often groan-worthy narrative concerning Pokémon poaching, a lost partner, the great Pokémon of legend and a ukulele-playing Pichu.
In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that, though I found the vocation of Pokémon Ranger to be much more tonic to the spirit of the late Steve Irwin, I named my player character Walker. It was the NPCs delightful predilection to refer to him as “Walker: Pokémon Ranger” that saved me from utter boredom during much of the ham-fisted exposition. But I digress.
As I previously mentioned, a Pokémon Ranger is less concerned with adding creatures to his own collection than he is defending and preserving indigenous Pokémon species from alien threats. Of course he often manages to accomplish this by leveraging the unique strengths of the aforementioned beasties.
Rather than using the tried-and-true Poké Ball method of capturing, a Ranger instead uses a combination power gauntlet/wristwatch/smartphone called a Styler to … convey his feelings of friendship to wayward creatures … by rapidly drawing circles around them.
Okay, even as I type this I can feel your attention drifting, but let me assure you that, as ridiculous as the premise is, drawing circles around on-screen Pokémon to catch them is actually a fun and satisfying mechanic. Gone are the countless wasted Pokémon Balls and quick-to-escape targets of other games because Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs but the action quite literally in your own hands.
Styler capturing isn’t the only thing handled by the touch screen. In fact, practically the entire game can be played using nothing more than the stylus. And while it doesn’t exactly live up to the precise controls of Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass or even Animal Crossing: Wild World, the touch interface is solid enough to inject some serious fun into the proceedings. Movement, dialog choices and the requisite Pokémon catching are all stylus-based, and each comes off as intuitive and enjoyable.
Unlike their core title counterparts, these hand-captured Pokémon are seldom kept in your party for long. Instead you temporarily enlist their help to fight baddies, sooth other beasts, remove environmental obstacles and even recharge your Styler. The game does a nice job of integrating the Styler system as the core gameplay mechanic by making it not only your primary “weapon,” but also using it to represent the equivalent of Hit Points. As your Styler receives damage during the capture process – generally from a rambunctious Pokémon’s attacks before a capture circle can be completed – its integrity depletes. Once it falls to zero, it’s game over. Of course in typical RPG style you can upgrade a number of this unique device’s aspects that increase its power and durability thanks to experience garnered from capturing Pokémon and completing missions.
The draw-a-circle-really-fast gameplay mechanic is ably supplemented by that age-old application of captured Pokémon themselves. Tossing one of your accompanying beasts on-screen during a capture allows them to aid in the fight, and longtime fans will be happy to know that the game incorporates the traditional system of type-specific strengths and weaknesses with which you’re likely already familiar.
Yes, somehow my Bulbasaur wailing the hell out of a Geodude actually helps to communicate my “feelings of friendship” to the poor creature.
No, I don’t get it either.
In addition to a number of short-term Pokémon and human allies you pick up along the way – the latter of which offer little help in battle and instead serve to remind you of your current mission objectives – your one long-term companion is the aforementioned Ukulele Pichu. This delightful critter can, when he’s built up enough energy, strum a little tune to help out in battle. Unlike your other Pokémon, Pichu doesn’t run the risk of being damaged in the fray, so he’s a perfectly serviceable wingman.
As you gain and loose Pokémon allies throughout the story-advancing missions, you occasionally encounter legendary creatures that, once defeated, can be summoned by drawing magical emblems on-screen. These are used to unlock additional paths, adding the slightest hint of Metroidvania-style gameplay to Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs.
With a control scheme that allows both movement (across regular isometric map terrain as well as some fun shifts to air and sea) and combat via the touch-screen, ample save points and Styler recharge stations throughout the map and a wide selection of Pokémon available to be drafted into your personal Poké-army, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs has a lot going for it. But that’s not to say there aren’t some let-downs.
The writing, as I’ve already mentioned, is pretty terrible. What’s worse is there’s lots of it. While the overall narrative is far too hokey for older players, the text-based exposition is also much too abundant for youngsters just looking to explore a new realm full of Pokémon. There were numerous times in my review session where I, as the main player, found myself bored by the quality of the story and my son, who was just watching for cool Pokémon, was equally turned off by the amount of text we had to cycle through to get back to the action.
Moreover, while the backgrounds are lovingly rendered, the character sprites often seem blocky and never really look as if they belong in a given scene. Sure, this helps young characters keep track of on-screen movement and easily spot hidden Pokémon, but it also really detracts from the title’s visual appeal.
With all that said, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is not without its charms. The action-heavy, stylus-driven gameplay – even if it does mostly involve drawing really fast circles – offsets the slower moments of juvenile exposition. Likewise, the mixed bag that is its visual style is properly supplemented by fun music and a nice use of sound effects.
If you or your geeklings are looking to get your Pokémon on in a bit of a different way or are simply biding your time until the release of Black/White, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is a fun diversion. If, however, you’re turned off by cheesy writing (even for a Pokémon title) and purposefully repetitive gameplay, then you might want to let these particular Pocket Monsters pass you by.
WIRED: fun action RPG, easy and intuitive controls, nice use of music and sound effects, lots of available Pokémon, some nice (if minor) variety in gameplay styles and environments
TIRED: super-cheesy story with far too much written narration, touch controls often become repetitive
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America