Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia

Kombo’s Review Policy: Our reviews are written for you. Our goal is to write honest, to-the-point reviews that don’t waste your time. This is why we’ve split our reviews into four sections: What the Game’s About, What’s Hot, What’s Not and Final Word, so that you can easily find the information you want from our reviews.

What the Game’s About
For the past ten years, the Pokemon franchise has been known by a simple mantra, which has also served it well as an addictive marketing slogan and catchphrase: Gotta Catch ‘Em All. Following that, players have caught, trained, evolved, and even traded hundreds of the pocket monsters over the numerous multicolored iterations of the main series.

However, in Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia, catching Pokemon takes on an entirely different approach. Instead of weakening a Pokemon through battle and capturing it within a Pokeball, you use a device called a Capture Styler (the in-game term for using the DS’ stylus) to draw rings of energy around an encountered Pokemon. Rather than weakening the creature, this instead strengthens the emanation of friendship the creature feels from you, sort of like a great big touchscreen hug (don’t ask, it seems to be a Japanese thing). However, like some animals, some Pokemon are more resistant to this sort of affection, and will break through the ring of energy you’re drawing, negating its effect on the Friendship gauge. Some Pokemon will even release an attack that not only breaks the ring, but does damage to your Styler! And if you take too much damage, then it’s what they call “game over.”

If you succeed in in virtually hugging the Pokemon into submission, then they will follow you around. Unfortunately, you can’t keep a virtual army to command as in the regular games (even though you were restricted to six at a time), but rather, you will have three following you around on the screen at most; hug another Pokemon for all it’s worth, and you’ll have to choose one to set free, which will return to the place you found it. These Pokemon each have different abilities with different power ratings, allowing them to perform tasks that will help you solve map-based puzzles and quests. For example, if you’ve taken damage to your Styler, a Pichu will recharge it, and if you come across gaming’s favorite staple scenery, a crate, a Bidoof has a smash attack that will get the obstacle out of your way.

In addition, there are 17 “partner” Pokemon you can acquire, one of which will stay by your side, and are interchangable through the game.

Ultimately, your goal as a Pokemon Ranger differs from that of a Pokemon Trainer; rather than forcing the moneymaking little beasts to cockfight for supremacy, your task is much more benign, as you attempt to help and rescue more wild Pokemon, including those being abused by this game’s Team with a Theme, Team Dim Sum.

What’s Hot
For the sake of full disclosure, my Pokemon game experience is rather shallow, limited mostly to the core titles. Therefore, I’ve little to compare the title to except for those, and how the game it by itself.

That said, the graphics are quite nice, providing you with something more than the chibi/super-deformed RPG character graphics and vague movements seen in the regular Pokemon titles. However, the graphics, colorful and well animated though they are, don’t look like anything that would push the system to its limits; in fact, I dare even go so far as to say these might have been possible, or at least decently approximated, on the Game Boy Advance. Truth be told, it reminds me of those seen in the MegaMan Battle Network and Star Force games to some degree, but with Pokemon styling.

An interesting added touch that I’ve not seen before is the way character speech is handled; it uses text boxes as many games do, but rather than killing space with a profile picture or their name, it identifies who is talking by giving the sprite on the map a glowing aura.

Long story short, the graphics are good, better than the normal Pokemon standard, but hardly push the system.

The big push for this game is that the game can be controlled completely by the DS stylus, and it works in a mostly capable way. While you can also use the control pad to move your character around the map, I found it just as easy to use the stylus to control the character, as it controls everything else anyway.

In addition, one trait I particularly liked was that you don’t have to be anywhere near a person to talk to them nor near a set piece to investigate it. Just touch it with the stylus, and you get your dialogue or description. Unfortunately, it seems only a small part of the set pieces say anything at all, many of them repeat themselves, and what is said isn’t all that interesting anyway.

The main bulk of the game’s battles are about quickly drawing several circles around the Pokemon you’re facing off with. In a way, it has an addictive mini-game quality to it, not unlike what you might encounter in a Wario Ware title. It may immerse the player more than selecting attacks from a menu and watching them pantomime the attacks, but not to a great degree more. Most of the action comes from keeping an eye on the Pokemon and making sure it (or they) doesn’t break your circle or get a hit in, requiring more in the way of reflexes and timing than its mainline predecessors.

One other plus is the use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for downloading new missions to take on and gain new Pokemon from, adding a little extra value to the title.

What’s Not
First, the game disappointed me a little at the outset. The first thing you do is get a crash course in using the stylus to catch a Pokemon. Once you’ve done so, the guy who was teaching you welcomes you into his shadowy organization. So my first thought is “awesome, we get to play as the bad guys now!” before his partner tells him to cut it out and welcomes you to the school. Cue disappointment.

Musically, the game gets the job done in a competent manner, but I’ve yet to encounter a song that has gotten stuck in my head, while the sound effects seem much like the Pokemon standard. Whether or not that is better than hearing the cartoon trait of them repeating their name over and over is subject to debate. While I’m sure that would sound better, it would probably get more tiring than the staples used here.

The circling of Pokemon, while fun at first, loses its charm quickly, and gets a bit repetitive, if not tedious. And while for the most part accurate, it can be frustrating to not enclose a perfect circle within the short timeframe allowed before the beginning of your loop dissolves, as all the while you’re trying to keep it just far enough from the Pokemon you’re trying to capture that they don’t break it. In the end, you might even be yelling “I had that!” as you come close to filling the Friendship gauge, only to have it drain back to nothingness.

The main challenge in these parts of the game comes from having to deal with faster and more powerful with more attacks that can shatter your circle, or from there being multiple Pokemon at a time. Early on, you deal with four Gastly ghost Pokemon at once, and trying to circle any of them is nearly impossible, until you’re able to get on a roll. From there, it does get easier as you wear down the numbers, and there’s a certain satisfaction to getting the job done. At the same time, you’re left to wonder what lies ahead, as that’s one of the earliest encounters.

All in all, it’s a simple mechanic which is also effective, though your mileage may vary as to whether it can sustain an entire game for you.

Final Word
Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a relatively simple game which has its charms, but may not be deep enough for some players. Children, someone new to the franchise, or even perhaps a devout Pokemon fan (which could very well also be a child) may find something to like in this title, enough to keep them hooked to the very end.

Other gamers may become bored by it, though much like Solitaire on Windows, it’s a competent, not un-fun way to kill some time, with a mild addictive quality to it for as long as you’re playing, but not so much that you’re going to put down a bigger name for it.