Throughout the Pokémon series, there have been two types of games: the main titles in the series and the spin-offs. The main games, usually noted by their subtitles referencing a color, are the RPGs loved by multiple generations and have unusual depth since they are considered by most to be kids' titles. Just about every release and re-release of the main titles is met with high anticipation and little to no letdown among fans and critics alike. The spin-offs, however, are a different story. Most of them stray from the tried-and-true formula of the main series entries, so most fans dismiss the spin-offs unless they have some ancillary benefit to one of the main titles. The original Pokémon Ranger, however, was one of the few spin-offs that some fans liked due to its straightforward story and light RPG elements. With the third game in the series, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs, there have been some additions and changes to the formula, but it still remains a good title for those willing to give it a chance.
The premise of the game is a simple one. The Pokémon Pinchers, normally a group of ragtag Pokémon thieves, are plotting a grand scheme. Armed with new Pokémon capturing equipment, the Pinchers set off for the islands of Oblivia to wrangle up Pokémon and capture symbols related to the legendary Pokémon of the islands. As a Pokémon Ranger, you and your partner are assigned to investigate the activities, but after being ousted in combat, you fall to the ocean and are rescued some time later. With your partner missing and a ukulele-playing Pichu by your side, you set out to rescue your partner and put a stop to the Pinchers' activities.
For those who haven't played any of the Pokémon Ranger games before, it shares some similarities with the main game series. You, the human character, never get involved with fights directly, and you still need the Pokémon to do things like douse fires and break boulders blocking your path. However, you aren't in the business of capturing Pokémon. Instead, you calm down wild Pokémon by conveying your feelings of friendship to them. This is accomplished with the use of your styler. Each time you complete a loop with your styler around the Pokémon, your friendship meter increases, and when it reaches its maximum, the Pokémon is calmed down and tags along with the rest of your party. Once that Pokémon completes its assigned task, though, it's set free into the wild again.
There are a few new elements and changes introduced with this entry in the Pokémon Ranger series. Those who have played its predecessor, Shadows of Almia, will notice that they can no longer pick their own partner Pokémon for the journey. Instead, you're stuck with Ukulele Pichu, a regular Pichu who uses the electricity in his body to help calm down the wild Pokémon you're trying to capture. His use in combat also illustrates the other big change in the series: the actual use of Pokémon during battles. Instead of powering up your styler, the Pokémon actually go into combat and charge your styler energy when it gets low or calm down the Pokémon to make the battle go by faster. The titular guardian signs also let you summon legendary Pokémon, though their use is only for traversing the area instead of being useful in combat. Finally, the title features a few minigames, such as a few underwater chase sequences and flying sequences; they break the monotony of wandering the land looking for Pokémon to tame on your way to the next quest.
Players will enjoy the plot. It's still simplistic and average when compared to the plots of the other Ranger games, but it is a nice deviation from the standard plot featured in almost all of the other main games of the series. Another selling point for the game is the overall length. Clocking in at around 16 hours or so, it makes for a decent-sized RPG experience, and with a battle system that doesn't start throwing tons of stats at the user, it seems perfectly fit for younger gamers who may have found the core games to be a little too daunting.
Ironically, it's the simplicity of the combat system that will most annoy veteran Pokémon players. Even with the inclusion of the Pokémon actually helping you out in combat, you only have to worry about drawing circles around them until they calm down. The enraged Pokémon are the only ones you'll use your friendly Pokémon to placate, but combat never gets more complicated than that. It also doesn't help that no matter which region you visit later in the game, all of the same Pokémon have the exact same attack at the same strength level. With no leveling done outside of your styler, you never get a chance to form a special bond with the Pokémon as you do in the main games, negating one of the traits that has made the series so endearing. The lack of different stylers as well as different Pokémon partners also hurts the game since you have no real control over how you want your game to commence. You only have the capture styler and Ukulele Pichu, so those who appreciated the customization features of the previous Ranger game will feel restricted here.
In a first for the series, Guardian Signs features multiplayer, and while it isn't online, it is cooperative. Up to four players can participate in the quests, which, oddly, take place before the events of the game's main story. The idea of having multiplayer co-op quests is a good one, especially since you get the idea that Rangers often work in teams, but there are a few issues that creep up. No matter what you've done in the single-player game, you'll always start out at level one when playing any of these quests. The lack of leveling up doesn't become much of an issue, though, once you discover that a majority of the missions are quite easy with two players, and that level of difficulty lessens with three or four Ranger parties. Consequently, the appeal to playing these multiplayer missions becomes limited to checking them out once you've exhausted everything in the main game.
Despite not having full online multiplayer, the game makes use of the system's built-in Wi-Fi for downloading special missions, just like its predecessor did. Similar to the multiplayer missions, these special missions take place outside of the main story arc, and they can only be played solo. Aside from having more content to play with, the real appeal for the missions comes from the fact that you can unlock special Pokémon for use in any one of the main series of Pokémon games for the DS. In this case, that special Pokémon is Deoxys. That one factor is appealing enough that even those who loathe the Ranger series up to this point will want to pick it up for these rare creatures — despite the need for a second DS to complete the transfer.
The game features two different control schemes, but it makes more sense to stick with one over the other. Players can use either the d-pad for character movement or the touch-screen for the same effect. Likewise, interacting with an object can be done with either the A button or touching it on the control screen. When in combat, though, the player can only make use of the touch-screen to select helper Pokémon to use and draw the necessary loops to calm down the wild Pokémon. The touch-screen is also exclusively used when your helper Pokémon clear out obstructions on the map. Both methods are responsive enough, but with more actions needing the use of the touch-screen, it feels like the use of the d-pad and face buttons is more of an afterthought.
The sound is on par with the other Pokémon games released so far. The score always wants to convey a mood of grand adventure, and while it isn't memorable, it is just as good as the other games in the main series. The same goes for the effects, where the game adheres to the standards set by the main series a little too closely. Like most of the other spin-off games, this game contains no voices; it's fine for the human characters but somewhat of a disappointment when it comes to the Pokémon. You'll often see in the dialogue boxes that most of the Pokémon only say their names, but when you hear any of them say anything, you get the same grunts and screeches from the main series of games. It would have been nice to finally have a big adventure game where the Pokémon actually speak, but only those who are bigger fans of the animated series or movies would care much about that issue.
Graphically, the game feels like a throwback to the Game Boy Advance days due to its reliance on sprites over polygons. Almost every character, from the Pokémon themselves to the Rangers and the Pinchers, look fairly small on the DS screen. You can see a little bit of detail to them, especially when some characters have contrasting colors, but there are times where you wish they were a little bit bigger so you could get a better look at them. One advantage gained from the seemingly diminutive size is that it allows the game to show more characters on-screen simultaneously. It's impressive to see the full assortment of seven Pokémon, Ukulele Pichu, a partner and yourself walking across the screen while encountering at least two or three wild Pokémon — without any hint of slowdown.
The same can be said for the appearances of the legendary Pokémon, since their larger sizes make them much more intimidating. The fact that this is all accomplished by a reduction in animation frames dampens things, though. The backgrounds feel larger due to the sizes for each character, and the colors are very bright, matching the island atmosphere rather well and giving you a chance to see more of your surroundings. Again, the title may not be pushing the limits of what can be done on the system, but it paints a pretty picture to go along with the gameplay.
Ultimately, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs proves to be another good RPG for the Nintendo DS. The simplification of the system introduces newbies to the game world without overwhelming them with Pokémon stats. While the battle system may be simple in comparison to the previous Ranger entry and the main series entries, it is still enjoyable and has with little bits of strategy peppered through the game. The story provides a good change of pace from the usual "be the greatest trainer" plot we've seen countless times, and the game still looks good even though everything is a bit on the small side. If you need a good Pokémon adventure to fill in the time away from Pokémon Black and Pokémon White, this fits the bill nicely.
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