Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Sign
Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs finally brings multiplayer missions to the series
- Lengthy single player mode, the ability to import rare Pokemon to other DS games, flexible multiplayer missions
- Overall narrative is forgettable and dry, gameplay and puzzle solving elements get repetitive very early on
Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs may have some new places to see and more gameplay features, but like previous titles in this side-series, it's just not interesting or engaging enough to warrant much attention from older gamers. Only the most hardcore Pokemon fans will want to trudge through this lengthy adventure for the promise of rare Legendaries, but everyone else might be better off sticking to the vastly superior core games.
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The family friendly Pokemon Ranger series has always had some features that I wish other Pokemon games would adopt. For one thing, the main gimmick of capturing the titular creatures by furiously scribbling circles around them would be a great side-game in the main DS-based titles like HeartGold or SoulSilver, and I've always liked the way your character can have a small army of on-screen Pokemon tagging along at their heels. Watching a Steelix tower above your group as you clear boulders out of a mountain path would be a neat little visual touch, but alas, the main games adhere to the same over-world layout that they've had for over 10 years.
But as interesting as it looks and as fun as these features are, Pokemon Ranger has never really gotten the narrative or overall gameplay aspects quite right. None of the games have anything tying them to the main series -- no cameos from gym leaders, no storylines in the outskirts of Kanto -- and the characters don't have much personality. On the gameplay side, Pokemon that you capture only stay with your team long enough to use their specific field move, meaning that each puzzle boils down to locating a certain monster to cut, soak, or burn a specific object. It's even worse in dungeons, where you'll occasionally have to backtrack long distances to find a Fire-Type that can burn some random obstacle blocking your path. It's always been mildly tedious at best, and Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs suffers from these issues as much as Shadows of Almia (the last game in the series) did.
Guardian Signs' story revolves around the Oblivia region, a chain of islands inhabited by Pokemon and the local human populace, and home to a series of ancient ruins where Legendary beasts like to frolic. As you start the game, the region is under attack by the Pokemon Pinchers -- a group of "evil" Pokemon poachers who want to use Oblivia's Pokemon for criminal means. Possibly the only unique aspect of the story here is the inclusion of time travel, which is used to set up a series of plot twists at the end of the game. As it turns out, the Pokemon Pinchers are being controlled by another group that has origins in the ancient past, the leaders of which want to gain eternal youth. Or something.
Apparently, catching a Pokemon with anything other than a Poke Ball brands you a felon in the Pokemon universe. While Shadows of Almia's Team Dim Sun (groan) captured Pokemon by shady hypnosis, the Pokemon Pinchers in Guardian Signs simply use a variation on the Rangers' Pokemon Styler device, so I initially couldn't fathom why these guys where the bad guys. While the stakes ramp up later on in the game, the obvious fridge logic at work here makes the narrative seem incredibly silly. At least Team Rocket established their evilness by outright stealing other people's Pokemon and taking over entire cities.
Even if you ignore the forgettable story, the gameplay still doesn't hold up through the hours and hours of grade school-level puzzle solving. It's really a shame, too -- Pokemon Ranger would be much better with just a few tweaks. Capturing Pokemon is still pretty fun, though -- especially in the boss battles. Instead of Poke Balls, Pokemon Ranger use "Capture Stylers" that can tame wild Pokemon with feelings of "friendship" and "peace." As you trace loops around feisty Pokemon on the DS touch screen, they'll attack you and attempt to break your chain. Take enough damage this way and it's "Game Over," but you can use Poke Assists to even the odds. There's even some strategy involved here, as certain type advantages and Styler upgrades can be used to wear down your target with great ease. Without a doubt, Capture Battles are still the best part of the game, and the tougher the Pokemon get, the more fun things are.
Still, the dungeons and maps leave much to be desired. Being able to retain your Pokemon even after they've used their type-specific field moves would be a blessing, but the game still strips you of your teammates the instant they perform their token ability. It's even worse now that some field moves require you to hunt down two or three Pokemon, which means even more backtracking for just the right one. At the very least, Guardian Signs is better about this than previous games, since the proper Pokemon for the job is usually no more than two or three screens away, but it's still pretty annoying.
Still, multiplayer missions provide a nice diversion when you're tired of the single player story mode. Not only can you play with up to four other people, but the game even lets you play with three computer-controlled bots. Additionally, Guardian Signs makes use of downloadable missions for extra content, which is especially important for gaining access to rare Pokemon like Deoxys and Manaphy. Being able to port these highly treasured creatures over to Diamond/Pearl or HeartGold/SoulSilver is a tantalising carrot on a stick, and to be honest, it's the only reason I'm still trudging through the game.
If you've played a Pokemon Ranger adventure before, just be aware that Guardian Signs isn't much of a departure from the last two titles in the series. It's obviously not for my demographic, but I can't imagine the repetitive puzzle solving and uninteresting story will be of much interest to anyone but the youngest DS owner. At its core, purchasing this game boils down to one question: just how badly do you think you want those Legendary Pokemon?
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