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Review #343

Note: #342 was a Diehard GameFAN exclusive of Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Go there to read it.

Pokemon Ranger: Hikari no Kiseki
Publisher: Nintendo of Japan
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 03/10/2010

While here in North America we have been celebrating the release of Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, Japan has been enjoying their own Pokemon release this week – that of ポケモンレンジャー 光の軌跡 AKA Hikari no Kiseki, AKA Pokemon Ranger: Locus of Light, which some are translating as Tracks of Light or Path of Light. Technically none of these are right as it should be Runes of Light based on the gameplay, but we’ll all have to wait and see what the official US name will be. This is the third Pokemon Ranger title. In 2006, the original won Best Action RPG from us and in 2008 the sequel, Shadows of Almia was nominated for three awards, but failed to win any.

More than likely, Pokemon Ranger 3 will see a US release towards the very end of the year so it’s special abilities and Legendary Pokemon that can be transferred into the Generation IV core games can be utilized. Does the new game bring anything different to the table or is the third Generation of Pokemon Ranger titles as lackluster as the third generation of the core RPG’s?

Let’s Review

1. Story

This third Pokemon Ranger game follows the same basic plot of the first two. You play as a rookie Ranger (A Pokemon Trainer that deals with ecology and wilderness preservation and who only temporarily catches Pokemon in order to calm them down.) who climbs up through the ranks of the organization until you eventually hold the coveted Top Ranger position. You’ll do this by following not only the main story line that pits you again the Evil Pokemon Organization Du Jour (The Pokemon Nappers), but by going through fifty-two subquests. Now these subquests are generally light on story, but there is a nice amount of variety to them. Still, even with the amount of side storylines you can choose to engage in, this is the exact same format and plot progression as the previous game.

So what’s different? Well, this is where Story and Gameplay kind of blur together, so let’s get it out of the way here so as not to have that section be a giant jumble of babble.

First up is your Partner Pokemon. In the original Pokemon Ranger, you got a Plusle or a Minum based on your genre. In Shadows of Almia You had a stable of a dozen Pokemon or so that you could freely choose between throughout the game. Here the game has backslided to a single Partner – that of Ukulele Pichu. That’s right a baby Pikachu with a Ukulele. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the anthropomorphizing of a Pokemon to this degree and although it’s very cute, it’s also kind of lame. If you wanted a musical partner, why not a Jigglypuff, Chatot, or something a little less well…Furrie-esque? Ukulele Pichu is a bit too humanized for my liking which makes it less Pokemon’s usual light hearted cock-fighting and more well, kind of enslavement – the exact thing the Pokemon Ranger are supposed to be the opposite of. You know, actual humans and Pokemon working together instead of owning or directing them to fight. Instead Ukulele Pichu is like having a dwarf in a fursuit at your beck and call. Now this is probably just me, but where I praised the previous Pokemon Ranger games for their unique dynamic, this one creeped me out just a bit. I will say the dynamic is the same for every other Pokemon. Maybe I just don’t like my Pokemon playing musical instruments.

The other difference story-wise is that with the help of a Celebi you can TIME TRAVEL. Now really, this is just a fancy in story way of saying, “Multi-Player Mode.” You can visit seven unique locations, each of which has six or so multiplayer missions to play with your friends. These missions are in addition to the normal subquests, so again, you get a lot of light storylines, but nothing too substantial.

Now don’t get me wrong – the game is fun. I do think it’s a step down from Shadows of Almia, especially in plot, but the gameplay is what makes the game here. When it comes to story, you’re getting mostly the same game as the one that came before it save some different Pokemon to use, an emphasis on Legendary Pokemon at times, and some subquests. It’s not bad – it’s just that the story seems like an afterthought here.

Story Rating: 5/10

2. Graphics

Hal Labs is generally very good at pushing the visuals on the DS. Pokemon Ranger: Hikari no Kiseki is a very graphically impressive game. It’s one of the few times you’ll see 303 different Pokemon fully animated, which is something that has never really happened outside this series. Backgrounds, Pokemon, humans, locations and everything else all look quite nice in this game and to be honest, the game looks amazing for an action RPG, especially a handheld one.

Now not everything is great. Save for the skins of the new bad guys, most of the game looks exactly like the previous one and there’s a lot of reuse. Now that’s not a bad thing, but I was personally hoping for a bit of a visual upgrade like the tweaks made between Diamond and Pearl and Platinum or Heart Gold and Soul Silver.

There is the occasional, but rare slowdown during battles, but this tends to only occur when there are a lot of attacks on the screen at once, and even then it is as I said, rare.

So the latest entry into the Pokemon Ranger series is quite pretty to look at, but there’s no real upgrade from the previous game. It’s still one of the better looking games on the DS, but if you were expecting an improvement, you’ll be somewhat disappointed here.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

One area where Hikari no Kiseki IS a direct improvement over the last game is in this category. I really didn’t like the music or sound effects in Shadows of Almia, but HAL has definitely given this game a better score that fits the frantic nature of the gameplay. The music isn’t as good as the Turn Based RPG series, but it’s a noted improvement over SoA, and that’s all one can ask for.

Pokemon Ranger has no voice acting, but it does have the MIDI noises Pokemon make in the turn-based RPG’s. I’ll always be a proponent for the anime voices of the Pokemon being carried into a game, but at least there is continuity here.

Sound effects are run of the mill but well done. Attacks have their own noises, along with things like splashing into water or doors opening. There is actually a large variety of background noises here, although unless you’re actively listening to them for review purposes (like me), they’ll more than likely fade quickly from your brain.

So this third Pokemon Ranger game boasts a better score and sound effects than the previous. It’s not something that will win any awards in the audio department, but it’s fun and it fits the feel of the game, which is all you can ask.

Sound Rating: 6.5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

For the most part, Hikari no Kiseki plays like the other Pokemon Ranger titles. Allow me to cut and paste from two years ago.

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.

I love the engine and the whole concept of real time Pokemon catching as opposed to the turnbased gameplay. It’s a nice change of pace and even into the third game of the series, the Pokemon Ranger gameplay hasn’t lost its charm.

So what’s different this time around? Well a lot actually. In previous games you earned XP by catching the Pokemon and bonus XP based on how many extra capture circles you could draw (the first game) or how well you handled the Pokemon (in the second). Now you’ll be collecting Ranger Points by catching Pokemon and finishing quests. These points will let you customize the styler however you want with categories that increase your Styler’s hit points, your Styler’s power, how long of a line you can draw with your styler and so on. This is in addition to the normal XP you will earn for your styler, so you can really customize for what works best for you. Let’s say you are really fast with the styler and can draw circles quicker than the average person. Then maybe you can forgo styler energy (hit points) and put more into the power. That way you have something designed to get the job done fast. There are many ways to customize the styler now and as customization of your character is what I care most about in an RPG engine, this makes me giddy.

Pokemon Assists are different this time around too. Instead of gaining power from your Pokemon to give your styler abilities, the Pokemon will directly attack in this game. I personally don’t like that as I preferred the non Pokemon vs. Pokemon gameplay of the previous titles, but at least they tried something new.

Finally you have the really big change which are Pokemon Runes, although they probably won’t be called that in the English release. When you draw one of these runes, a variety of things can happen. It might summon a Pokemon to help you (like Raikou who will crash through rocks for you or give a roar to scare out hiding Pokemon), it can summon a previous boss to let you fight them again (Like Ho-Oh), or it can let you summon a Pokemon from the past portions of the game to help you out (Like a Vulpix). There are also hidden runes which you will get from outside sources. For example in Japan, the hidden run for Ivysaur was given out in an issue of CoroCoro magazine and Mewtwo’s rune will be given to you after you beat the game. This is an interesting addition to the game, but for me, it was for fluff than substance. Like the change in Pokemon Assists, I was happy they tried something new, but it didn’t wow me or feel like it was NECESSARY for the game. It was just something extra thrown in.

Overall, the gameplay experience was pretty good. The engine is solid and there are a lot of new things added to the experience, so it certainly stands out from the previous Pokemon Ranger titles. I think the second is my favourite overall, but I do love the deep level of customization in this newest addition to the franchise.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 7.5/10

5. Replayability

The previous Pokemon Ranger games offered a nice amount of replayability with the side quests and even free DLC that, if once completed, gave you special Pokemom that you could port over to the core games. Here you’ll get a Manaphy, a Shaymin and a Heatran that you can transfer to any of the Generation IV turn based RPG’s. Not bad. You also have the new additional of multiplayer quests that can net you a variety of Pokemon helpers. In each quests your reward will differ based on the rank you get. There’s even a DLC multiplayer quest that nets you a Deoxys, which is a very rare Legendary Pokemon. Can’t go wrong with that!

In terms of replay value and things to do after you’ve finished the main story line, Hikari no Kiseki is easily the best of the bunch. Pokemon fans sick of turn based battles will definitely be happy for all there is to see and do here.

Replayability Rating: 8/10

6. Balance

The original Pokemon Ranger could be quite hard at times and Shadows of Almia was noticeably easier but still provided a challenge here and there. Locus of Light/Tracks of Light/Pokemon Ranger 3/whatever you want to call it is rather bi-polar. The first half of the game is much easier than either of the first two games, yet still more challenging than other Pokemon titles. The last half of the game is well…as mean as the first game at times without any slow increase in difficulty. It’s just a straight shot up from easy street to “Pokebitch.” Oddly enough though unlike SoA, you don’t get three bosses in one battle. You do get a series of four boss battles in a row though at the end which culminates in Regigigas (the secret last boss in the second game) and then with a double Mewtwo battle. Now the second Mewtwo battle is SNK End Boss cruel, and a lot of little kids will probably become very frustrated with it? Me? I loved it. Mewtwo is Wolfgang Krauser here and it definitely gives you a sense of accomplishment when you manage to beat it.

I do feel the game could have had a nice incline in difficulty as the game progressed instead of such a huge leap without any warning, if only for the kids that will be playing this. At least it continues the Ranger tradition of being Pokemon games that actually provide a challenge.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

This is the third game in the series and the core plot progression and gameplay have stayed the same throughout all three titles. This new entry into the series has definitely added several new things. The customization and new version of Pokemon Assists really changed how the game feels when you are playing it, but other things like the Pokemon Runes are merely window dressing. I can’t say that you’re really missing out if you have played the first two games and don’t pick this one up as it is mostly the same. If you liked the previous games, then you’ll have fun with this as well. Just don’t expect a reinvention of the wheel.

Originality Rating: 5.5/10

8. Addictiveness

The Pokemon Ranger games make for a nice change of pace, both with Pokemon and with DS RPG’s in general. There aren’t a lot of action RPG’s for the DS and none that make use of the stylus and touch pad better than this series. However, I have to admit things dragged for me a bit here. I felt the game was a step or two down from the last one and I wasn’t as enamored with this title as I was with the first which was shockingly innovative and new or the second, which was a huge upgrade in nearly every way. Instead this just felt like mostly the same thing with some throw away bits in it to make it feel like a new title. Now that might sound harsh, but as much as I DID enjoy this game, I just wasn’t as into it as the previous games or even Heart Gold and Soul Silver. I’d play it for short stints each day instead of hours at a time like the others. I loved the boss battles, but everything else just felt like the same experience I’ve had with the previous two titles.

Hikari no Kiseki is a solid game with a strong engine and some nice graphics, but it’s too close to the last one to really have kept my attention rapt on it. The things it does differently are either things I didn’t care for, felt like a step backwards or as fluff. It’s a good game and both Pokemon fans and action RPG fans will enjoy it, but if you’ve played the previous two Pokemon Ranger titles, you won’t be able to deny it is more of the same, which can take some of the buzz off.

Addictiveness Rating: 6.5/10

9. Appeal Factor

Pokemon Ranger: Hikari no Kiseki is selling like hotcakes back in Japan and it’ll probably sell pretty well over here too. As I said earlier, the Ranger titles are amongst the best of the action titles for the DS and even though this probably my least favourite of the series, it’s still a well made game that most people will enjoy. Do you want a well made action RPG title? This is one. Do you want a Pokemon game that isn’t 40+ hours of random turn based battles? This is it? Do you want a game that really uses the touch screen and stylus of the Nintendo DS? This is it?

Of course the fact you can get three exceptionally rare Pokemon after you beat the game which you can then port to Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, Heart Gold and Soul Silver. Don’t underestimate how many people will buy this game for the Manaphy egg, the Shaymin or the like. I’ve seen kids buy and beat the Ranger games just for those Pokemon.

Overall, action fans will like this even though it’s Pokemon and Pokemon fans will like it even though it’s an action game. People who pick this up will enjoy it. It’s not a GOTY nominee, but it’s a nice solid RPG that gives you some nice rewards for other games after you beat it.

Appeal Factor: 7/10

10. Miscellaneous

One of the things I really like about Pokemon is all the free DLC they give you. This game is no exception. There are four quests you will eventually be able to get, three of which net you Pokemon for your turn based games. There is only one Heatran in D/P/P and if you only have Heart Gold and Soul Silver, then this is the only way to get it save for trading. You can only get Manaphy’s through the Pokemon Ranger games and Shaymin can only be acquired through special Pokemon events if you don’t get it through here. As such this game nets you three very rare Pokemon without having to play through 80 hours of say, Pokemon Platinum or waiting for a Pokemon event over the Wi-Fi or at a place like Toys R Us. Here you get the Pokemon for your turn based title and added content for this game. All for free. That’s awesome.

Pokemon Ranger: Hikari no Kiseki is a nice little game that rewards its fanbase. It gives you that something extra for free in a day and age where you’re paying for the slightest bit of DLC. Plus, there’s not a lot of publishers or developers that give you DLC for the Nintendo DS anyway. That really makes this game stand out, even more than the actual game itself.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

The Scores
Modes: 5/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 6.5/10
Control and Gameplay: 7.5/10
Replayability: 8/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 5.5/10
Addictiveness: 6.5/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10
Total Score: 69
FINAL SCORE: 7.0 (GOOD GAME!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Pokemon Ranger: Hikari no Kiseki is both the newest and the weakest entry into this Pokemon spin-off so far. Things have either taken a step back, like only allowing you a single Pokemon partner, are fluff rather than substance, such as the drawing of runes with your stylus, or are actually quite good, but will be lost on the core audience, such as the increased emphasis on character customization. That said, the game is still a good one and both Pokemon and action RPG fans will have a lot of fun with this due to the unique gameplay and the drought of action RPGs for the Nintendo DS. It’s cute, looks quite nice, the music is definitely improved from the second game and the latter half of the game offers a nice amount of challenge. It’s not worth importing unless you’re a huge Pokemon fan AND you can read Japanese, but it should be coming stateside at the tail end of the year so interested parties can pick it up then.

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