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Review #372

Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs
Publisher: Nintendo of Japan
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 10/04/2010

I reviewed the Japanese version of Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs back in March of 2010 and found it to be a good game, but also the least interesting and fun of the series. While there were a few new elements like rune casting and a flying type minigame, the core game was mostly the same, and as such, it lacked a lot of the freshness and innovative feeling one had with the first two. Now here we are six and a half months later and it’s time to talk about the North American localization of the game. How does it fare for those of you that missed the original import review?

Let’s Review

1. Story

This third Pokémon Ranger game follows the same basic plot of the first two. You play as a rookie Ranger (A Pokémon Trainer that deals with ecology and wilderness preservation and who only temporarily catches Pokémon 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 Pokémon Organization Du Jour (The Pokémon Pinchers), 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 Pokémon. In the original Pokémon Ranger, you got a Plusle or a Minum based on your genre. In Shadows of Almia You had a stable of a dozen Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon’s usual light hearted cock-fighting and more well, kind of enslavement – the exact thing the Pokémon Ranger are supposed to be the opposite of. You know, actual humans and Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon. Maybe I just don’t like my Pokémon 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 Pokémon to use, an emphasis on Legendary Pokémon 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. Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is a very graphically impressive game. It’s one of the few times you’ll see 303 different Pokémon fully animated, which is something that has never really happened outside this series. Backgrounds, Pokémon, 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 Pokémon 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 Guardian Signs 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.

Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs has no voice acting, but it does have the MIDI noises Pokémon make in the turn-based RPG’s. I’ll always be a proponent for the anime voices of the Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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, Guardian Signs plays like the other Pokémon 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 that you had to draw around them consecutively. Now, each Pokémon has a hit point bar called a friendship gauge. 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 Pokémon catching as opposed to the turnbased gameplay. It’s a nice change of pace and even into the third game of the series, the Pokémon 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 Pokémon as well as bonus XP based on how many extra capture circles you could draw (the first game) or how well you handled the Pokémon (in the second). Now you’ll be collecting Ranger Points by catching Pokémon 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.

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

Finally you have the really big change which are Ranger Signs. When you draw one of these runes, a variety of things can happen. It might summon a Pokémon to help you (like Raikou who will crash through rocks for you or give a roar to scare out hiding Pokémon), it can summon a previous boss to let you fight them again (Like Ho-Oh), or it can let you summon a Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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. For those that are curious, the location for the US runes will be here.

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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon helpers. In each quest 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 Pokémon. Can’t go wrong with that!

In terms of replay value and things to do after you’ve finished the main story line, Pokémon Ranger Guardian Signs is easily the best of the bunch. Pokémon 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 Pokémon Ranger could be quite hard at times and Shadows of Almia was noticeably easier but still provided a challenge here and there. Guardian Signs 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon Assists really changed how the game feels when you are playing it, but other things like the ranger sidns 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 Pokémon Ranger games make for a nice change of pace, both with Pokémon and with DS RPG’s in general. There aren’t a lot of action RPGs for the DS and none that make better use of the stylus and/or 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 HeartGold and SoulSilver. 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.

Guardian Signs 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 Pokémon fans and action RPG fans will enjoy it, but if you’ve played the previous two Pokémon 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

Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs sold really well 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon after you beat the game which you can then port to Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, HeartGold and SoulSilver. 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 Pokémon.

Overall, action fans will like this even though it’s Pokémon and Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon for your turn based games. There is only one Heatran in D/P/P and if you only have HeartGold and SoulSilver, then this is the only way to get it save for trading. You can only get Manaphy’s through the Pokémon Ranger games and Shaymin can only be acquired through special Pokémon events if you don’t get it through here. As such this game nets you three very rare Pokémon without having to play through 80 hours of say, Pokémon Platinum or waiting for a Pokémon event over the Wi-Fi or at a place like Toys R Us. Here you get the Pokémon for your turn based title and added content for this game. All for free. That’s awesome.

Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs 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
Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is both the newest and the weakest entry into this Pokémon spin-off so far. Things have either taken a step back, like only allowing you a single Pokémon partner, are fluff rather than substance, such as the drawing of “ranger signs” with your stylus, 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 Pokémon 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. This is a definite purchase for fans of either Pokémon or action RPGs in general, but for everyone else this will no doubt be lost in the shuffle of an exceptionally loaded October.

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