Being a Pokémon fan for the last twelve years has been a comfortable occupation.
Starting out with Blue version right back at intermediate school, I went through them all – trying to catch ‘em all. On to Yellow, Gold, Ruby, Fire Red, Diamond… They were all utterly addictive, interesting and above all fun games to play. Aside from the core Pokémon games which focus on catching and training the weird little creatures, the Pokémon universe has expanded outwards in several directions including puzzle games (Pokémon Dungeon) and a tradable card game, neither of which I ever had the will to play.
When I was asked to review Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia, I was intrigued. I had never put any time into a non ‘core’ Pokémon game, and was anxious to try one out on the nifty Nintendo DS. Being the sequel to Pokémon Ranger, I read up on the original and started off my adventure in earnest.
The game starts like any other in the Pokémon franchise, asking you to select your sex and name. The early stages of the game are based around an academy for Pokémon Rangers, who differ from the traditional trainers by not permanently capturing creatures of their own. Unlike the original Ranger, your choice of male/female does not affect which Partner Pokémon you are given to start with.
After the initial dilly-dallying, the game launches into what can only be described as a tedious tutorial phase. Set in the Poke Rangers Academy, this section of the game drags on far too long, forcing the player to become familiar with a setting which has little to do with the rest of the game. While there is a lot of content to cover, it could have been dealt with much more fluidly. Sure, the game is aimed at children and young adults, but Nintendo need to realise the generation of gamers they hooked with Pokémon Blue/Red have grown up and need a little less patronising.
Luckily, after the tutorial phase is over and done with, the game really opens up. At the core of the game, the player has to temporarily capture Pokémon in order to solve problems using their special skills. These special skills or ‘field moves’ range from clearing burning logs in a forest fire or destroying machinery in a port to flying over a canyon. They add a significant depth to the puzzle solving and require some careful management to ensure you have the right Pokémon for the right job.
Capturing wild Pokémon has taken on a novel approach in Shadows of Almia. When you run into a battle, the DS stylus becomes your weapon of choice. By rapidly drawing closed circles around a Pokémon, you fill a meter which corresponds to an emotional bond between Ranger and Pokémon. When this meter is filled the Pokémon is under your control for the time being. This system is a marked improvement over the prequel; where breaking the drawn circles at any time would require a fresh go at the battle.
The world feels large, partly due to the improved graphics and wonderful animation. Movement is fluid and unobtrusive, which is critical in a game where ten or so characters can be on the tiny screen at once. After ten hours of gameplay I felt I had only explored a small part of Almia, a good feeling for a portable game.
Overall, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a well rounded and fun experience. Fans of the original Pokémon series may balk at the idea of temporary captures, no Elite 4, no gyms etc, but they will be missing out. The game is written nicely with a good dose of humour woven into the storyline and feels like time progresses evenly throughout. Upgrades to your catching ability are incrementally added with the passage of each mission and quest, giving Almia a real RPG feel. The game only really suffers when you focus on the same problem most Pokémon games have, it’s somewhat linear. If you don’t feel like exploring that rocky cliff-face at this time, too bad – you’ll never progress. Also, don’t expect too much from the NPC characters, they typically have one track minds, not much help.
Despite its minor flaws, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a decent game and a worthy addition to any DS owner’s library.