Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs - Staff Review  

The Adventures of Ukulele Pichu
by Adriaan den Ouden

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Very Easy
Less than 20 Hours
+ Changes to PokéAssists are excellent.
+ Ranger Signs provide a new facet of gameplay.
+ Ukulele Pichu is a terrific mascot character.
+ "A smidgeon on the tight side" has become a running gag.
- Game is too easy.
- Excessive use of legendary pokémon dulls their impact.
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   While a yearly installment of the Pokémon franchise is pretty much an accepted part of gaming culture at this point (hint: it arrives every March), it's a bit more surprising to find that a new spin-off of the popular creature-catching series is seeing regular installments as well, every two years to be precise. What began as a clever way to make use of the Nintendo DS's touch screen in 2006 with Pokémon Ranger was continued in 2008 with a stand-out follow-up: Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia. The sequel improved upon the basic concept in almost every way, creating a truly inspired accompaniment to the main series. Now another two years have passed by, and the Ranger series continues with its third installment, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs.

   For those not in the "loop," Pokémon Rangers differ from the trainers in the main series in that they don't capture and keep pokémon, but rather befriend and protect them from evil-doers. They do this with their "stylers," special devices that allow them to communicate their feelings of friendship towards pokémon by drawing many, many circles around them. It's a bizarre concept, but somehow it works, and leads to a Pokémon game that is actually a lot more story-driven than the main series.

   In this iteration, a pair of young rangers travel to the Oblivia region, a chain of islands with a very small population. The singular ranger in the area is being overwhelmed by the obligatory group of ne'er-do-wells, the Pokémon Pinchers, and they've been dispatched to assist in quelling their wicked ways. However, as they pursue a group of pinchers upon arriving in the area, an attack separates the protagonist from his partner, who finds himself washed ashore on one of the islands. The adventure that ensues takes him all over the region, to the bottom of the ocean, and even back in time, all the while assisted by an assortment of legendary pokémon and an adorable, ukulele-playing pichu appropriately named Ukulele Pichu.

We be jammin We be jammin'

   The majority of the core gameplay mechanics are the same as in Shadows of Almia, but there have been a handful of notable changes in various areas, both good and bad. The biggest change is how PokéAssists — Ranger's version of the attacks seen in the main series — are handled. In the previous titles, PokéAssists added a bonus to your styler line that caused various status effects, such as slowing a pokémon down or doubling the amount of friendship points (read: damage) dealt with each loop. In Guardian Signs, the pokémon themselves are actually dropped onto the screen, launching attacks of varying power, range, and duration directly at your opponents. In addition to this, pokémon are also able to enter an agitated state during battle, at which point their friendship meter fills up entirely red. In this state, styler loops barely affect them, and PokéAssists must be used in order to calm them down.

   The practical upshot of this is that PokéAssists are infinitely more useful than they were in Shadows of Almia. While the upgrades in Shadows of Almia made PokéAssists relatively unnecessary, they are vital in Guardian Signs, and require a lot more strategy to successfully employ. To add to their value, assisting pokémon no longer leave when they're used unless they take damage from their foes' attack. This means that careful placement of the pokémon will allow you to use them over and over to make difficult fights progress more smoothly.

   Most of the other core mechanics of the series remain the same. Rangers can upgrade their stylers using the Ranger Points earned by completing quests and missions, increasing power, defense, and other statistics. And as with previous titles, much of the game involves clearing obstacles using pokémon allies found along the way. In addition to befriended pokémon, however, Guardian Signs allows you to use special symbols to summon legendary pokémon, each of which have abilities that assist in travel and puzzle-solving.

Ride your legendary pokémon to victory! Ride your legendary pokémon to victory!

   Although Pokémon Ranger's mechanics have been further refined with this latest title, an unfortunate side effect of all the changes is that the game is far too easy, barely offering up any challenge at all. With the exception of a small handful of boss fights, players will rarely, if ever, find themselves anywhere close to defeat. To put it in perspective, styler-charging electric pokémon like pikachu or mareep were staples in the previous games, and vital to survival. In Guardian Signs, I never had to use one — not even once. The loss of challenge is an unfortunate part of what is otherwise a rather enjoyable game.

   Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs also features a large collection of multi-player missions, complete with their own separate storyline. Early in the game, rangers will encounter a mischievious Celebi, who transports them back in time to ancient Oblivia, where things are not well with the world. Rangers can team up with a single pokémon and up to three friends in completing simple, timed missions which usually involve capturing a certain number of pokémon and then defeating a boss. These missions can be done solo as well, so players with no one to play with don't have to feel left out. These missions can also have an affect on the future world of the solo game — occasionally, bosses will be protecting stone tablets; when defeated, these tablets are destroyed, and corresponding tablets are destroyed in the future, opening new paths.

   Overall, Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is an enjoyable game in its own right, but feels like a step down from Shadows of Almia. The improvements are all welcome, but the game now needs to be rebalanced. Similarly, the story wasn't quite as enjoyable as the previous game, and seems too eager to trot out legendary pokémon one after another — all told, eleven make an appearance in the main story alone. The game sprites continue to be top-notch, and the music is likewise catchy and pleasant to listen to. Guardian Signs is a welcome addition to the series, but there's still room for growth.

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