Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia - Staff Review  

Circle to Success!
by Ethan Pipher

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20-40 Hours
+ Impressive length for a portable action RPG
+ Many optional sidequests with satisfying rewards
+ Improved leveling system and options from the original
+ New mechanics added consistently throughout to keep the game exciting
+ Much more to do after the main quest is finished.
- Missed opportunity for a very involving story
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   I was one of those guys who loved the original Pokémon Ranger game. I thought the idea of circling Pokémon with the stylus, or "styler", to capture them was interesting, and added a totally different set of challenges to the RPG. The addition of Rangers acting as a sort of police force by befriending Pokémon added a new depth to the Pokémon universe. In fact, I believed the game to be far more innovative than the community gave it credit for. I did have a number of problems with it, however. It seemed to hold my hand for the entire game, the dungeons were almost entirely linear, and I was rarely able to find Pokémon outside of the ones I was supposed to. It felt far too restricted for a RPG, and I found myself ultimately disappointed although I loved the base circling mechanic.

   So when I heard the announcement of Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia, I didn't exactly get excited. The main Pokémon series has hardly evolved, so why should I expect a spinoff series to? Surprisingly, there is an impressive number of positive changes to this sequel that makes it a highly recommended title and a promising series looking forward.

   For those unfamiliar, the Pokémon Ranger series replaces a typical battle system with more of a "circling system". Rangers don't battle Pokémon, but rather befriend them by using their "stylers" to circle Pokémon, which expresses feelings of friendship. The idea is corny, but in practice, it's a lot of fun. Once a Pokémon is captured, it follows the Ranger until it helps out in one of two ways. The first is using one of a variety of "Target Clears" in the main field. This includes cutting down logs, swimming along rivers, and blasting apart rocks. The second way is to help out in battle using "PokéAssists". These give elemental powers to the styler and aid in the capture of enemy Pokémon. The number of Pokémon that are able to follow the Ranger is directly related to the player's progress in the game, therefore it becomes part of the strategy to decide which Pokémon should be kept around to help out with the environment and in battle.

Circle that bat! Circle that bat!

   To start, while the training portion of Shadows of Almia might actually be more extensive than the original, the sequel frames the process in a far more exciting and involved fashion. The game opens to the main character, whose gender is player-chosen, in Ranger School. She is a new student entering in the middle of the semester. The school setting allows for the tutorials to make sense within the story and so it never feels like game progression is being put on hold in order to teach the player the mechanics.

   The pacing of the entire story is well done, in fact, and takes the player to potentially unexpected places. The development studio, Hal, could have been really lazy and kept the same backdrop for the whole game, but instead switches things up at exactly the right moment. The main quest is also a satisfying length, easily dwarfing the original game's completion time, and that isn't even mentioning the large number of optional sidequests that allow for capturing rare Pokémon and provide notable power-ups to the character's styler.

   Unfortunately, the Pokémon series is still aimed at children and so, despite humourous dialogue, the story stays at surface level. It's a shame too, because some interesting plot points are set up that could have sparked true character development and have made the world very engrossing. And while Nintendo isn't known for making games with deep characterization, that doesn't mean a decent attempt wouldn't make a huge impact. Nonetheless, the dialogue is enjoyable and there are enough quirky characters to make the text worth reading.

Breathing underwater made easy! Breathing underwater made easy!

   Where Shadows of Almia truly stands out lies in the RPG mechanics. Now when the Ranger's styler has a level up, it gains power and energy. Power is equivalent to hit points, and energy translates to how much the "friendship bar" fills up when one circle is drawn around a Pokémon. Capturing is no longer a process of watching a number decline while circling, but rather filling up a bar until completion. This eliminates the need to perform the capture all in one go. The challenge isn't lost, however, as the friendship bar will slowly start to dwindle if left un-circled for a few moments. To add to the regular set of experience points given for capturing, many bonuses are awarded for how well the player performed. These bonuses can make a significant difference on the final experience and are a great way of installing inherent customizable levels of difficulty to the battles.

   Beyond the battles, the level design completely opened up in comparison to the original. There are optional areas only excessible if returned to later, and nooks and crannies full of rare Pokémon only available to the particularly adventurous. This breathes life into the world and makes the game exciting to play. Couple these level designs with underwater levels and an impressive number of collectable Pokémon depicted in a pleasant graphical style, and the game becomes difficult to put down.

   Ultimately, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a great follow-up to an already original blueprint. This game continues the trend of replacing all abilities, items, vehicles, and other typical RPG clutter with only Pokémon, while adding far superior level design, RPG elements, and optional quests that easily double the play time and go way beyond the credits. While the circling mechanic isn't for everybody, and the story leaves much to be desired, this is a fun and surprisingly deep title that is definitely worth a try for newcomers and even detractors of the original title.

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