Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs is the latest installment in the Pokémon Ranger series, which is rather different from the mainline series of RPGs.
Guardian Signs focuses on Rangers whose job is to protect the balance of nature and Pokémon through the use of a Capture Styler. This game takes place on the Oblivia Islands, where the protagonist is stranded after he fell into the ocean during a chase with the organization of Pokémon poachers called the Pokémon Pinchers. The islands are home to Pokémon from all four generations, as well as its own host of legendaries, and as the protagonist discovers more about the Pinchers’ plans, he (or she) finds himself coming into contact with these rare Pokémon more and more as well as with the history of Oblivia.
Guardian Signs was my first time playing a Pokémon Ranger game, although I have to admit that I was already interested in it before its American release. This was at a time when I had spent 200 hours playing HeartGold, and I wanted a game that didn’t deal solely with battling, that had more interaction with the Pokémon, that had some story, and, by the gods, a game where the Pokémon weren’t pictures. At the time, Guardian Signs seemed to be the perfect mix, especially because it includes Pokémon from all four generations — sort of like a compilation, if you will.
Having finally played the game, I can safely say that Guardian Signs provided me with everything I had wanted from it.
The Pokémon Ranger games are more story-focused than the games in the main series (although never anything mind-blowing as you might expect), so much of what you do is dedicated to pursuing the Pokémon Pinchers. The game is divided into several large missions, with intermissions in between when you could go and find individual, optional quests. These are usually simple (“Go to X area and fight Y Pokémon!”) and quick. You’re also given Ranger Points that can be used to upgrade various characteristics of your Capture Styler, such as power or energy (the Styler version of HP).
Finishing the main quests also nets you quite a few RP, making these two the main methods to manually customize your Styler. (The only other method I have found is getting an S ranking when you capture Pokémon, which gives you a grand total of 1 RP every time you get this ranking on a new species)
As in previous games, Pokémon are captured by drawing circles around them. At first, it seems simple, but it actually becomes a frenzy of circle-drawing with a very healthy helping of good timing and some strategy quite soon into the game. First, each Pokémon has an “HP” gauge, which displays how close you are to capturing the Pokémon. As you draw more circles, the gauge fills with yellow. Sometimes, the Pokémon will suddenly become enraged, at which point the gauge is completely filled with red and every circle you draw detracts a smidgen from the bar. Once it’s emptied, the gauge turns yellow again and you start at where you left off.
The wild Pokémon aren’t happy with staying idle while you draw circles around them, though. They attack and run all over the screen. If your circle or Styler even so much as touches the Pokémon, the circle you were drawing breaks and you have to draw another one. If either is hit by an attack, the line breaks and your Styler is damaged. Once the Styler’s energy is decreased to zero, you get a Mission Failed. This isn’t much of a problem if you perfect the ability of drawing circles in synch with their movements, but it becomes increasingly hard later on in the game when more and more Pokémon have the tendency to not stay still.
Another method of filling the gauge is to use Pokémon Assists, which involves using previously-captured Pokémon to unleash a single attack before disappearing from the battle screen and needing to recharge for a few seconds. Their attacks affect the gauge a lot more than your Styler does, but if the Pokémon is damaged the least bit, they get scared and run away from your party. (I learned this the hard way when my Buizel ran away just when I needed him the most on the field…) The only exception is your Ukulele Pichu, who stays on screen no matter what attacks him. On the flip side, he can only be used when he appears at the bottom of the screen. His electricity-and-music-note attack doesn’t do much, but it’s a nice reliable source of damage against trigger-happy Pokémon who like to attack a lot and it affects the entire field too.
I actually enjoyed the capturing part of the game, since it was very quick and relatively painless. The sheer number of confrontations you have to make in the game makes this factor so much more important. While the battles aren’t random, you’ll find yourself fighting often for various reasons. Thankfully, each confrontation lasted less than half a minute, I got a lot of EXP, and … I admit that scribbling ovals while avoiding attacks got fun after a while.
After you’ve captured the Pokémon, they follow you around until you need them to perform some task on the field. As you journey through the dungeons and fields, sometimes there are obstacles that need to be removed. Other times, there are rare Pokémon hiding in a nearby tree or pretending to be an inanimate object. Each Pokémon in this game has an ability they can use (Slash, Slam, Flame, etc.) that affects the overworld obstacles. You can tell which abilities you need by clicking on said obstacle, and you destroy it by pointing to the Pokémon and dragging it to the object in question. For example, if there were a giant log that needed to be slashed, I could drag an Ivysaur over and he’d slash the thing to bits. After his job is done, he leaves the party.
Control-wise, Pokémon Ranger feels nice and streamlined. Most of the game operates on touchscreen and the buttons are always optional. The only time I found myself using them was pressing A to advance the dialogue.
The potential problem of not having the right Pokémon for the job never pops up as I had thought it would. Early on, I assumed it would become a problem, especially because once you use a Pokémon once on a field, he disappears. However, The game very conspicuously keeps any Pokémon you may need for an area in the vicinity to prevent major sidetracking, even if you don’t actually meet that obstacle at that point in time. I appreciated the thought, though, since it made the game go a lot smoother, and pointless backtracking is never fun.
Guardian Signs is also made simpler by the fact that the variety for field assists is very limited. Abilities ranked on a level of 1 to 4 (example: Charmander has Flame 1, Charmeleon has Flame 2). Thus, the Pokémon in your party are very interchangeable.
However, while which Pokémon you use doesn’t matter on the field, the usefulness of each Pokémon in battle is heavily determined by the type of attack he has. Although both Pokémon have the field assist Break, Ramparados causes a gigantic avalanche in a square area in front of it, while Mankey only directly attacks what’s in front of it before collapsing, panting, on the screen – and thus leaving him very open for an attack. Sometimes, a Pokémon will have a handy ability that helps with capture, too, like Buizel, who has a water attack that inflicts Slow.
All of this adds another strategy to capturing Pokémon. The only way to tell what Pokémon does what in battle is to use it once, though, so there is an element of trial-and-error too. Each Pokémon also has a type, too, and types that are effective against another deal twice as much damage to the capture gauge.
New to Guardian Signs is the ability to draw symbols outside of battle in a special screen that allows you to summon Pokémon. Some of these are obtained during quests and are just for convenience (the Jumpluff sign gives you a handy Cut ability whenever you need it), while others are given during the main story and allow you to meet the Legendary Pokémon. The most important of these are the Legendary Dogs, whom you can also mount them and use to reach previously inaccessible regions. Raikou can jump past chasms, Entei can break boulders, while Suicune can walk on water. They also run a lot faster than you can, and if you press down on the Dog while you’re on it, they’ll let out a roar that will drive out hidden Pokémon (again, for the completionists).
Another aspect of Guardian Signs that impressed me was the different types of fields or methods for exploration. There’s the usual on-land adventuring, but then you can also traverse the skies on a flying Pokémon like Starraptor and swim underwater to find all sorts of water Pokémon. Each area yields a different set of Pokémon, and you switch your team depending on the circumstances as well. (You can’t very well take a Vulpix underwater now, can you?) The mechanics are still the same, but the aesthetic and fauna change are enough to give you a different feel from the usual land-based exploration.
There are also “minigames” involving the two alternate modes of exploration. When you’re in the air, sometimes you have to avoid attacks aimed at you by dodging around the screen. Underwater, there are times you have to race to the bottom of the screen by avoiding attacks until you can charge forward for a small distance in a burst of speed.
Aside from the main adventure, there are also a handful of multiplayer missions that you can take part in. These are unlocked at some point in the game, and with Celebi’s help, you travel to the past to undertake them. The multiplayer mode is actually a misnomer, as almost all the missions can be done by a single player. The only problem is that, of course, having only one person instead of two or more is a slight setback, but it isn’t too influential on your ability to complete the mission if you know what you’re doing.
In the past, everything is started anew; since Ukulele Pichu doesn’t travel back in time with you, you get to choose from a set of Pokémon as a partner. You can’t capture Pokémon, but if you’re lucky you can “recruit” them for later use as a partner by collecting a certain random drop item. When you use Pokémon Assist, your partner can get hit by an attack (unlike Ukulele Pichu), but they come back after about 10 seconds instead of just running away like normal Pokémon Assists. Lastly, your Styler’s level is reset to 1.
What you do in the past doesn’t really affect the main game in the present. At most, the missions in the past unlock a few areas that were previously closed off, but these usually only lead to a new variety of Pokémon for you to capture. However, I find it very interesting that the multiplayer aspect is introduced as part of the main story, although it is never mentioned again after you actually unlock it. It’s as though the game gives you the option of fully exploring the story while leaving multiplayer optional.
While I won’t say that the game is the easiest one I’ve ever played, the concept behind the game, as well as the difficulty of Guardian of Light, are very simple.
The dungeons never have any puzzles that are too difficult, nor did you have to travel far to find a Pokémon to deal with the obstacle in front of you. The game even gives you the ability to heal your Styler with certain electric Pokémon. The mazes and puzzles in the multiplayer missions aren’t difficult either. Even the in-game tutorials are slow and deliberate to the point that you wish you could mash the A button just to make everything go faster.
While furiously circling Pokémon may seem mindless, it is actually the task that requires the most concentration later in the game — avoiding attacks, knowing when to use Assists and which to use, when to circle and when not to. It certainly kept me from getting bored of the game, at least.
Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs was a nice diversion from the strategy-heavy, battle-intensive Pokémon games from the main series, though, which was just what I had wanted when I was looking at this game. The adventuring is fun, being able to interact with the Pokémon and actually watching the sprites attack is one of my favorite parts, and who can say no to preventing Pokémon poaching?
Food for Thought:
1. My biggest gripe with this game is the explanation of how the Styler works. Something along the lines of “Your feelings get transmitted to the Pokémon, and once he completely understands your feelings, the Pokémon will help you in your journey.” …I think I’m getting too old for this.
2. While you can charge while drawing signs just like you do with the Styler in battle, it doesn’t do anything other than paralyzing every Pokémon in the vicinity out of fear. I suppose it’s handy for capturing those running Pokémon and avoiding aggressive ones?
3. There are a few downloadable missions that are going to be released in English in the near future, including a Deoxys multiplayer mission, a Shaymin mission, a Heattran mission, and a Manaphy mission. These all result in Pokémon that you can send over to your Diamond/Pearl or HeartGold/SoulSilver games. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the downloadable Dialga, Palkia, and Arceus missions.