Shadows of Almia Review

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is great.

Those who have read my review of the first Pokémon Ranger game (by the way, if you have played neither game, you'll want to read that in order to understand what this one is on about) will know that I liked that game. I was slightly skeptical about the sequel, mostly as part of a subconscious "They changed it, now it sucks" mentality about some of what I had heard about it, but now that I've played the game, I can vouch that it is vastly superior to the original, simply by virtue of having taken most of the weaker aspects of it and fixed them while keeping all the good stuff.

The most noteworthy change, and the one I was most skeptical about, is that instead of using fixed loop counts for each Pokémon, they have introduced HP bars. I say HP bars, but actually they measure how much of your friendship your styler has communicated to the Pokémon (yes, that is the formal in-game explanation of why Pokémon Rangers need to draw all those loops around the Pokémon - they are officially not, in other words, putting the Pokémon under some sort of spell or hypnotic influence to force it to obey them until released), so I will call them friendship bars. When you draw loops around a Pokémon on the battle screen, the bar will slowly fill up (rather than empty itself like an ordinary HP bar), and once it's full, the Pokémon is captured.

So how, you may ask, is this different from the loop counts of the original Ranger, gameplay-wise? Well, the friendship bar format offers a couple of possibilities that would have been impossible with loop counts.

Firstly, you do not need to start over from scratch if you just once make the mistake of bumping into the Pokémon with the stylus, because the friendship bar does not empty the moment you release the stylus or hit something. If you stop looping around the Pokémon for a couple of seconds, it will start to go down (reasonably slowly), but if you make a mistake you can actually continue where you left off. This makes the game unimaginably much less frustrating. It's also easier, mind you - even though Pokémon need more loops, getting there is just a matter of patience in most cases - but what matters here is that it's no longer a game that makes you want to throw your DS into a wall when the stylus accidentally slips too close to Steelix for the twentieth time.

Secondly, it offers the potential for the styler to have a 'power' stat that grows when it levels up (or if you receive certain power-ups by finishing Quests). When you start the game, a Bidoof will need several loops to be captured; by the time you finish the storyline, it will only take one. This is extremely convenient, as late in the game, you'll be walking through areas with weak Pokémon and be relieved that capturing them is so trivial.

So what else is new in Shadows of Almia? Well, there is Almia itself, a much bigger region than the original's Fiore, with more interesting locations. There are new field moves and the old ones have more power levels - you have five different strength levels of Crush, for instance. Some of the new field moves don't just clear obstacles that are in your way during the game, but have various other effects - for instance, there's River Flow, which allows you to swim on rivers to discover new locations; Agility, which allows you to ride on Doduo to travel around faster; Fly, which allows you to capture a Staraptor when you want to go somewhere quickly and have it fly you there (conveniently, Staraptor are found close to pretty much all locations in Almia); and Teleport, which gets you quickly out of the game's various puzzle-filled dungeons. This actually goes a long way towards making the game experience feel more real; instead of just finding an obstacle and dutifully looking for the inevitable nearby Pokémon that is the "key" to this obstacle, you can actually think, quite on your own terms as a Ranger, "Hm, I'm about to be doing a lot of running around; let's find a Doduo to speed things up," or "Okay, I went through this dungeon, but fat chance I know the way back; I wonder if there's something with Teleport around here somewhere." Additionally, all Pokémon except some special cases have some field move, giving you more possibilities for the normal field moves (though the new field moves tend to be only usable by a couple of Pokémon).

Shadows of Almia also abolishes the rule from the original Ranger that forced you to leave all your Friend Pokémon behind once you left their native area until after you finished the game. The effects of this are more interesting than you might think: since there is a limited number of field moves, it is often quite possible for you to have been to an area with Pokémon that have the field moves you need at an earlier point in the storyline. With foresight (or a walkthrough, or having played through the game before), you can therefore anticipate what field moves you might need in the area you are going to and capture some Pokémon with those field moves beforehand, saving you the trouble of having to look for the Pokémon you're "supposed" to use inside the dungeon. This adds a bit of spice to the game.

Another simple change from the original Ranger is that you have multiple Partner Pokémon, though you can only have one with you at a time - the rest stay near your home in Chicole Village. Your Partner Pokémon never have field moves, but they do have different types of Poké Assists, meaning you are no longer at an intrinsic, problematic disadvantage when facing certain types of Pokémon - again, with foresight, you can choose an appropriate Partner Pokémon to bring with you to each location you go to. Generally, though, Poké Assists are not nearly as useful as they were in the original Ranger; then, the loop count made it pretty much necessary to use some external means to either immobilize the Pokémon while you captured it or improve your capture line somehow, but now, the friendship bar makes it no big deal if you have to lift your stylus to dodge a few attacks. The only time during the normal storyline where you really ought to feel the need to use a Poké Assist (other than Recharge or as a time-saver) is if the opponent Pokémon has a tendency to use an attack continuously for a number of seconds while the friendship bar empties, and even then, I don't think I have at any point come across a Pokémon in the game whose "continuous" attacks did not include regular brief pauses where I could get one loop in to stop the friendship bar from going down.

An extremely needed new feature is that when you capture a Pokémon and this brings you over the maximum number of Friend Pokémon you can have, the release screen has a "Recharge" option in addition to the normal "Release" one - in other words, if your styler needs energy, you can capture a Magneton/Pikachu/etc. and have it recharge your styler without having to release one of your Pokémon at any point in the process.

But I suppose my favorite addition to Shadows of Almia is Quests. They are basically optional mini-missions you can take on whenever you like from random NPCs and usually involve either saving some Pokémon (this, as you will find, is the game's preferred method of giving you new Partner Pokémon), bringing some Pokémon to the NPC, or clearing some particular targets. Every time you complete a Quest, you receive a special power-up for your styler, giving you additional motivation to do them, and then there's all the new partner Pokémon and Pokémon that appear only when you are doing (or have done) a certain Quest. They're pretty varied, often get you to discover new locations, and are just generally really fun to do.

In addition to adding new features and changing things around, it also keeps everything that made Ranger fun while improving upon it: it still has the humour, the characters are even more varied and likeable, and the storyline is both better and longer, if still predictable and riddled with good-natured clichés. The 2D graphics are even prettier, and the game has more Pokémon that are even more varied in their attacks and fighting styles, although there are still only 267 Pokémon in the Ranger Browser.

So what's bad about the game? The primary issue I have with Shadows of Almia is that it needs more save points. It frequently takes control of the player character without warning for minutes at a time before throwing you into multiple boss fights in a row, and even when you finally do gain control of the character, you may be shoved into another boss fight before you can actually reach the nearest save point. It's slightly inconsistent in this regard; in between, it will actually warn you that there are readings of an extremely powerful Pokémon ahead or have some character ask you "Are you ready?" (which invariably means that proceeding a few steps further will get you into a boss fight), but a lot of the time you get no warning, and often I was looking at potentially losing quite a lot of gameplay if I happened to lose a particular boss fight.

Another annoyance is how long it takes to get all your experience points after a battle, thanks to the new bonuses available for certain feats during battle (for instance, there is a bonus for not taking any damage, a bonus for using only one unbroken capture line, a bonus for being particularly quick to capture the Pokémon, a bonus for drawing more than a hundred loops in a single battle, and so on). When you finish a battle, you first see the basic experience for a moment, and then it flips through all the bonuses you got for this battle one at a time - if you got a lot of them, this is quite irritating, and even without that, there is a delay after it finishes displaying your experience until it lets you back into the overworld.

Then there's the unfair navigation puzzles - there aren't that many of them, but you need to get through some of them several times, and that can be agonizing. The worst offender here is the Ice Lake, where the tiniest slip of the stylus will get you thrown right back to the beginning of the puzzle, with all the ice blocks that you need to get out of your way having mysteriously reappeared (conspicuously unlike every other destroyable bit of environment in the game), but there are more of them that can be quite frustrating.

Also, they cut out the little stir-the-development-team's-names gimmick from the credits. Boo!

All jokes aside, though, it's a really fun game, a great improvement over the original Ranger, and I strongly recommend at least trying it to see if you like it.

Page last modified August 12 2016 at 22:34 GMT