Version tested: DS
Pokmon isn't really a series you turn to if you demand radical evolution between instalments. The core series has remained largely unchanged for over a decade, with the most obvious differences evident in the ever-shifting Pokdex listings rather than the gameplay.
Along with Mystery Dungeon, 2007's Pokmon Ranger represented one of the occasional attempts to spin off an RPG variation, and the result is mixed. The whole concept of "gotta catch 'em all" is rendered redundant by the focus on Rangers, Pokmon specialists who deal with the critters in their wild state, meaning you'll be collecting for the short term, grabbing creatures whose abilities will get you past a specific obstacle or enemy, instead of looking at a sprawling menagerie of levelled-up Pokmon for long-term competitive success.
The main twist is that you catch Pokmon using a Capture Styler, a device that conveniently works in much the same way as the DS stylus. Draw enough circles around the Pokmon, and they're yours. The Pokmon will fight back - either by trying to run away, in which case contact breaks your line, or by using their abilities. Should a Pokmon attack hit your capture line, the Styler is damaged. If it takes too many hits, you're dumped back to the last save point.
There are some minor changes to the system for this second venture into Ranger country but, while they address some of our complaints from last time, on the whole the capture mechanic still feels underdeveloped. There are slightly more Pokmon available for capture - including new ones from Diamond and Pearl - but the experience remains a mere snack compared to the proper Pokmon adventures.
In the previous Ranger game, you had to maintain a constant circling motion to capture a Pokmon, but this rather strict requirement has been relaxed for Shadows of Almia. Each circle you draw now fills up a friendship meter under the Pokmon in question. You can stop circling to avoid attacks, but if you wait too long the meter starts to fall. It's a definite improvement, allowing for some measure of tactical play, but the constant circling still feels repetitive, and is a surprisingly basic use of the DS hardware.
Captures are enhanced somewhat by the return of the Assist feature, since friendly Pokmon powers offer a few extra flicks and scribbles to help subdue their wild brethren, but it's never as deep or varied as you'd hope. Back when we reviewed the rune-based action puzzle game Doodle Hex, it was suggested that the frantic shape-drawing action "would make an excellent combat system for an RPG", and Pokmon Ranger would have been the perfect recipient. Since capturing is the core element of the game, just having a different array of capture styles to draw - squares, triangles, verticals, horizontals, anything but endless circles - would make the experience a lot more engaging over the long haul.
And it is a long haul, even though the game retains its rather claustrophobic hand-holding design. Whenever you come across an obstacle, you know there'll be a Pokmon that can deal with it in the immediate vicinity. It's just a matter of wandering around until you find it. Equally, the story rarely gives you the freedom to roam and find your own path. Missions are doled out in rigid order, and there's very little opportunity to tackle them in your own way.
The plot moves at a snail's pace - the largely uneventful opening set at the Ranger Academy still takes over an hour, despite offering the shallowest training regime since Luke Skywalker became a Jedi by doing some handstands and giving Yoda a shoulder ride. More annoyingly, characters continually interrupt the action to state the obvious. You'll be hurrying to an urgent mission, and your companions will halt your progress to tell you that you'd better hurry up. Then as you see that you're getting near your objective, they'll pipe up to tell you that you're getting near your objective. And then again to tell you they're a bit scared. And then again when they're feeling brave.
You just want to get on with the task at hand, but you have to click through too much inconsequential waffle to do so. It's all par for the course in the realms of JRPG, where charm and incidental detail can add quirky texture to an epic tale, but since this story often feels like a retread of the last outing, with yet another villainous team trying to implicate innocent Pokmon in their evil plot, such stop-start padding is harder to forgive.
At least there are now side-quests, with the civilian population of Almia asking for assistance in solving their Pokmon-related problems. You can only have one of these optional objectives on the go at a time, but your reward for completion is Power-Up Data which improves your Capture Styler. You may be able to draw longer lines, for example, or take less damage from a particular type of Pokmon. It's not enough to make you feel like there's a world of adventure to be found beyond the main story missions, but it's better than nothing.
So there are improvements over the previous entry, and Shadows of Almia is most assuredly good at what it does. It's just that what it does still isn't that exciting or memorable, and without the lure of permanently capturing your Pokpals, it falls to the rather dull storyline to try and keep players engaged. With a long wait until the next proper Pokmon game, many fans may feel that's enough, but they shouldn't expect anything more than a mild distraction.
6 / 10