Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia

Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook - all fearless explorers; happiest when striking out to tackle the big white gaps on maps where more cowardly souls had written Here Be Monsters.

They probably wouldn't have got on too well with the Pokémon series though. The location of every new Pokemon game is much like the others, give or take the odd mountain range or island. And everywhere there are lots of monsters - again, the vast majority are the same type you played around with last time. It's less a brave new world and more another anime version of Japan.

At least it must be sunny in Almia as there are plenty of shadows there, apparently.

Meanwhile, what we learn from the other part of the game title is that we start off back in a Ranger School, which is a kind of mix between High School Musical and Hogwarts. Here you learn the basic techniques by which you catch pokémon and then get them to interact with stuff.

Catching pokémon is relatively easy and involves nothing more taxing than drawing circles around them with your stylus until their Friendship Gauge is full. As the game progresses, they run about more, and so like seeing off an end-of-level boss in a shoot-'em-up, you have to learn their attack patterns.

The most important pokémon however are your partner pokémon. These are 17 special pokémon - one for each type - that you gain through completing sub-quests and the like. You can switch between the ones you're carrying at any time. They're important as you can use your partner's attack to stun the other pokémon you are trying to catch. You're not 'capturing' them though. You're 'befriending' the wild pokécritters. Just remember that.

Even better, you can use the befriended beasties to perform one-off field moves (aka Poké Assists). Is your path barred by a burning log? Can't get into a cave because it's blocked up with rubble? Need to destroy the sinister machines that are making the tediously friendly pokémon act like a bunch of feral binge drinkers? It's all down to the field move.

So sticking with the scissors, paper, stone ethos that's been the bedrock of the Pokémon series, making your way through Shadows of Almia is all about capturing the right sort of pokémon (grass, electric, fire etc), and then using them at the right time. Tap on the sinister machine, for example, and you'll find out that you need to use 'burn' to destroy it. Cue lots of wandering around and capturing fiery pokémon until you find a Growlithe that can help you.

Yet because you can only carry three pokémon at any one time, and because each captured pokémon will only help you once before running off (not your partner pokémon mind - they're permanent), the constant collection and cataloging of species and their locations remains the bedroom of the game. Obviously Nintendo and developer HAL Laboratory know what they're doing when it comes to Pokémon games so Shadows of Almia is professionally put together. If you're interested, it has the best save game music yet heard in the DS…

And yet. And yet. Do we really need another enormous Pokémon Ranger game?

But if we do, why does everything have to be so predictable? For example, you don't need any imagination to work out who might be behind the mysterious events that are plaguing Pokéworld, considering that one of your teachers at the Ranger school is nice and says things like, 'always remember to smile' while the other tells you not to run in the corridor and tries to implicate your friends in criminal acts.

Equally, after a while the mechanics of the game are exposed as being so mechanical that anyone over the age of 12 surely requires some extra pay-off for persevering with it.

Maybe that's why Nintendo has included the option for new downloadable missions via the Nintendo WiFi Connection. But even these, plus the flexibility of the quests, which are side missions not related to the overall plot taken to gain extra partner pokémon and power-ups, don't add anything different. It's just more of the same.

But it's not as if all Pokémon games have been like this. Red/Blue/Yellow were all the better for being genuinely odd and demonstrating the time creator Satoshi Tajiri, spent scrabbling around in the dirt to capture insects in his childhood. But fast forward ten years or so and it feels like we're marooned in Pokémon Disneyland - overly slick and formulaic.

The problem with Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia then is that it's flawless apart from those flaws which are inherently part of it being a Pokemon game, especially a Pokémon Ranger game. It's not bad of course: if you love Pokémon games, it's lovely. But for the rest of us, the essential long-windedness of actually exploring Pokéworld remains as long-winded as ever, and sadly this example is no way essential.

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is the Pokémon series at its most professional and polished, but non-fans will find it as linear and repetitive as ever