Pokémon Ranger
| Pokemon Ranger

How much Pokémon fever can the public take? A couple of months ago, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon assaulted the charts, there's still the promise of a 2007 European release for the Diamond and Pearl versions (you can read our review of the Japanese version), and now there's Pokémon Ranger.

While Nintendo obviously has plenty of faith in our continuing passion for Pokémon, this game could have easily been labelled another lightweight 'catch 'em all' sidestory. But what saves it is a rather unusual focal point: drawing circles with your stylus.

Incredibly, it is more interesting than it sounds, although ultimately not quite enough to truly win over even an ardent poké-fan.

Unlike the random-battle-themed Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Pokémon Ranger offers more of an action role-playing game, which uses a linear mission-based structure to prod you through the process of collecting as many cute beasties as possible, while working your way up the ranger ranks.

Your role as a ranger is to protect pokémon, whether roaming wild in their natural habitats or partnered up with loving but sometimes careless human owners. Unlike trainers, you can't put them in your Poké Ball, but must let them go once they've helped you.

At first the quests are quaintly domestic – helping to locate a hysterical lady's lost Skitty, for example. But slowly you become aware of a plot by the naughty Go-Rock Squad to steal a newly developed ranger technology know as the Super Styler.

You, however, are equipped with a standard styler. It is the pokémon ranger's main tool, used to capture endangered poké-beasts. It is also the central gameplay component. When attempting to ensnare lost or threatened critters, the action switches to a special capture screen, where you must use the styler – or stylus, as you may more commonly know it – to draw rings around the target.

Different pokémon varieties require different numbers of rings, and some will charge or fire projectiles at an incomplete ring so that you have to start again.

To help in the task, you can call on already captured pokémon to lend their special skills in the snaring process, perhaps blowing huge bubbles with which to trap your prey, or surrounding them in a poisonous mist, or maybe levitating them with psychic powers.

It's all very friendly though. You're not really trapping these animals, you're making an emotional connection with them – something the instruction booklet makes very clear. That said, the eco-hippy undertones won't stop you shouting "Stay still you little sod!" on occasion.

Hence the key skill to being a successful ranger is watching your target, learning their repetitive movements and attacks, and adapting your circle drawing technique accordingly. It's also important to know which sorts of pokémon assists work best against which types of pokémon (see PG Tips below). It's worthwhile keeping a watchful eye on the styler power gauge too, which drains with every broken circle.

To be honest, despite such complications, as a battle system the stylus circling is a rather shallow mechanic to base an entire game around. It offers the illusion of variety, but without the true tactical options of a good role-playing game. All you can really do is learn to draw circles quickly.

Padding out the game is your exploration of the bustling Fiore region. You'll travel through its cities and forests having short conversations with its inhabitants, and overcoming easily-overcomable obstacles on the way. Stack of hay in your path? Get a fire-breathing pokémon to burn it. Others can crush rocks or cut wires.

As ever, the key moments of excitement come when you spot a pokémon type you haven't yet caught – there are over 200 in total. It's the primeval collecting impulse that the games has always traded on, and many of us remain its hopeless slaves, even in this somewhat watered down state.

Still, Pokémon Ranger is charmingly made as well as being bizarrely compelling. The simple, varied visuals recall the glory days of 2D role-players, as does the synthesised soundtrack, which swells and falls in the background with mock robotic grandeur. The story is suitably dramatic, but also daft – and it doesn't matter much. There are even moments of genuine humour, although we hope the implied sexual ardour with which some of the humans hold their little friends in was something we merely imagined after too many hours cooped up with our DS.

But for all those plus points, with Pokémons Diamond and Pearl (hopefully) just months away, dallying with another lightweight spin-off feels like pigging out on a kingsize Milky Way bar just before lunch. It's sweet, it's fun, but it's a little unnecessary.

Pokémon Ranger

Despite being loveable and well-made, Pokémon Ranger's combat system is too shallow to grip your attention