There are two types of players in the world of Pokémon: those who enjoy capturing, training and battling with their Pokémon, and gentler, liberal-minded players who assume responsibility for the safety and well-being of the beloved pocket monsters. In Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs, the third instalment in the Pokémon Ranger series, the latter brand continues.
As the game opens, all is not well in the archipelago region of Oblivia. As per usual, humans can't leave innocent Pokémon well enough alone and are kidnapping the creatures for their wicked schemes. Players once again assume the role of a male or female Pokémon Ranger, charged with the conservation and protection of Pokémon from a malevolent group of poachers known as “Pinchers."
Unlike its predecessor, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia, the game doesn't allow players to choose their accompanying “partner" Pokémon and automatically pairs the Ranger with Ukelele Pichu, a plucky little fellow who totes his magical blue uke wherever he goes. While choosing your own partner in previous games greatly added to the fun factor Ukelele Pichu proves to be a formidable friend, aiding players and soothing wild Pokémon in capture mode with his instrument. As the game progresses and the difficulty spikes, Pichu's playing becomes increasingly virtuoso and powerful like Tiny Tim with a sugar rush.
Gameplay and controls are essentially the same as in the previous two titles. Players guide the Ranger and Pichu through the world with the stylus, seeking out new wild Pokémon to befriend. In Capture Mode, players use the stylus — dubbed the “capture styler" — to draw quick loops around the untamed Pokémon in order to convey feelings of friendship. Assists from Pichu and additional Pokémon in the player's roster can be used to help convey additional feelings of camaraderie, with the efficacy of the assist contingent on the Pokémon's type and weaknesses (for example, a wild Water Pokémon is more vulnerable to an assist from a Grass Pokémon than a Fire Pokémon.) Once a rogue Pokémon's friendship gauge is filled, Capture Mode ends and it becomes the Ranger's teammate with the option of joining the player's 7-monster roster. However, if the wild Pokémon damages the player's capture styler and exhausts all its HP, the game is over and the player is sent back to the last save point. As missions and quests are completed, the player receives experience points to allocate towards different styler upgrades, which are essential as the game unfolds and the Pinchers start getting serious. Genuinely difficult bosses and challenges seldom arise until the final stages, however.
The game features 300 different Pokémon derived from the first four generations, nearly all of which can be captured and placed in the player's roster. Pokémon in the roster are used for capture mode assists as well as to remove various obstacles throughout the game depending on the Pokémon's abilities. The only completely new and unique aspect of gameplay involves the eponymous “guardian signs" symbols that can be drawn with the stylus on the menu screen to summon various Pokémon to your aid. Legendary Pokémon Raiku, Entei, Suicune and Latios can all be summoned and ridden at any point after defeating them in their respective boss battles. The special abilities of these Legends are required to reach certain areas of the game, with Entei jumping great distances, Raiku smashing giant boulders, Suicune running messianically on water and Latios flying. Additional garden variety Pokémon can also be summoned in this way after completing special quests. Together with Pichu, the various Pokémon in the roster and the Legendaries, players cruise through 14 different missions and numerous mini-quests, as well as a few epilogue missions involving Legendaries Zapdos, Moltres and Articuno.
Multiplayer can be unlocked partway through the game at a special monolith where Celebi transports the player back in time to an ancient temple. The temple missions are timed quests wherein one or more players attempt to capture a varying number of Pokémon and defeat a final stage boss before time expires. The multiplayer levels allow for a special “team capture" technique where players convey twice the amount of friendship by drawing clockwise and counterclockwise loops around a given Pokémon simultaneously. Multiplayer missions also give players the autonomy to choose their “temple partner" Pokémon and allow for modifications to their partners through the accumulation of experience points as the levels are completed. While multiplayer gameplay is sadly not an option in the present-day quest through Oblivia, the past levels provide a decent challenge and become nearly impossible to beat without a friend. Moreover, it is impossible to collect all 300 Pokémon in the game without completing all of the multiplayer stages, so teaming up with a buddy is certainly in the best interest of "catch 'em all" players.
The audio/visual experience is the typically terrific fare fans of the Pokémon franchise might expect. All of the landscapes, sprites and various Pokémon feature bright colours and graphics as sharply defined as the small screen allows. While the score is not quite as memorable and infectious as other notable Nintendo soundtracks, it is every bit as agreeable and at times epic, particularly when riding on one of the Legendary Pokémon.
Like most role-playing games, regardless of quality, there is little need for replaying. The 14 missions and 50+ lesser quests are enough to keep gamers adequately busy, and sitting through the seemingly endless and non-skippable cutscenes and dialogue a second time may be unbearable. While the plot of the game is somewhat engaging, the endless blahddy-blah between the characters will leave most players virtually tapping a hole through the screen. Fortunately, the status report feature on the menu screen gives informative and graciously to-the-point updates on both the storyline and current objectives.
Whether it's battling with them or furiously scrawling rings of electric friendship around them, collecting Pokémon is always cool. Despite the sometimes repetitive gameplay and a superfluous amount of dialogue, there is still more than enough time spent seeking out and ensnaring a fun and vibrant cross-section of the greater Pokédex. The added novelty of summoning Legendary Pokémon and the inclusion of a second quest make Guardian Signs easily the best of the Pokémon Ranger franchise.