During the Pokémon Ranger games you spend a lot of time wandering around catching Pokémon. Captures are different from the main series, however, as Poké Balls are ditched in favour of Capture Stylers, requiring you to use the touch screen to draw circles around the Pokémon with your stylus. The first game has already seen a Virtual Console release and now Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia hits the Wii U eShop, providing a tweaked but very similar experience to its predecessor.
This time around you begin the game as a youngster training at a Ranger School in the Almia region. Your time at the school serves to introduce you to the gameplay mechanics and whilst it's not a particularly in-depth course (you graduate a few days after enrolling), it's dragged out long enough to annoy. The first game featured a similarly lengthy introductory section and irritatingly this game assumes you haven't played that earlier release. Cue lots of the action stopping as someone explains something that you already know about; an option to skip past this would have been welcome.
As before there are numerous Pokémon encountered throughout the game; over 250 (mainly from the fourth generation) with their various abilities that must be avoided during capture and utilised elsewhere to progress through the game. There is a slight change to the capture procedure, as although Pokémon still require circling x amount of times, you no longer need to do this in one go.
A capture meter fills as you draw your line but should you stop (maybe to avoid an attack) it doesn't immediately reset to zero. This allows for a more relaxed capture procedure, although bonus points are awarded for quick and single-line captures. This change removes the annoyance from the first game that could occur should your capture line be broken just as you'd almost completed the final loop, but does also make things easier.
The game is not hugely varied as you are just walking from place-to-place to draw circles around Pokémon, but the different abilities of these Pokémon and the way they attack stops things from becoming too samey. The game features multiple partner Pokémon (although only one can travel with you at a time) and additional creatures can join you as you work through a mission. As before your entourage of pocket monsters have assist moves that help in captures and field moves to help clear obstacles in your way. In the case of field moves you often have to seek out a particular creature if the required ability is not possessed by anyone in your party.
Although the d-pad/control stick and buttons can be used for some parts of the game, it can be controlled entirely with the stylus and this works very well as you drag to walk and tap to interact with people and menus. Stylus play works especially well when using Off-TV play as you can play with the GamePad in portrait orientation with the two DS screens stacked atop each other, creating something similar to playing on the original hardware.
Sticking handheld games on a television screen can be messy, but Shadows of Almia holds up quite well with the detail of sprites and objects, remaining clear as they avoid blending into their surroundings. If you find it's looking a bit too pixelated you can turn on screen smoothing which loses some of the finer detail but results in a less blocky look.
The storyline is fairly straightforward but interesting, with Team Dim Sun up to no good and placing machines to alter the behaviour of Pokémon and cause trouble. Your school friends are also busy with their careers and hearing of their exploits as you move through the game makes the Almia region seem a little more real. Progress through the game is also straightforward, although this makes it too linear as you are simply pointed from one disaster to the next. There are opportunities to wander off between missions however, and here you can take on a quest from a local resident. These are smaller missions that can be completed quickly, and are worth doing as they reward you with powerups to help in your future Pokémon-capturing escapades. The original release of the game included the option of downloading a few additional missions via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, but these missions are unavailable in this eShop release.
The difficulty in the game steadily increases and whilst it doesn't offer the challenge the previous game sometimes did, pick up enough stray hits from attackers and you can suddenly find it's game over. Defeat leads to a particularly depressing scene as you fall to your knees to stare at the smoking remains of your Capture Styler. As sombre music plays your gang of Pokémon (including your loyal partner) decide you are a complete loser and hop off screen. Save points are scattered throughout the game, but the usual Virtual Console restore point function is also present; this is useful as it's available at anytime and prevents you having to replay a large section of game to get back to where you were.
Like its predecessor Shadows of Almia takes a while to get going and the gameplay can get repetitive, but there's a variety of attacks to learn to deal with that helps to keep things interesting; if you like collecting Pokémon, tracking them down will keep you busy. The tweak to the capture process puts an end to the sometimes frustrating failures of the previous game, but it does lessen the challenge somewhat. Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is an enjoyable game, all said, but not an essential one.