Another month, another Pokemon spin-off. Yes, the Pokemon money-making machine is full effect on the DS now, building speed in anticipation for next year's Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Pokemon Ranger is relatively insubstantial and ultimately forgettable, but remains an amusing dual-screen diversion until the next real Pokemon adventures arrive.
So what exactly is a Pokemon Ranger? Unlike a Pokemon trainer, Pokemon Rangers watch over a specific area, its people and its Pokemon. They try to help out the humans with the help of Pokemon, but aren't allowed to remove Pokemon from their natural habitats. As a rookie Ranger in the Fiore region, you'll help the populace and scribble away at injustice with the help of the adorable Plusle or Minun.
To recruit Pokemon, they employ a device not unlike a radio-controlled top, called a "Capture Styler," to lasso the target Pokemon with positive vibes... after which the Pokemon will happily follow them. Of course, all of this is just a poorly-veiled reference to the DS stylus and the miles of furious scribbling you'll do with it over the course of the game. Once captured, the Ranger can use the Pokemon's abilities to clear obstacles or help with subsequent captures, requiring Rangers to resourcefully make do with the Pokemon in their current environment.
The game is more or less a simple, linear adventure game with some light role-playing elements, but the puzzles never even flirt with Zelda-level quality or cleverness. It usually goes something like this: you find an obstacle you can't surmount, you explore or backtrack to find a Pokemon that can overcome it, and you return to the obstacle and clear it with the Pokemon's ability. For example, you'll use a Mudkip's water attack to extinguish some burning trees, or rescue a caged Pikachu by searching for a Pokemon with a powerful Cut ability to break the bars.
Instead of fighting them, you'll capture Pokemon by circling them with the stylus a set number of times. You can't let your line be broken by the Pokemon or its attacks, or everything will be reset and you'll have to start scribbling afresh. This requires you to pay careful attention to behavior and movement patterns. Additionally, you can use Pokemon you've already captured to temporarily power up your Capture Styler, allowing it to create barriers, stun Pokemon or require fewer circles. Finally, you can send out your partner Plusle or Minun to stun the enemy with a Discharge attack, which is limited by a meter you build by... circling Pokemon. Get the picture?
The Poke Assists, as they're called, are an interesting wrinkle, but in most cases faster scribbling will always win the day. Capturing Pokemon will not only place the creature by your side, but also nets you experience points that will increase the damage your Capture Styler can take and increase the length of the line you can draw. Fortunately, the developers were aware that Pokemon Ranger's fundamentals couldn't support a particularly long game, and as a result the game's pacing is snappy and it all ends before you can get bored of it.
The main story takes only about 10 hours to complete, and catching them all and completing the optional missions stacks a few more hours on top of that. For many, the game's most lasting contribution to the Pokeverse will be that it was the sole means to acquire the legendary Pokemon Manaphy, which will someday require attending a physical Nintendo event, in addition to completing the game's main story.
While ultimately forgettable, the game is executed about as well as can be expected, courtesy of the developers of the excellent Kirby Canvas Curse, HAL Laboratory. The entire game is presented on the bottom screen and controlled solely with the stylus, and everything works perfectly, from navigating Fiore to lassoing the Pokemon. The game's production values are also quite good, sporting large sprites and vast, detailed environments and catchy tunes.
Pokemon Ranger is an enjoyable marketing sidequest, despite lacking depth or challenge. Pokemon fans will find it a satisfactory appetizer to tide them over until the main course arrives next year.