Shadows of Almia, like the first game, puts the player in the role of a Ranger, who uses a device called a Styler that, uh, uses a beam of energy to convey the Ranger's feelings of friendliness toward the creature, thus calming and taming it. You control the Styler in "capture mode" (basically battle scenes) by scribbling circles around the Pokémon. Each loop decrements the Pokemon's HP, and it becomes docile when its health is depleted. If a Pokémon crosses your beam or hits it with an attack, you lose HP. And that's basically all you need to know to play Pokémon Ranger.
The scribbling gameplay differs from the first in that each loop removes some HP. Previously, you were forced to execute a certain number of uninterrupted loops to succeed. Here, you're encouraged to do so by experience bonuses and the fact that the Pokémon's HP slowly regenerates while you're not attacking, but it is possible to pause your attack to avoid a counterattack now. This makes for a much friendlier experience (although just drawing circles is already pretty friendly).
Captured Pokémon have useful skills in the field. For example, Shellos' Soak ability can short out electrical machines, and Bidoof's Crush can destroy crates. When you use one of these skills, the Pokémon is then dismissed. The only monsters who stick around after using their skills are special Partner Pokémon, who stay in your party along with three captured Pokémon. These Partners are another new addition to the sequel.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Draw circles, collect Pokémon, find Partners. Unfortunately, this knowledge is conveyed in one of the most agonizing introductory chapters I've ever had to endure. Shadows of Almia spends about four hours introducing its world, the Styler, and the Ranger profession in a seemingly endless series of text windows, punctuated by brief, welcome periods of gameplay. After five minutes of banal chatter about the Pokémon Ranger school in which you start, you might get to walk from one room to another, or capture a couple of Pokémon, before another five minutes of interminable talk. At one point, I read a sign in front of an exit that told me the name of the next location. Then, right as I started to walk toward the exit, my traveling companion stopped me and said something to the effect of "Okay! (name of location) is just ahead! I wonder what we'll see there? Are you ready?" I resisted my urge to rip the cartridge out of my DS and stomp on it. Can you imagine if Pokémon Snap had long story sequences about learning to use the camera?
The good news is that if you can survive the beginning, Shadows of Almia adopts a much less story-intensive mission-based format that allows for a lot of just catching Pokemans. In a way, it's the closest cousin to the for-real Pokémon games, but with a lot less stat-building and training to worry about. The only thing you have to level up is your own character -- Pokémon are pretty much disposable. As a just-fun Pokémon adventure, I'd be quite willing to give it a higher score, but I'm not sure if everyone who tries it will have the patience to get past the initial boredom.
Final score: 6.5
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