Full Review: Why are the main characters in these ?creature-raising? games always such whiny and unlikable twerps?
Since the beginning of the series in 1997, Tecmo's Monster Rancher franchise has always been almost exclusively about gameplay, with the ?story? thrown in as an afterthought. In Monster Rancher 4, however, the series takes a bit of a different twist -- for the first time, a Monster Rancher game features an actual story, with actual characters! Or at least, that was Tecmo's big promise...
So what intriguing, multi-layered protagonist has Tecmo given the Monster Rancher universe? Sadly, not much of one -- players take on the role of Phayne, a generic anime-style hero with a bandana and long hair that falls stylishly into his face. One would think that the entire purpose of this bandana is to keep hair out of his face, but that's never how things work in the anime world. Phayne is an aspiring monster trainer, but he's recently been kicked out of monster training school. However, fortune smiles upon him when a well-connected man sets him up with his very own monster-raisin' ranch! How's that as a positive message for the kiddies? Just get expelled from school, and your dreams will immediately be realized!
For the most part, Phayne is devoid of any personality -- in fact, he's pretty much a clone of Genki, the hero on the Monster Rancher cartoon that aired on Fox a couple of years ago (yes, I did watch that from time to time -- yes, I was in my 20s when I did so...). Throughout Phayne's quest, he'll encounter your typical cast of anime-style characters -- guys who look like girls, girls who look like guys, etc. And I'm still not too sure of the gender of a couple of people in the game...!
So, yeah...while the first ever (semi-) in-depth story in the Monster Rancher franchise might not be what one would call a rousing success, the overall gameplay definitely is -- you can do more with your monsters than ever before. For those of you not familiar with the game, I'll give a quick overview. As one might expect, Monster Rancher revolves around raising monsters on a ranch, training them for eventual battle with other monsters -- sort of like Pokemon, but without any ?pika?s, ?chu?s or the multi-million dollar Nintendo promotional machine. It's also a bit different in that you actually create the monsters by putting in your own CDs and DVDs -- each CD and DVD corresponds to a different monster. The designers always have a few surprises up their sleeve as well -- for example, my copy of Metal Gear Solid 2 created a monster called Metal Jelly, and that can't have been a coincidence! Also, according to Tecmo, some of the monkeys from the Ape Escape series are available in Monster Rancher 4. However, I don't own any Ape Escape games, so I couldn't test this myself.
All of the favorites from Monster Ranchers past are available, such as Mocchi, the cute (?) platypus(?)-type creature, and Suezo, the one-eyed yellow beastie, who's also the Monster Rancher 4 cover boy (cover thing?). There are monsters of every shape and size in the Monster Rancher world: demon monsters, samurai monsters, plant monsters, rock monsters (but not rock lobsters...that I've found, anyway!), and stuffed animal monsters. The sheer number of monsters in Monster Rancher 4 is certainly one of its strong points, and at over 300, there are more beasties available than ever. And as in Monster Rancher 3, once you put in a CD, its accompanying monster is stored in the game's memory, so you can always access it later -- very handy for those of us with large CD collections! You're automatically given a monster at the start of the game, and you'll find special ?Saucer Stones? throughout the game that'll unlock new creatures -- however, Monster Rancher 4 will definitely be much more enjoyable if you do have a decent-sized CD collection.
One of the best new features in Monster Rancher 4 is the ability to train more than one monster at a time -- it was always been a bit frustrating to have to train monsters one by one in previous versions of the game, as that meant you ended up advancing a bit more slowly than you might have liked. This time around, you'll start out with just one monster, but as your fame and fortune increases, you'll be able to keep up to five monsters on your ranch at one time. Training is mostly the same as ever -- you can be as kind, or as cruel, to your monsters as you desire. The sheer variety of monsters gives the game a lot of replay value, as it's unlikely you could ever hope to train every one of them in the game. Monster Rancher 4 also features the option to combine monsters, ?breeding? them into a new and different monster, which wasn't possible in Monster Rancher 3.
Another new feature is the adventure option -- this is the most RPG-like feature ever in a Monster Rancher game. You'll take your monsters on treks through things like caves and jungles, battling enemies as you go. The encounters are a tad uneven, though, and can make dungeon combat rather frustrating -- sometimes, attacks seem to come every other step, giving you Dragon Warrior flashbacks. Other times, you'll be looking for a fight, but nobody will attack you for minutes! While adventuring might be a new wrinkle in the Monster Rancher universe, it's a necessary feature in this game, as you'll need to complete some of these areas in order to advance the story. You'll also need to battle through these places if you want to win in the monster arena, as the dungeons are the only place your creatures will be able to acquire new battle skills.
And as always, the arena is the area to focus on if you want to truly advance in the game. While Tecmo hasn't revolutionized the battle system, they haven't broken it, either. In fact, you have many more options than in Monster Rancher 3, and can equip a total of nine attacks. Your monster's skills are divided into close-range, mid-range, and long-range, with their success rate being determined by your monster's various characteristics. Really, it's essentially the same system that was used back in 1997, so long-time fans will have no trouble settling in -- however, newcomers to the franchise shouldn't have any trouble catching on, either.
So, with all these new features and a decent battle system, Monster Rancher 4 must surely be the best game ever in the series, right? Well...sort of. Unfortunately, the game's interface prevents Monster Rancher 4 from being as enjoyable as it could have been. For example, there are tons of statistics listed for each monster -- however, the game doesn't do a very good job of explaining exactly what everything means. In a game like this, where success is built around statistics, they should have been more user-friendly and easy to understand. Also, you'd better memorize how many items you have before you go on your shopping trips, because the menu won't show you! Furthermore, the descriptions aren't very clear on exactly what it is each item does.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the interface is that it's far too easily to accidentally execute certain options. For example, the first option on the ranch menu is Training, and if you aren't careful and press the wrong button, your monsters will automatically start training, wrecking any plans you might have had for that week in the game. Monster Rancher 4 is very schedule-oriented, so it should have been made more difficult to accidentally access this option. If this had happened one time, I'd chalk it up to my own stupidity, but since it happened far more than that, I chalk it up to a bad interface. Overall, it seems like the developers went out of their way to make the system as unpleasant as possible to use...
The game's graphics are a bit more primitive than you'd expect from a game released in 2003. The story unfolds not with polygonal characters, but with hand-drawn anime representations. The characters' expressions will change depending on their moods, and they'll be accompanied by typical anime poses (i.e. a girl holding up her finger as she gives you a wink). In fact, the whole ?storytelling mode? made me feel like I was playing an old SNES game, instead of the latest PS2 title. It's a bit old-school, but it actually works for me. Overall, though, Monster Rancher 4 reminded me of a first-generation PlayStation 2 title -- the dungeon areas reminded me particularly of the original Dark Cloud.
The music is nothing that'll blow you away, but it serves its purpose. Actually, some of it has a ?Secret of Mana? feel -- now, that game featured some of my favorite video game music of all time, and I'm certainly not saying that the entire Monster Rancher 4 soundtrack approaches that level! However, it's nice background music to accompany your training, and you won't be reaching for the volume control too often. However, the soundtrack also includes some J-pop (Japanese pop), which will either make you squeal with fanboy delight, or make your skin crawl...
Monster Rancher 4 is certainly fun, and it'll certainly be enjoyable for fans of the series, but the poor interface and design keeps it from being all that it might have been. I might be more forgiving if this was the first Monster Rancher title for Tecmo -- however, by the fourth game of a series, design issues should no longer be a franchise's number one problem. Monster Rancher 4 just feels like it could've been done a lot better, and for someone like me who's been a fan of the series since its inception, that's a bit disappointing.