Monster Rancher 3 Preview

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When the original Monster Rancher hit the PlayStation in 1997, it hooked gamers with its original premise and innovative gameplay. The ability to raise monsters randomly generated by ordinary CDs and a variety of random factors in the game allowed it to offer a fairly unique gameplay experience for players. The series was further refined with Monster Rancher 2, which added new gameplay elements and upped the monster count significantly. For Monster Rancher's PlayStation 2 debut, Monster Rancher 3, Tecmo is blending together old and new gameplay elements with a slick graphical overhaul to produce a game that's shaping up to offer a pretty rich monster ranching experience.

Let's get ready to rumble.
Let's get ready to rumble.

Monster Rancher 3 tells a tale set in a time before the original Monster Rancher games, when a race of people called the tochikans helped breed monsters. You assume the role of a prospective monster breeder who hooks up with a tochikan girl named Feria. Together, the two of you set out to kick butt, get famous, and breed a top-ranked monster.

Just as the game's story has been slightly tweaked, the structure of the game has also undergone a bit of revision. The basics of the game are the same: Get monster, raise monster on farm, and compete in tournaments until you reach the S rank. But quite a few tweaks have been made since the last game. Your options for obtaining a monster have changed slightly. Instead of picking up a monster from a store in town or generating one using a CD, you'll now be able to select one of three monsters from an encyclopedia in the game or generate one using a CD or DVD. The game's encyclopedia will gain a page every time you generate a monster that doesn't have an entry. In a nice touch, the encyclopedia will allow you to re-create any monster with an entry even if you choose not to keep it after generating it. Spend some time generating monsters using discs and you'll give yourself a healthy selection of choices. You'll find 24 "types" of monsters--some familiar, such as suezo and mocchi, and others that are brand new, such as psiroller and raiden. Within each type, you'll find five variations based on the environments in the game, as well as secret character variations.

Say hello to Scissors.
Say hello to Scissors.

After you've settled on a monster, you'll take it to an open area to raise it. Unlike in the previous Monster Rancher games, there are no farms to raise your monster. Instead, the game provides five open regions, each with a different climate, where you can hang out with your monster and train it. Each region provides different methods to train your monster and increase its statistics. As before, you'll have to feed and rest your monster accordingly when training and competing, but MR3 provides more variables to keep track of. Food is displayed with bars indicating its nutritional value and whether or not your monster cares for it. How your monster reacts to food affects its development and its bond with you. In addition, it's possible to find accessory items that you can equip your monster with. Offering more than just a snappy fashion statement, the items can affect your monster's stats. Taken together, all the variables help you mold your monster's personality, which, in MR3, is now very distinct. The monsters definitely come across as individuals in MR3. As they grow, they gain characteristics that affect their behavior and performance in combat.

The game controls the same as the previous games--the various menus are navigated with the D-pad and selections are made with the X button. During combat, as before, you'll view the proceedings from a side view and have limited control over your minion. During combat, the D-pad controls your monster's movement forward and backward. Special attacks are assigned to square, triangle, circle, and X and are available when your monster builds up enough "guts." The success of its attacks and its responsiveness to your commands depend on the bond you've created while raising it.

Treat your monster well and you could get it to do this.
Treat your monster well and you could get it to do this.

In addition to tweaking the Monster Rancher gameplay, MR3 offers quite a few new features as well. Once a season, you'll be able to "venture" around your training area to discover a variety of items, stat increases for your monster, new training routines, new special moves, and the opportunity to level up your monster's existing special attacks. Rivals will come by while you're training, à la Pokémon, and challenge you to battles or just talk smack. You'll also be able to talk to them and trade pieces of "disc stones," which can be used to generate a monster when you've collected four of the same type. The accessory option is compatible with Sony's Picture Paradise technology, allowing you to import images from a Sony Memory Stick reader via a USB connector and put them on your monster. While this feature doesn't affect the gameplay, it's still a cool touch.

Dressing for success.
Dressing for success.

Graphically, MR3 is also a blend of old and new. Like MR2, the game features polygonal environments and uses 2D stills of faces when interacting with other characters. The monsters benefit the most from the upgrade thanks to their buff and shiny new cel-shaded look. Featuring smooth--and sometimes disturbingly twisted--animation and slick design, the monster crew has never looked better. Tecmo is actually making some tweaks to the game for its US release in the form of an older appearance for Feria, scarier looking monsters, and the addition of some new ones for the US release of the game.

However, in spite of all the new things on tap, some players may find they miss some of the features that didn't make it over from the first two Monster Rancher games. You're no longer able to build up your training area as you were in the other games, and as a result you can only hold a limited number of items. You're also unable to sign your monster up for jobs in order to make money and build up its stats. Breeding monsters is no longer possible--instead you'll receive a "monster heart" when one of your minions drops like a fly. Essentially the essence of your monster, the heart can be given to a monster like an item and will increase its stats and abilities to varying degrees. You'll also find that you and your monster won't receive fan mail as in the previous games. In fact, the popularity of your monster isn't as prominently featured in MR3--you can still check on it in your monster's stats, but you no longer see it go up following a battle as you did before. Fortunately the game still offers the same versus mode options, allowing you to pit you monster against a friend's.

In our time with Monster Rancher 3, we found that we did miss some of the older features, mainly because we love crudely handwritten fan mail, but the new elements in the game hooked us good. So far, the game seems fun and a bit more accessible than the previous games, which seemed to have a steep learning curve for beginners. Veteran players will find that the new variables when raising a monster should keep them engaged and experimenting to find new variations among all the monster types. Players eager get their monster raising on can look for Monster Rancher 3 this month.

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