Monster Rancher 4
We try out the U.S. version of Tecmo's venerable monster raising sim.
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Tecmo's Monster Rancher series has been surprisingly durable since its first appearance on the PlayStation in 1997. The monster-raising sim, which lets you raise creatures you generate yourself from CDs and, more recently, DVDs, has gained a devoted following that has eagerly received subsequent installments on the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and even the Game Boy Advance. We had a chance to try the US version of the latest entry in the series, Monster Rancher 4, and are pleased by what it offers. Monster Rancher 4 features the most significant changes to the Monster Rancher formula to date, but it appears to be retaining its core appeal.
Monster Rancher 4 has a more fleshed-out story than previous games in the series. Whereas the earlier entries have historically been rather light on story beyond the standard "breed best monster, become top-ranked breeder, bask in glory" formula, Monster Rancher 4's narrative is a bit more involved. You'll take the role of a young boy who's been expelled from a nearby elite monster-breeding school. Upon being discovered and ejected from your free ride, you'll be cared for by some locals who give you the chance to oversee a modest ranch. Some intrigue is injected by the presence of a quiet girl named Rio who can talk to monsters and by the appearance of a magical tree that's surprisingly chatty in the evening hours. How your relationship with the duo and your menagerie of critters evolve plays a significant role in your adventures, which do still include breeding the best monster, becoming a top-ranked breeder, and basking in glory.
The gameplay has also seen some changes that make for a decidedly different experience that in some ways is a return to the original game. One of the biggest changes is the training, which has been overhauled quite a bit. Your ranching in the game will be much more regimented. You'll be able to map out your monsters' activities for up to eight weeks into the future. This ends up being a necessary feature, since once you start to increase your breeding ranking you'll eventually be managing three critters at once, which puts a new spin on things. Another nice training feature is a return to the original game's practice of letting you build up your ranch. You'll be able to trick out your ranch by picking up items your monsters will use to train. As for how you'll be managing your ranch, activities will be broken up into weekday and weekend types. Weekdays are spent breeding and training your monsters, while weekends are reserved for traveling to other towns, participating in tournaments, and adventuring. The adventure segments are similar to the expeditions in the previous entries in the franchise, but now you'll be exploring with up to three monsters in tow. Each adventure segment will offer five levels to explore and a boss to face off against on the last level. During your exploration, you'll come across chests containing various items, and you'll engage in random battles that will reward you with extra experience for your monsters. The monsters you choose to go exploring with can often impact what you get out of the excursion--some will let you ride on them to get around more quickly, while others will be able to squeeze into areas you can't.
The tournaments in the game follow the same tiered structure as before, but the combat mechanics have been overhauled. You'll have three types of attacks, with different degrees of strength and accuracy--you'll have normal; high accuracy, low impact; and low accuracy, high impact attacks. As before, each attack will be triggered by timing your button press when a cursor is over the appropriate attack. A slick new addition is the ability to switch between three sets of attack plates. Each holds three different attacks, which gives you more options in battle. By assigning elemental affinities to the attacks, you can beef up their damage potential.
The combat has been fleshed out to include counters, which occur when you pick the same type of attack as your opponent, and friendship attacks, which are combo attacks that let two monsters perform a combo attack if they're sufficiently friendly with each other. The matches will also offer a bit more variety with the inclusion of tag-team battles. The new mechanics are complemented by a tweaked display that now includes a "history" bar that tracks which attacks you and your opponent have executed. This actually adds a bit of strategy to the matches, as you can try to find patterns in your opponent's attack history and then use that information when trying to pull off counters.
The graphics in the game are a departure from the cartoony, cel-shaded look of its predecessor on the PlayStation 2, Monster Rancher 3. You'll still find static 2D art on map screens of the town and when visiting various locations in town, as well as during the story sequences. However, the 3D graphics have undergone some tweaking. Monster Rancher 4 has a more traditional polygonal look, giving a mini makeover to the new monster designs introduced in MR3. The menagerie on hand features a bit more personality in this outing, thanks to subtle animation that wasn't as noticeable with the cel-shaded creatures in the previous game. You'll find a boatload of monsters, many of which have made appearances before in the previous games. However, Monster Rancher 4 will also feature some new additions that should be familiar to seasoned gamers.
The audio in the game stays true to the approach taken by the previous entries in the series. You'll hear plenty of music as you work your way to the top of the monster-breeding heap. The game's soundtrack contains a solid collection of tunes that mixes some variations on familiar Monster Rancher themes with all-new music tracks. Voice and sound effects are still a bit thin--you'll primarily hear samples from your monster during battles and while adventuring, but there isn't a whole lot to take in. Sound effects are a bit more varied. You'll hear subtle noises, such as footfalls during story sequences to simulate characters coming and going, and the sounds of the various attacks during battle. Purists may be a bit mortified to hear the disturbingly peppy new theme song from zit-pop group Cooler Kids. While the Japanese version of the game's theme song wasn't a modern classic either, it offered a bit more personality to the game than the bland-tastic US version.
Based on what we've played so far, Monster Rancher 4 should be the strongest entry in the series yet. The change in graphics should please those troubled by the cartoony look of Monster Rancher 3's visuals. On the gameplay side of things, the tweaks and changes to the game's formula do a fine job of keeping the franchise from getting stale as it moves into its fourth iteration. At this point the only thing left to do with the franchise is to take it online. Longtime fans of the series should appreciate the new elements of the game, while newcomers will find that the game offers an engaging and addictive experience that's worth a look. Monster Rancher 4 is currently slated to ship later this month for the PlayStation 2. For more on the menagerie of creatures in the game, check out our ongoing monster roundup.