Monster Rancher 4
Game Info
Platform(s)
PS2
Publisher
Tecmo
Developer
Tecmo
Genre
Strategy/RPG
Official Website
ESRB Rating
Everyone
 
Grade
The Good

• Unique technology use
• Huge variety of monsters
• Greater variety of attacks
• More developed story and adventuring aspects

The Bad

• "Cutesy" look may turn off some
• Detailed game requires investment
• Addicting!

 
Grade
A

Gameplay: Normally you would start off reviewing a game like this by saying "it's not for everyone, but…", but I'm not going to. This game is for everyone. This series has historically been something of a niche genre with Pokemon, Digimon, and the like. With this entry in the series, I believe it's evolved to the point where any gamer should find some amusement. The question is, is this a game that would just be entertaining to toy with, or do you want to fall into the trap of investing serious time in the game? Because, man, this is an addictive time-sucker like no other. You can sit down to play for just half an hour and next thing you know the day is gone. You'll make excuses the whole time, saying you can push back or reschedule your planned activities: "I'm just gonna play a little while longer…I just need to do one more thing." Whew. Brutal. Months of your life could be wasted.

Why is this game so addictive? Well, it has strategy elements, it has role-playing elements, but mostly it's about investing time into building something up and watching it succeed. Could be a car, a city, a sports team. There's that element in most role-playing games and many other games of getting invested in the growth. Here they give you an amazing variety of hundreds of monsters to choose from. You're a breeder. You start with one monster, which is assigned to you, and is the same for every player. You learn the basics with this first monster. But you gain the ability to care for up to five monsters at a time as you progress through the game. Each monster has a primary species and a secondary breed, and these classes cross and interact to create dozens of variations for each monster, each with their own quirks and specialties. There are a variety of ways to breed monsters within the game, but the primary method (and the one you'll be using first) is to generate them from the information locked in 'saucer stones'. These relics from the ancients hold many secrets. For those unfamiliar with the series, this means putting a cd, dvd or game disc into your PS2, which reads the disc and generates a monster based off that information. Certain discs generate special monsters unique to that disc, such as a spinning disc monster from Rygar, or certain Tecmo characters.

Once you have your monster, you take him or her back to the ranch (duh). Here you raise your monster and train him for competition with other monsters. Monsters are ranked based on matches won, like in boxing. If you wanna be the champ, you have to build up cred, then move on to tournament fights to increase your rank. Winning matches with monsters increases your fame as a breeder, which opens up doors to go compete in more illustrious locales, among other options. Raising your monster means everything from naming and feeding it, to scheduling rest and praising or scolding it. How you raise your monster affects its bond with you, which affects it's responsiveness to your commands in combat. The monster itself has different stats ranging from Life to Intelligence, each affecting different abilities. You raise these stats through specific training. You have to go old school with push-ups and shadowboxing at the beginning, but you can purchase training gadgets to help you on your way later.

The battles themselves have evolved considerably from the previous games. You have a variety of attacks dependent on the exact species and breed of your monster. They vary in whether they do more damage, or are highly accurate, or sap the willpower of the opponent, or even cause status effects. The attacks are only good at certain ranges (short, medium, or long) and you have a range meter which determines which attacks can be used depending on the distance to the opponent. Some monsters may be geared towards up-close power attacks, others may have distant accurate attacks. There are plenty of varieties. Attacks may also have elemental properties to them, and monsters may have affinities towards an element. You gain additional (usually better) attacks through adventuring (described below) and assign these attacks as you wish. You can have several attacks in each range, and you scroll through them on slot-type reels in battle. All this combines to create battles which can be highly strategic, involving the way you give commands as well as reacting to monsters' strengths and weaknesses. It's always good to check out the competition right before a battle and plan a strategy.

Additionally, you've got a ranch to run and a budget to keep. As you gain fame, you can expand the ranch to house more monsters and provide room for more gadgets. All this costs money as well, which you get through winning competitions. See the cycle here? Raise monsters to win competitions to get fame and money to open more options to raise more and better monsters to win bigger competitions and so on and so forth. Maybe it sounds pointless and repetitive, but it's very enjoyable, and this cyclical gameplay proves very addicting. On top of that, this entry in the series provides more story and personality than previous incarnations. Your main character has a back story that's slightly dark, and the surrounding characters aren't all sunshine and lollipops. In short order, this title gets you caring about the characters much more than in a FPS or action/adventure title.

Other gameplay details include an adventure mode. You determine a schedule of training or rest during the week, but on the weekends you can go adventure. The locales open to you differ as you progress in the game, but these are dungeon-like areas comprised of multiple floors. You travel through the levels fighting rogue monsters and gaining experience and abilities for the (up to 3) monsters you brought with you. These abilities include species specific exploratory abilities such as swimming or digging, which help you look for items in the dungeons. Items consist primarily of food or toys, which you can give to the monsters to lower their stress levels (helping them focus more on training). Dungeons even have boss characters, which can be beastly, and will require you to use your ability to use team-up attacks and switch-out the monsters you've brought into battle in the dungeon.

Graphics: The look of this Monster Rancher is still marketed a bit towards kids, but less so than in the past. It's dropped the cell-shaded look and moved to a more anime feel. The character designs are pretty cool, and the variety of monsters includes cute, fierce, bizarre, and deadly. Battles are animated well, with some cool attacks and flashy effects, but they're not going to compare to FFX-2. Graphics on this kind of game aren't generally going to be the big selling point, but they definitely don't hurt anything here.

Sound: There's not really a lot of voice-acting in this game, which could be a plus or minus depending on your point of view. Story is told mostly through cut scenes using text and static anime renderings at certain points in the game. This doesn't really detract from the story much, as the characters have a lot of animations for different expressions and emotions. Sound effects are decent…not bad, not inspiring. Some of the monster's special attacks have some cool sounds to go with them. The music tends to be a little shiny and happy for me, but it's not annoying to the point of wanting to turn down the volume.

Control: This is mostly a menu-based game. On that note, negotiating the menus can be a bit tricky at first. There are a lot of menus, most of them reached through only a few headings. This amounts to a lot of trekking back and forth through menus checking stats and stuff when you're trying to set up training/fighting/adventuring schedules. It's not poorly done, it just could've been made more convenient. You do have direct control of your monster on two occasions: in battle, and while adventuring. In battle, you have to manipulate the range between yourself and your opponent. Ostensibly, you (the trainer) are shouting commands to the monster (controlled by you with the analog stick). When you're at the right range, you attack by pressing a different button for a normal, quick, or strong version of that move. If your bond is low, or you're not precise with the commands, or the monster has certain status inflicted on it, then it'll wander unresponsively for a moment. Manipulating the range to benefit you and stay away from the opposing monster's stronger attacks is crucial to battle, and it's implemented pretty well here. There are even moves to spring forwards or backwards, and to push your opponent back if he's crowding you. While adventuring, the battles control the same, with the exception of being able to have a buddy monster jump in to follow up your attack with his own at certain points. Walking around the dungeons is accomplished easily enough. You move your character with one stick while manipulating the camera with the other to provide the best view. You can examine curious objects or locales in the dungeon if they have an icon above them when you get next to them, although you may not have the skills necessary depending on the monsters you've brought. Adventuring can be a little monotonous (as dungeons in RPGs can be) but random encounters aren't too bad, they're essential, and you can speed up the traveling by bringing a monster with you with the ability to carry you so you can go faster.

Final Verdict: Monster Rancher 4 fine tunes and evolves the series in a direction that maintains the series initial appeal while expanding it to offer something for more adult players and even casual fans of the series. Everyone should at least enjoy this as a rental…just be aware you'll get out of it what you put in. You can get into the game fairly quickly, but the real rewards come from investing time in the exploration and monster-developing aspects of the game.

- - Jeff Light

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