This article is part of a series. Last week, I introduced the Monster Rancher series, and discussed the first two games, which came out for the PSX. For Part 2, I will reveal the next three console games in the main part of the series, which came out for the Playstation 2.
Monster Rancher 3
The third installment of the Monster Rancher series brought the game to the next generation of consoles, bringing it back from the realm of hand held systems it had started to appear on and stepping up from the Play Station. It was bright, it was fresh, and it was colorful. For fans of the series, it was also a departure from the previous games.
For a working formula in the franchise, the first two games had always had that fun mad scientist crossbreeding section at the laboratory, along with being able to freeze monsters you got off of discs for later. The departure came from monster subtypes – the main monster families were altered from the last game, cutting out some of the more obscure ones while putting in some new ones. The families themselves tended to be a lot more… cutesey, let’s say. Not that it’s necessarily bad (I was a fan of the Gitans, for example), but it was certainly a change. What was more odd was their choice to take out the subtypes based on other monster families.
Now, the game determined the subtype based on the environment they were born to. There are different spaces that your ranch comprises of, which I think are best described as training camps. Some examples are jungle terrain, or desert terrain, and each one allows you to train in different stats, but different camps have different styles of training and specialty stats that you can train the monsters in.
Train in one of these areas for long enough, and your monster undergoes a fundamental change; rather than nature, the game goes for nurture. It’s not evolution that sets the tone for your monsters, but rather the environment that they’re raised in. Raised in a jungle setting? Your monster is a lot more likely to turn green and gain some flowers growing out of random spots on their body to help them blend in better with their surroundings.
Being able to move around to different ranches to train your monsters was actually pretty neat, and I applaud them for their efforts. What really was an improvement for this game was the ability to unlock monsters not just off of CDs, but off of DVDs, a monster book and other save states. I believe the idea behind this was if your friend raised a cool monster you liked in a region you enjoyed, you’d be able to use their memory card to spawn a new monster, which was neat. What was even neater was the Monster Book, which saved monsters you acquired so that you could get them again later. Really enjoyed raising that Suezo in the desert region a few monsters back? Rather than trying to find the piece of media it came off of, you can just go back through your book and spawn him again.
The graphics for this one were much more cartoonish and rounded, with bold outlines and anime-style artwork. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it really reinforced the kind of cutesy feel they were going for. Some of the monsters that had previously been flavored in a particular fashion, such as the Golem family, were done over. No longer did the golem look almost Egyptian with a humanoid face and squared beard, but it now had two small holes in a rounded head. This was remedied later, much as some of the other changes, but it’s an example of the kinds of things that happened.
I felt like the game was an attempt at innovation that lost the spirit of the game. They tried to tack in more story, and tried a different tactic (i.e., you’re an assistant this time around), but overall it didn’t make the game feel much better. It was still enjoyable, and some of the things they added were quality of life improvements, but it just didn’t stand out as a great title in the lineup.
Monster Rancher 4
If Monster Rancher 3 felt like they tried to step forward and shuffled off to the side, Monster Rancher 4 takes it’s place as a strong leap forward. The installment is much more in line with the first two games, keeping the better innovations while making new ones and pushing forward, feeling like a true sequel rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
A major difference in this one over the previous games is the storyline. You aren’t just “player insert name” – you play as Phayne, an actual main character with motivations beyond wanting to be the best breeder in town. You’ve stowed away on a ferry ship with a saucer stone in your pack which contains your first monster. This is actually another interesting point – this is the first of the games that force you to start with a pre-determined monster. Phayne’s hope is to become a Monster Breeder, and he gets that wish when he arrives, assisted by Rio, the now fourth assistant presented to us in the series.
You consistently meet other breeders at battles who you either make friends with and have friendly battles, or enter into bitter rivalries with. The story isn’t terribly complicated, but it expands a bit more on the previous ones, giving the game a bit more glam in that department. After a certain point, you’re even given a boat, which allows you to travel to other places, which opens up not only more battles on other continents, but new areas to explore, which adds an entirely new aspect to the game – an expedition mode that is more intuitive and yet more fulfilling than the previous ones, each giving more to the plotline as you finish it up.
Monsters can now gain different traits as they are being trained, or while they are on adventures, or during battles. They gain adventure XP which helps them to level up these abilities. Some abilities are more helpful for adventures, others for battle, but it’s up to you to balance your monsters. You may have some that you raise more for exploration, and others you focus on solely for battle.
When you reach a certain point, you discover that your monster is ‘feeling lonely’. The solution is to expand your ranch, and allow you to raise more monsters at a time. Things are getting a bit more complex from the original gameplay now that you have access to a monster book, and can spawn monsters off of DVDs, you also get to raise more than one monster at a time. Raising multiple monsters is like a strange game of logistical juggling. You can plan out the schedules of all of your monsters for some time, including which equipment on your ranch they will consistently use, what battles they will go to, and when they will go exploring.
Your ranch can now be expanded and altered with different training equipment. It adds a whole new element of depth to plan out your ideal and perfect ranch, adding yet another layer to this game. On top of the improvements on the ranch and to exploration, the battle system has been improved. You can make an attack more damaging or more accurate (or of course, just use the base attack) by pressing a different button during battle. In addition, you can counter attack if you guess what kind of attack the enemy made, making the battles more harrowing and strategic than just frantically pressing the X button when you are close enough to your enemy.
Sadly, they took away the ability to freeze monsters that you could revive later. If you freeze a monster, it will be for good; the monster is now going to be left as genetic material to combine for later to create a new monster.
Monster Rancher 4 seems to have fallen by the wayside for fans of the series, but I found it to be the strongest entry on the Playstation 2 by far. Graphically the game has lost a bit of it’s kawaii luster, though it did keep the anime stylings. It attempts to bring in more storyline without taking itself too seriously, and yet manages to do a bang-up job by making things streamlined. It was an interesting choice to take away the player and introduce a main character, but the gameplay and other improvements outshine that by far.
Monster Rancher Evo
With how good Monster Rancher 4 was, I was extremely hopeful to finally start playing Monster Rancher Evo. The fifth installment of the Monster Rancher series had been described to me as a departure from the others, but I wasn’t quite sure how far it moved away from things until I started to play it myself.
To start with, there is way more storyline to this game than the others. It plays much more as an RPG than the previous titles in the series, and you should be ready to run around as the main character, Julio, talking to NPCs if you want to further the plot and make things happen.
The storyline of this game dominates the gameplay. You are thrust into the role of Julio, a circus performer who wants nothing more than to be a proper and legitimate world class monster breeder. After a performance one day, the monster he had been raising, an old Mocchi, ends up running away to die somewhere after bombing its performance. While beating yourself up in front of the other circus performers, a mysterious woman named Nayuta busts into the tent, shows you how she can just summon monsters off of disc stones, and forces her way into the circus business.
While traveling with the Orcoro Circus, you and the crazy band of characters you are with try to train monsters, put on performances and occasionally explore the countryside battling monsters and exploring with your monsters.
Training usually involves minigames that you, the player, need to play. As someone who enjoys minigames in arcades and many games, I can say that it got tedious quick. I understand that they were trying to make things feel more interactive, but it didn’t add to the feeling of the game when I wanted to just try and train a monster – it made training my monster into much more of a chore than it had ever been in past.
When you feel as if they’ve received enough training, you can make your monster perform. If they don’t have a high enough loyalty, your monster will rebel against you, and perform poorly. If your monster does perform well, the audience chucks money at you, which seems both strange and dangerous as far as reactions go.
The laboratory and shrine have both been replaced by Nayuta, who can both summon the monsters, reseal them into stones and to help “combine” the monsters. One interesting thing to note is that monster breeding is a bit more accurate to real life in this one, since you don’t lose the parent monsters in this game, they simply make a monster baby.
Overall, the graphics were similar to Monster Rancher 4 – that is to say, a cleaner anime style with less cartoonish aspects than the third installment. Character designs are more flamboyant, and the women are much more scantily clad in this one. The game just feels flat compared to the previous titles, and was a disappointing departure. It was the last major console title that was released, and it was not a strong finish to their games on the Playstation 2.