Reviews

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia

Surely, after almost four years of the DS being on the market, even the big N must realise that drawing circles on the screen is only fun, like, maybe twice?


Publisher: Nintendo
Genres: RPG, Multimedia
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Nintendo
US release date: 2008-11-10
Website
Amazon
Developer website

Nintendo is an odd company, which likes to give out odd messages. For instance, they happily advertise two-to-three year old Wii and DS games in the run up to the holiday season, while ignoring recent worthy third-party efforts and even their own games (see Disaster: Day Of Crisis). They alienate the hardcore base with tosh like Wii Music and yet they severely understock their big DS hope for the year in Europe, Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Hell, they've even managed to anger Greenpeace!

These are changing times, and Nintendo is certainly a different company from the one they were just three years ago. But for the last ten years or so, they've always had one thing that has remained absolutely steadfast in this crazy old world of ours: Pokémon.

This is Nintendo's gold mine, where every new release costs them about as much as my lunch money does, yet is guaranteed to make enough revenue to completely rebuild both Afghanistan and Iraq ten times over. It's a franchise that got them through the dark days of the N64 and GameCube era, amassing an army of the devoted.

Firstly, though, if you're a Pokémon fan than this review is useless to you, because chances are that you've already bought a few dozen copies of this game. If you're not a fan, then I actually doubt that you've even bothered clicking on the link provided, so yes, this review is also useless to you. Thanks a lot, Nintendo, for making me feel utterly redundant.

The concept here is pretty much the same as in any of the other Pokémon spin-offs. But for those that have actually bothered to check this article out (thanks for the hit mum!) the idea is simple.

You're a ranger -- a school boy ranger of course (a JRPG is not a JRPG unless your avatar hasn't hit puberty) -- and you get to choose between being a boy ranger or a girl ranger, whose job it is to rescue the little buggers, as opposed to capturing them to do battle (which was surely part of the appeal of Pokémon in the first place, despite overtones of animal cruelty). Along the way you can also aid or save endangered Pokémon, and once you're done with them, kick them out and get newer, better ones.

It's all very cruel, and I'm not really sure what message Nintendo is trying to convey to the little 'uns, but as a grownup it seems to me like they're saying "hey kiddies, ignore all that crap about how a mutt isn't just for Christmas."

Capturing the Pokémon involves drawing loops around them, via the use of a stylus, which supposedly makes the Pokémon experience feelings of happiness and friendship. Every loop drawn fills up a capture meter, and once said meter is full, the Pokémon is now your "friend", to use as you see fit.

Surely, after almost four years of the DS being on the market, even the big N must realise that drawing circles on the screen is only fun, like, maybe twice? If the company that invented the DS can only muster a touchscreen technique this simple in one of their premiere franchises what kind of message does that give out to everyone else?

Why shouldn't we just beat the little things to a pulp, I mean once we've captured them we hardly treat them accordingly do we? Let's not convey messages of friendship and love when in actuality our intentions towards the Pokémon are far worse than I'm actually allowed to write here.

Accompanying you like a fly sticks to shit is a companion Pokémon -- there are 17 to choose from in total, you earn more as you progress, with the ability to swap around as much as you like. Each has their own elemental power, so if there's any particular attack that fits your fighting style there's bound to be a Pokémon for you. This adds a nice bit of strategy, and more importantly variety, in between all the awesome circle drawing.

However, you as the ranger have competition in the let's see how awfully we can treat the Pokémon stakes. The dastardly Team Dim Sun have been placing mysterious machines all over the region, hypnotizing feral Pokémon and making them behave all strange-like. I'm guessing this is because because Team Dim Sun finds it funny to see innocent animals behave like beasts, because the story sure as hell didn't give me a better reason.

It's your job to beat the living daylights out of them using your gimps and showing them that there's only one Pokémon pimp in town. There is a new addition in the form of side quests, where you chat with distressed townsfolk, eradicate the cause of that stress, and earn new Pokémon. The problem here is that the side quests are nearly identical to your main objectives, which again does nothing to break the cycle of repetition, nor motivate you to actually attempt them.

And let's not forget to mention the seemingly never-ending tutorial that went on for so long that I genuinely feared that I'd miss the opening of 2012 Olympic Games. Not only is it inescapable, but it also neglects experienced Pokémon players who already know the ins and outs of the series and just want to get on with it.

The biggest problem facing Almia (aside from being void of any entertainment) is that it was actually released two years ago (not literally), but the changes from its predecessor are so incremental that the term 'palette swap' is the only way to describe it.

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is just one big confusing mess. It clearly exists as fan service yet ignores its following and makes no effort to thank its groupies for years of devotion. It has an unnecessarilyy massive marketing blitz behind it, which has come about at the cost of other, more worthy games. It hogs shelf space in stores, where one would hope to see a certain professor. It does nothing worthy of credit to justify its existence, yet it feels omnipresent. Much like Wii Music, it'll sell loads, yet is completely unworthy of commercial success or your attention. In short, avoid it like a raging, anthrax breathing, nuke-toting dragon on steroids.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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