Monster Rancher 4 (PS2)
Expelled from his school and without a family or home to return to, young Phayne stows away on a ship to put his past behind him only to find himself the newest keeper of a monster ranch. He's shown the ropes by a veteran of the combat arena and his daughter who has a special gift that allows her to speak to monsters. Phayne must befriend, train, and strengthen his monster companions in order to compete with the other ranchers of the country and make a living for himself.
Single player RPG
Two player VS mode
Monster Hunter 4 is not a quick game. It could take upwards of 60 hours to tame monsters strong enough to get you to the S cup, but it could easily take two to three times that long to actually defeat the S cup. That doesn't include all the time it takes to accomplish all the side quests and completing the monster book.
August 14, 2003
Rating: E for Everyone
Price: Try your luck
I was just moving to the mid-point of my high school career when I finally obtained a PlayStation 2 for my birthday. I started with a pretty modest collection of games, most of them RPGs, and started to rummage through the discount bins whenever I could save up enough to do so. One day during winter break, my sister and I slipped away to the mall and found this gem in the used section of our local GameStop. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Pokemon franchise, but I wasn’t in the crowd of monster training purists. Rather, I was an avid fan of Digimon, Monster Rancher, and anything else that involved digital pets. Heck, I was even one of those dorks with several GigaPets hanging from my belt. We scooped up the game and spent the better part of that winter playing the heck out of it.
While far from Pokemon, there are a lot of similar elements in Monster Rancher that made it familiar enough to pick up without needing time to adjust to a new system. It had a decent story, interesting mechanics in and out of combat, you had to spend time with your monsters, and the methods of obtaining said monsters were very unique. Rather than running around in-game and having to catch beasties out of the wild, one of the ways you could obtain monsters was by inserting different CDs and DVDs into the system and having the game scan them. My sister and I combed through our entire DVD library trying to find rare beasts for our ranch. You were also able to combine monsters to create entirely new monsters and the possibilities were seemingly endless. Sadly, the game never seemed to gain much of a following. I feel like the monster-training group missed out big time on this title. Has it held up?
Spirituality is barely a side note in the world of Monster Rancher.
This is a game that essentially revolves around fighting monsters in staked matches for entertainment. The matches are very short so it’s unlikely that a monster will be knocked out unless they’re extremely weak or met with a powerful blow from a high-level opponent. That said, the actual fighting is exceedingly tame. The monsters lunge at each other and bounce back when they take damage. When they’re knocked out, they fall over—the end. There’s no blood, no bruising, none of that.
Aside from that, the monsters can die if they are neglected or they grow old.
There’s none to speak of.
While this game got an E rating, there is one class of monster that bears mentioning. The Pixies resemble women wearing nothing but their unders…which is just conveniently placed body hair. They have bare midriffs, ample cleavage, and exposed rumps. It’s not horrible, but it could be seen as inappropriate for the littles. There’s an NPC or two with the same…erm…manner of dress but all the no-no’s are covered up.
There’s nothing to mention.
Monster rancher is largely about responsibility, hard work, and friendship. Your main character doesn’t exactly start out on the right side of the tracks but he finds himself in charge of a monster ranch and the lives of the beasts within it. In order to remain successful, he has to produce an income to sustain the facility. To turn a profit, he has to win monster matches. In order to do that he has to provide care, training, and discipline to the monsters that he obtains. The monsters don’t just shoot up through the ranks by grinding either; they have to spend time honing their talents in the form of daily training regimen such as reading or jogging. They’ll perform better if they’ve been cared for, both physically and emotionally. Even their lifespans essentially boil down to how well they’ve been looked after. They can grow stressed if they aren’t fed foods that they enjoy or if they aren’t given the proper care. They’ll also grow defiant if they aren’t reprimanded from time to time. As simple of a narrative as it is, having a character with his own difficulty with responsibility being put into the role of the responsible party is refreshing. He has to learn to curb his own behavior by becoming the role model for wild beasts who depend on him for their very survival.
At one point in the game, you even encounter a rancher who is outright cruel to his monsters. It’s a hard topic, but one fitting enough considering the situation. It draws a contrast between the loving way that the protagonist raises his beasts and the way other monsters are living in order to gain a profit for their ranchers.
The main character of the MR4 is actually expelled from the institute of higher learning and nearly abandons his dreams. During the intro, he’s offered a chance to still become a monster tamer/breeder through experience. This, oddly enough, is an element that I can appreciate on a personal level—and a lot of folks my age can relate. Higher education is often seen as the only way to progress in the world, and if you just don’t make the cut or if funds dry up before you are able to obtain a scrap of paper that says you completed your education, it’s very easy to fall into despair. I’ve been there. However, the game shows that it’s not the only road to success. In fact, learning with your hands on your field is oftentimes rewarding and fulfilling, too. In a way, it’s a theme of encouragement not to give up when one road leads to a dead end. There’s always another way—always—and just because the road is the one less traveled, or the one filled with more pitfalls, doesn’t mean it won’t lead to a better place eventually.
The story in MR4 revolves around a young boy (canonically named Phayne) who has recently been kicked out of the Elives school (a school for monster tamers and breeders) and has decided the next logical course of action is to stow away on a ship to find a change of scenery. After being discovered and kicked out, he is introduced to an old man named Cesare, who bails him out of his predicament, and his daughter, Rio, who apparently has the rare gift of being able to communicate with monsters. Cesare’s touched by the boy’s plight and offers to let him look after a plot of land under his ownership while Rio assists him in whatever way she can. When you arrive at your ranch, a young gal by the name of Yuri literally runs up and states that she will also be your ranch assistant. It’s through Yuri that you are introduced to a brief tutorial on how to manage your ranch and how to raise monsters. It’s almost a reflection of how the majority of Harvest Moon games, but it works well enough. Phayne has no parents, no home, and after being expelled, his dreams are a tattered mess. The chance at becoming a monster tamer through experience rather than education is an opportunity that he’s hesitant to hop into at first, but he’s talked into it.
He goes to the shrine where he revives a monster through special resurrection disks—relics that contain a monster’s DNA that can be extracted through a magical device to bring a monster to life. The game assigns you your first monster, and it’s the same for everyone, but once you gain control of Phayne you are able to unlock a variety of different monsters through several means.
MR4 tries to guide you into keeping your Garu, the monster you originally resurrect, to learn the ropes. When you get control, you have a few commands that you can perform with your monster. You can look at their stats (Power, life, intelligence, accuracy, defense, and speed), their adventure level (this affects how they perform when you take them away from the ranch when you go out on adventures), their star points (which is their popularity based on how they performed in competition), the bonding level (how friendly they are with you), their focus (how willing they are to train), how tired they are, how full they are, and their status. This screen stays consistent and helps guide you in how you raise your monsters. They need to be fed, rested, trained, and bonded with before they’ll perform well in combat or on the adventure field. The game involves a lot of time management, obviously, so unlike Pokemon, your monster will not benefit from strict grinding. You can customize your monster’s skills, which they’ll gain as they level up, to help their performance in battle. Each skill has a range of attack (i.e. how close they have to stand to an opponent in order to hit them) as well as damage. Their traits are buffs to their skills (such as a buff to attacks that involve claws, etc.). Then you have the records which give you an overview of your monster’s personality. It shows their temper, size, likes, dislikes, their records, fame level, and their victories total. Finally, you have the affinity screen. This shows how your monsters relate to one another. The closer a monster is to another, the better they perform with one another in tag battles. Starting out, it’s good to keep with one monster so you can learn how to properly manage them. The more monsters you keep, the more of a juggling act it becomes to manage your monsters health, stats, and abilities but at the same time, you want a healthy variety to be more competitive, more flexible away from your ranch, and to eventually replenish your supply of monsters. Finding that healthy median is one of the main challenges of the game.
While on your ranch, you can schedule your monster’s day including their training regimen, what food they’ll be eating, when they rest, etc. You’re essentially micro-managing the lives of your creatures to make sure that they’re using their time effectively. It takes a while to get a new combat-ready monster. At the end of every training session you’ll get a training result which shows you how successful they were (from 1-100%) and it’ll show you how much of a boost they get. While your monsters are doing their thing, you are free to free-roam around your ranch and interact with them. In doing this, you are able to bond with them or leave the ranch itself to shop or explore- or you can stand by and give your monsters moral support while they’re training. If they’re doing well you can praise them to raise their affection, scold them if they’re not doing a good job in their training, or alter their schedule. For all the comparisons to Pokemon, Monster Rancher has more of a Rune Factory feel to it, except more intimate. You spend a lot of time cultivating your monsters and you depend on them as much as they rely on you.
There is a large pool of monsters, but they are confined to several smaller “families” of monsters. For example, there is the “tiger” family of monsters.Within that family there are dozens of varieties that you can obtain through fusion and by discovering them on resurrection disks. You can activate these by going to the “shrine” location on the world map. This is by far the coolest aspect of these games. As aforementioned, the MR4 has a feature that allows you to scan in other games, CD’s, and DVD’s in order to unlock monsters. Some of the monsters aren’t exactly exciting but there are rare monsters that were released onto specific titles. Some of them are actually pretty clever. For example, if you scanned the PS2 title Ape Escape 2 you would get a Pipo Ape monster. My personal favorite was the Kirin variation of the Zuum creature that you could unlock by scanning in Dynasty Warriors 4.
Another method of obtaining monsters is fusing them together. You can combine two of your monsters to create an entirely different monster that had features, strengths, and abilities from both base monsters.
Once you leave the ranch, you have the option of visiting other locations on the map or skipping to the next day. For the first few weeks, you’ll essentially be skipping days, training, feeding bonding, rinse and repeat. As your monsters themselves out more, you’ll be able to compete.
Competing is a little different than in other monster fighting games. You have 60 seconds to fight your monster against a competitor. Whoever comes out with the most HP is the victor. In the matches, you have three ranges of attack: Short, mid, and long-range. When you’re in short range, you open yourself to more attacks, but you can also deliver more powerful attacks. You can make your monster step back or forward to try to dodge. You can rotate through the panels of skills that you set up in the monster’s menu on your ranch. This is handy because it gives you flexibility to adjust to the situation that each of your opponents may present. Sometimes a valid strategy is to slap your opponent and dodge for the rest of the match; sometimes it’s more beneficial to go all out and slap the heck out of them. The better you do in matches, the more you profit and the more fame your monster and ranch will gain. As you win matches, you’ll move up in the rankings. The ultimate goal of the game is to take on and defeat the S class competitions. It takes a very long time to train one monster up, and sadly your monsters will not live long enough to move from your starting rank to the final rank.
Away from the farm you can take your monsters with you to adventure. At first, you’ll only have the Togle caves to explore, but as the game progresses more areas unlock. Some monsters are actually large enough to ride and they increase your movement speed. Other monsters have special abilities that help you move forward in dungeons. For example, some monsters can smash obstacles out of your way while others can “search” for hidden items. As one might expect, while exploring, there are random encounters with wild monsters that your monster will defend you against. You get experience points from this, so it does help your monsters in their training. It’s pretty straightforward, but it’s a nice way to break up the repetitive life on the ranch. Of course, if your monsters take damage they’ll have to rest up, and if all your monsters are knocked out, you’ll be sent back to your ranch fatigued and will need to skip to the next week to recover. Of course, the fatigue your monsters undergo through exploring does shorten their lifespan, so its advisable to rotate through your monsters rather than depending on one staple monster.
MR4 isn’t an eyesore but it’s nothing special either. The graphics have aged well enough for a PS2 game, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about the visuals outside of the monster models. The environments are pretty dull and generic and the majority of the cutscenes are still slides of the character’s official art over dialogue. It’s effective, but if you’re the sort that gets irritated by wall after wall of dialogue and exposition, his might not be a game for you. There’s not a lot of showing for exposition—most of the story and interaction is given through telling, long conversations, and piles of tutorials.
The music is also generic, though it’s never irritating. It serves its purpose in providing atmosphere but nothing is ipod worthy.
Overall, fans of Pokemon, Harvest Moon, or Rune Factory will find something to like as MR4 combines elements from them all. It can become a bit of a grind, especially mid-game where you’re too good for the lower ranks but not quite at the level of competing in the A or S class. There’s a difficulty spike between levels and by the time you finish the lower classes, your monsters are getting old and kicking the bucket, so you’re forced to start again. That said, it feels a little more organic than most other monster fighting games. The story isn’t anything outstanding, but it has its own charm. The gameplay is simple, but the mechanics make it challenging enough to keep your attention. It’s a time investment, but it’s well worth a play. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of an obscure game so the price tag won’t be cheap. Used it runs about $70 but I’ve seen it as high as $200. If you can find it, I’d recommend it.
+ Cute story line
+ RPG and life simulator elements
+ A new use for all those old CD's!
+ Familiar mechanics from other games
+ Interesting battle and training systems
+ Hundreds of monsters to unlock, combine, discover, and train
- Your monsters die...
- The combat can seem a little cluttered at times
- The game can become a bit of a grind as it goes on