It’s one of those bizarre mixes that sounded too completely off-the-wall to be anything but real – a crossover between Nintendo’s wildly successful Pokémon franchise and Koei’s lesser known (in the west, at least) feudal-era grand strategy game Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s certainly one of the more out-there Pokémon spinoff concepts, but with a series that’s seen everything from digital photo safaris to pinball, what’s the harm in throwing a strategy-RPG into the mix?
What was perhaps even more shocking was that the Tecmo Koei-developed title actually saw a release outside of Japan. Rebranded Pokémon Conquest, the game takes the trappings of the Pokémon universe we’re all familiar with and combines it with a hefty dose of strategy, throwing in some stylized versions of historical Japanese figures for good measure.
Is this hybrid a great big mess, or is this the best combination since peanut butter and chocolate? Hit the break to find out.
Pokémon Conquest takes place in the Ransei region, a land where feudal lords rule various kingdoms from elaborate castles, completely unsullied by such modern day technologies as PCs and Pokéballs. Instead, trainers in this land are dubbed “warriors,” due to their ability to emotionally “link” with a Pokémon and command it in combat. As the newest warlord in the region, it’s up to you to rally warriors to your cause and unite the disparate kingdoms in order to call forth a legendary Pokémon, all before the sinister Nobunaga can do the same.
Rather than exploring Ransei directly like in a traditional Pokémon game, you’ll interact with it from a world map view. The region is divided into seventeen kingdoms, each one themed after one of the various Pokémon elemental types. This overarching gameplay segment plays out like a traditional turn-based strategy game – players familiar with games like Civilization will immediately feel right at home.
During your turn, you can direct the various warriors under your command to perform one action each, before ending your turn and giving enemy factions a chance to act. These actions can be everything from exploring the wilderness in a given kingdom to launching an assault on a neighboring territory. As such, this segment is largely menu based, and the game does a good job of making sure you have ready access to the information you need – relevant statistics and data are usually just a button press or two away. This is especially true when comparing relative army strengths, as handy numerical evaluations of the warriors of you and your enemies simplifies the process of assessing matchups.
Of course, rather than raising a “traditional” army as you would in a strategy game, you’ll bolster your ranks by recruiting warriors and having them raise Pokémon. Each warrior can capture a certain number of the creatures to do battle with, though they can only ever use one at a time. The traditional RPG elements of leveling up and raising the stats of Pokémon is still very much intact, though experience points have been dropped in favor of a percentage “link” value that represents the bond between a Pokémon and its warrior – the higher the number, the higher a Pokémon’s stats.
Adding a new layer of depth to the system, however, is the fact that warriors themselves also have their own statistics. Not only do these stats modify those of their Pokémon, but they are also useful in a number of non-combat actions, such as mining for gold or getting discounts while purchasing equipment. In addition, warriors specialize in different Pokémon types, and the maximum link they can achieve varies from Pokémon to Pokémon. Finding the “perfect” fit between a warrior and Pokémon becomes a fun and rewarding challenge that fits right into the series’ addictive “gotta catch ‘em all” nature.
And how exactly do you raise all these Pokémon you catch? Why, with battles, naturally! When combat is initiated, be it by exploring a kingdom you control or through invasion between nations, the game switches to an isometric, gridded playing field. Here, the gameplay very much resembles a tactical skirmish game like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem – each side takes turns moving their Pokémon like chess pieces, launching attacks until one side is defeated.
The fusion of a tactical RPG with Pokémon mechanics works out beautifully. Each Pokémon has access to one signature move, and the variety of attacks between combatants is quite plentiful. Some utilize long-range maneuvers that can hit from several spaces away, while others have short-range melee attacks. Additionally, each Pokémon has an ability that will trigger under certain circumstances or grant some passive benefits, such as the ability to levitate or immediately take another turn when they score a KO. And if that wasn’t enough, each warrior has a special skill they can activate once per battle, granting a boost to their Pokémon and occasionally its allies.
Compounding this is the fully-fledged type system that Pokémon aficionados have memorized over the many years, and it works just as you remember it. Pokémon have the same types, weaknesses, and resistances that they do in the main series, and damage works exactly as you would expect it to. Paying careful attention to types can make or break a battle – you may have a frightening army of ground-type Pokémon, but that won’t do you a whole lot of good against a force stacked with flyers.
The game features just shy of 200 Pokémon available to capture, train, evolve, and battle with, each bringing its own unique strengths to the table. Battles themselves are six-on-six affairs at maximum, but this number varies based on how many warriors are present during a given engagement. It is a little disappointing that Pokémon only have one move available to them for use in combat, but given the fact that you’ll be fielding a wide variety of critters throughout your empire as it grows, you’ll rarely find that the limitation makes your battles grow dull.
One of the surprising strengths of this combat system is the enormous variety of battlefields, each with a number of nuances and interactive elements. These combat areas are adorned with hazards like water and lava that restrict movement… except for certain Pokémon types. For instance, water-types are able to easily surf through water, fire-types can move unhindered through lava, ice-types don’t have their movement restricted in cold environments, and so on. It’s a great element that forces you to think twice about which Pokémon you deploy on a given battlefield.
This goes doubly so when assaulting or defending one of the game’s castles. Each one is designed after a specific Pokémon type, and they typically feature mechanics that assist a clever defender in protecting his or her keep. For instance, the rock castle features boulders which can be rolled down slopes at poorly-positioned invaders, while the ninja-themed poison kingdom contains trap doors that can aid in mobility. These additions do a great job of mixing things up and ensuring that these pivotal battles amount to more than just a back-and-forth slugfest.
Pokémon Conquest’s “main” campaign can be completed in about fifteen hours or so. That might seem a little disappointing, until you realize that this campaign is little more than an elaborate tutorial compared to what else the game has to offer. After the credits roll, you are allowed to select from one of several alternate scenarios, letting you play as storyline characters you ran into earlier. These scenarios are much more open and far less linear than the storyline and task you with a wide range of scenarios, from conquering a certain number of kingdoms to collecting a set number of Pokémon. The full suite of strategy options also become available as well, letting you invest resources into your kingdom to develop and unlock new areas. These scenarios also often feature multiple enemy factions like a true grand strategy game, tasking you with balancing the growth of your own empire against that of your rivals.
Though Pokémon link levels are reset when a new scenario starts, warriors you’ve used before do get to keep any new Pokémon they’ve captured in previous scenarios, giving a certain sense of progression to the game overall. In addition, using a warrior or Pokémon in battle adds them to a “gallery,” which serves as a sort of Pokédex that records their information, as well as saving your highest achieved link ratio for use in the game’s multiplayer mode. All in all, there are over thirty of these alternate scenarios to unlock, giving Pokémon Conquest an absurd amount of replay value.
Sadly, Pokémon Conquest’s multiplayer offerings are unfortunately limited. While you can engage in battles locally with a friend, there is a distinct lack of any sort of any online multiplayer mode whatsoever. Considering that the main Pokémon series has featured online play since its first incarnation on the DS, its absence here really sticks out. The game does support additional content downloads as Nintendo releases them over time, but it really would have been nice to throw down in tactical Pokémon battles online.
Visually, Pokémon Conquest is passable. The overworld strategy segments are very nice, featuring some great character design and an attractive, intuitive UI. Battlefields themselves are depicted well, and can be rotated freely to get alternate views of the action. The Pokémon themselves, however, have fairly tiny sprites that really don’t give their designs proper justice. The game’s score features an infusion of traditional Japanese instruments to suit the setting and is generally pleasant if a bit lacking as far as stand-out tracks are concerned. The sound design, however, is a little lackluster. Strong attacks tend to lack a bit of aural panache, with the satisfying sound effects that denote a “super effective” strike in the main Pokémon series entirely absent.
Presentation and multiplayer disappointments aside, there is a lot to love about how the fusion of collectible monsters and grand strategy turned out. Pokémon Conquest stands out as one of the deepest and most rewarding spin-offs of the Pokémon franchise to date, taking the addictive charm the series is known for and giving it a welcome twist with the introduction of a real, fully-featured strategy game, topping it off with an enormous amount of content that has the potential to entertain for hundreds of hours.
If you have a soft spot for Pokémon or are itching for a portable turn-based strategy fix, give Pokémon Conquest a try. It’s the crossover that’s just so crazy, it works.
Pokémon Conquest was released on June 18th, 2012 for the Nintendo DS.