The Pokémon franchise carries a stigma about it like a benign tumor. Many older gamers enjoy the turn-based RPG as a guilty pleasure, ranging from the Game Boy Color days of Pokémon Red to the recent DS iterations of Pokémon Diamond or White. Yet the no-less numerous spin-offs like Mystery Dungeon fare far worse with critics for a reason. These quick cash-ins resemble a minefield of tested mechanics too detrimental for the core titles, often forsaking the same depth, detail, or engrossing universe. Finally, however, the basic premise of capturing kid-friendly monsters and devising battle strategies returns in Pokémon Conquest, much to the jubilation of my inner 12-year-old.
Tecmo Koei's latest experiment is a crossover between two beloved role-playing games: the Nintendo-exclusive Pokémon franchise and the Japan-only series, Nobunaga's Ambition. The resulting region of Ransei would be easy to mistake for the Sengoku period of Japan, what with the intricate samurai headgear and armor adorning the anime character models, but this previously unseen territory in the Pokémon mythos stems from the influence of Nobunaga’s Ambition and its dozen sequels. In actuality, clues given throughout the story suggest the narrative happens parallel to recent Pokémon titles.
However, the game bears more analogy to a stripped down Final Fantasy: Tactics overrun with Pokémon sprites – a complaint by no means. As always, an eccentric cast of NPCs helps players familiarize themselves with the slowly expanding gameplay fundamentals. Each monster learns just one move instead of the traditional limit of four. Pokémon zealots may miss Pikachu mastering the more powerful Thunderbolt over Thundershock, but the differences are negligible. Even your character’s protective armor transforms at predestined intervals, though you never physically take part in combat. These changes grant better trainer abilities, such as increased damage and accuracy to your Pokémon, but more on that in a moment.
Great, I'm being laughed at by a dude wearing a mask and carrying a fan.
The plot centers around main antagonist Nobunaga, a caricature of Oda Nobunaga that ignited the fires of Japanese unification in the late 1500s. His virtual doppelganger seeks a similar goal: world domination, pending release of an ancient Pokémon capable of enslaving all free trainers (called Warlords) and Pokémon. Of course, you must halt that objective, and to do so, you must conquer the 17 divided kingdoms of Ransei (also the number of Pokémon types) by defeating each castle’s Warlords/Warlord Leader in battle. Many of the Leaders also bear the namesake of their real-life inspirations, like Takeda Shingen and Tokugawa Ieyasu, a small but fine inclusion given my vested interest in samurai era history.
Your conquest, however, feigns urgency. My faithful sidekick Oichi hurried me to merge the other nations for the good of Ransei, but 30 turns later, I continued to develop my army’s strength while my opponents rested on their hindquarters. Not once, even approaching the endgame, did a rival castle retaliate or besiege my kingdoms unless scripted, but my exceptionally rounded team of Fire, Ice, Electric, and Rock Pokémon guaranteed victory over opponents foolishly built around one type, like Water or Grass.
Meanwhile, battles occur on three-dimensional grids as Pokémon navigate the fields, their movement radius restricted to a certain number of spaces per turn, while searching for an opportune window of assault. Also, Warlord arenas sport a different theme characteristic of their Pokémon specialty. The battlefields of Ignis, for example, blaze with pools of lava, while a ninja dojo decorated with trap doors houses the Leader of Viperia. Simple, yes, but Pokémon Conquest shares the more tactical qualities of chess. Do you sacrifice a near-fainted pawn to ensure a super-effective attack next turn? Do you suffer the loss of a more valuable piece if it means whittling down a stronger Pokémon's health? Just boxing an adversary in a map's corner, knowing they had no means of escaping the ensuing bedlam, always brought a smug grin to my face.
The visuals are more impressive when compressed on a three-inch touchscreen.
In accordance with Pokémon tradition, Pokémon grow at a faster rate fighting other Warlords instead of the myriad creatures inhabiting Ransei's practice farms. The mid-game grinding on Ransei's feral Pokémon does come in full swing – not a drawback to franchise veterans, but a possible deal breaker for those seeking battle after endless battle. As Pokémon become stronger, they evolve in the typical fashion, and their moves change as well. Whereas Charmander's Ember requires one block between its opponent before casting, Charmeleon's Fire Fang requires it to be directly adjacent to its target. Area of effect moves can injure friendlies too, another layer of calculations to consider when baiting the AI into an ambush.
Still, Pokémon do not level up in the classic sense during your conquest. Rather, using Pokémon more frequently improves the link to their trainers, and raising the link percentage increases the attack and defense stats of the respectful Pokémon. While the total list of acquirable monsters is nowhere near the 400-plus mark introduced after Black and White, Pokémon Conquest allows players to capture a blend of recognizable faces from every generation, like Pikachu, Meowth, Snivy, and Tepig.
But just as linking Pokémon remains critical to the “war” effort, so too does recruiting neutral Warlords. Defeating a stray trainer's Pokémon within four turns, with a super-effective attack, or without taking damage allows you to enlist those frienemies for your army. Likewise, Warlord abilities put a refreshing twist on the formula. Once during a duel, you can activate a trainer’s power to boost victory chances. Abilities may heal injured Pokémon, cure them of status ailments, multiply the damage they inflict for one turn, increase their number of movable spaces, etc. Not only must you analyze Pokémon for their strengths and weaknesses, but you must scrutinize their respective owners. Kingdoms support no more than six Warlords, though, so it's best to situate newer soldiers in castles where their Pokémon partners are strongest until the time arrives to call forth their collective aid.
If there's one addition Pokémon Conquest could use, it's online multiplayer.
After several conquered kingdoms in the bag, the option to catch and link other Pokémon through a brief rhythm sequence becomes available. Rather than take Eevee into a fight against the Leader of Fighting Pokémon (Normal-types being weak to Fighting ones), I chose to swap him out for the Flying Pokémon, Staravia. However, the wild Pokémon captured appeared far weaker than the Eevee I spent four hours leveling. Grinding a Pokémon to the same percentage link would take double that.
But when not leading the charge on the battlefield, the overworld plays like an RTS where you appoint troops to rule the kingdoms you hold. Time passes in increments of one month, with every trainer limited to one turn. Players delegate their allies to train on farms, search for neutral Warlords, mine caverns for gold, or visit the ponigiri shop for a quick Pokémon Energy boost. Why characters can only shop for potions and equipment once a month is beyond my critical thinking, but who am I to question such design choices when the anime's main character has yet to age in 15 years?
The developers at Tecmo Koei made the previously impossible possible: releasing a worthy Pokémon spin-off. Filling the Gallery (Pokédex) and linking every Pokémon within Ransei's borders contains the alluring “gotta catch’em all” incentive synonymous with the core releases, supplementing an already lengthy campaign. But there’s no Poké Ball throwing or “Eevee, I choose you!” in this dimension. Navigating the 3D battlefields like a virtual round of chess left me with the impact that my decisions, not luck, mattered. While the challenge falls short of other turn-based strategy titles like Fantasy Fantasy: Tactics, the easy to pick up and grasp gameplay assures novices and veterans alike can share in the good times that have yet to outgrow the hallowed franchise.
Publishers: Nintendo; The Pokémon Company
Developer: Tecmo Koei
Release Date: June 19, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Local Multiplayer)
Platform: Nintendo DS (Reviewed)