When news of Pokémon Conquest’s impending release in Japan (under the name Pokémon + Nobunaga’s Ambition) hit, it seemed like it might well be the rare Nintendo franchise game that was obscure and weird enough to not warrant an international release. A quick read through of the series’ history reveals that the ‘Nobunga’s Ambition’ games aren’t often released outside of Japan, despite being quite popular there. But now that I’ve played Pokémon Conquest, the English language version of the unexpected series cross-over, I can’t help but wonder why this is the case. If this one is any indication, it’s a great series.
Pokémon Conquest casts you, bizarrely enough, as a warlord/Pokémon master. Your quest isn’t so much to catch ‘em all as it is to conquer the 17 kingdoms of Rensei during the Feudal era by committing a series of hostile takeovers. Of course, this being Nintendo’s cuddliest franchise (about slave monsters attacking each other with ridiculous elemental force), most of the characters you’ll encounter play relatively nice. You don’t so much pillage a kingdom as you do gently remind the local leaders of your superiority through Pokémon battles, at which point they’ll typically either leave the castle or bow down before you, joining your ranks.
First impressions aren’t great. The DS had already started to show its age years ago, and any new games that release on the system are now bound to initially leave a slightly sour taste in your mouth compared to what you’re likely playing on the 3DS, Vita and iPhone. And indeed, Conquest really doesn’t look all that swish, despite the pleasant static artwork in the conversation scenes pre-battle. But within about an hour or so the game mechanics start to click, and it becomes easier to move past how decrepit it initially feels. Conquest has more content than the vast majority of HD blockbusters on the market, which means you’ll soon stop noticing how few frames of animation make up each attack.
The battles in Conquest are far removed from the ones you’re used to from the Pokémon games, and way more advanced than anything I’ve seen in past Pokémon spin-offs. Conquest is a turn-based strategy game, in the same vein as Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, except that all the units are Pokémon that are owned by warriors you’ve recruited. The standard Pokémon hierarchy of effectiveness still stands for all types of Pokémon and attacks, which means that, as always, a fire attack will hurt a grass monster more, a psychic monster will take down a ghost monster faster, and so on (although each Pokémon now only has one attack, so for example a bird that can only use Quick Attack won’t do any extra damage to a bug, which is weak against flying attacks in the RPGs). If you’re not familiar with the previous Pokémon games you’re going to be at a bit of a disadvantage, unfortunately – the game does gently instruct you on which types work well against which other types, but anyone who has played the RPGs extensively knows that each monster isn’t necessarily given a binary element type. There are 200 Pokémon in here from across the whole series, so there’s bound to be one or two that you’ve forgotten. Of course, this just adds further depth to the system, if newcomers don’t mind learning the nuances.
On the battlefield you move your units around a grid, as is pretty standard for the genre, although there are some interesting twists in level-design. Conquering each kingdom means doing battle with the warlord in charge of that sector. Each warlord has a unique arena, and coming to grips with the nuances and strategies that these arenas afford is excellent fun. There are traps to avoid, shortcuts to trigger, objects to utilise as weapons, pits to push enemies into, different levels and sections to account for and use strategically – essentially your battlefields are weapons unto themselves, designed expertly so that clever players will figure out the best ways to prosper. Some battles require capturing and holding flag points rather than simply defeating all the opponents, which is actually even more exciting – controlling chokepoints and working out the effects of your opponent’s attacks becomes especially vital.
It’s hard to capture the actual depth of the system without being horribly dull and outlining each and every feature and statistic in the game, suffice to say that there’s plenty going on, including a whole system of assist moves and items that I’ve not gotten into. There is, in short, a lot to learn, but that’s not to say that the basics are particularly hard to wrap your head around. Pokémon is, after all, a franchise beloved by kids despite the scope for extreme micromanagement, and that’s going to be true of this one as well.
Having said that, the game does throw a lot of information at you in the first 90 minutes or so, and some things aren’t fully and properly explained. For example, you can ‘catch’ wild Pokémon in areas by getting your own Pokémon close to them on the field and playing a quick rhythm mini-game, but you’ll likely catch a whole bunch of them before you figure out how to actually swap which Pokémon the warrior that caught them will send into battle. You can recruit warriors to your cause, but if you forget how that’s done there’s no in-game tutorial menu to remind you, and the systems involved in delegating certain chores to each kingdom can be a little overwhelming. You’ll frequently need to move your forces around, and figuring out the exact logistics and advantages of every move soon becomes difficult.
But you’ll want to keep going, and keep striving towards getting a handle on everything. The story being told isn’t great, but the action, and the constant sense of improvement and escalation, is addictive. Once you start scoping out areas within each kingdom for new Pokémon, plying the shop system for discounts, working towards strengthening your ‘link’ with your Pokémon through constant battle (and hopefully eventually evolving them) and fighting your way towards being the top Warlord in the region, you’ll be hooked. It’s got that whole ‘play before bedtime every single night’ thing going on pretty well.
There’s multiplayer too, but unfortunately there’s no online mode (although there is a tiny smattering of free downloadable content, possibly added just so that Nintendo could slap the Wi-Fi logo on the box). It would have been well-suited to online battling, since this isn’t the sort of game where your friends are necessarily going to be on the same level as you, skills-wise. I doubt this one will take off on the tournament scene in the same way that the mainstream Pokémon RPGs have, either, so most players will likely stick with the extremely meaty single-player mode.
Pokémon Conquest is the best Pokémon spin-off I’ve played since the heady days of Pokémon Snap and Pinball, and it’s deeper than either of those games by a wide margin. It doesn’t have the desperate stench of a cash-in that all too many Pokémon games do, and for the first time in ages it feels as though the franchise is breaking new ground (even if it isn’t really – I just haven’t had a chance to play the original Japanese games it’s based on). Don’t be put off by how odd the whole thing is, because this is a damn fine strategy game, and probably one of the last truly great DS games we’re going to see.