For years we’ve not only caught them all, but snapped them all, ensnared them all and even raced them all. Pokémon has had more spinoffs than all the CSI shows combined – no small feat you might agree. The thing is that with the exception of Gamecube exclusive Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness and the Stadium/Coliseum games, none have really kept to the RPG formula. Pokémon Conquest marks two firsts; a Pokémon spinoff that is an RPG and the first collaboration between it and another developer. Tecmo Koei’s Nobunaga’s Ambition series is the basis for this Pokémon themed Tactical RPG, but was it worth injecting the popular creatures into Japanese history?
In yet another realm of the Pokémon world, namely the Ransei region, there are feuding warlords who are battling to seek control of the entire land. Legend has it a legendary Pokémon will come to the man who unites the entirety of the Ransei region under his/her banner. Pokémon Conquest puts you in the perspective of one such warlord whose main adversary in the north is Nobunaga, a man who would destroy everything given the chance. As basic a characteristic as it is, depicting Nobunaga Oda as a megalomaniac is somewhat accurate, though depictions of him as either good or evil are varied among many games/films.
Being a Pokémon game, it wouldn’t be the same if you couldn’t take more than one creature with you at any given time. It also wouldn’t be Pokémon without evolutions. These are present here, with evolutions based on Link rank achieved or when certain stats hit the required threshold. Warlords can also transform on occasions, allowing for their tactics to become better in the process. This is a predictable route to take, but what makes it all the more appealing is just how it combines with the Kingdom Building aspect of the game. Each scenario is split into territories controlled by yourself and the AI. The main issue is that the game forces you to bring two specific units into each battle for a territory, meaning that you only really have four slots to play with against the AI’s six. Naturally, levelling up your army to sufficient rankings is usually enough to see off any battle, but it is annoying that you aren’t given complete freedom.
In turns where you aren’t setting your squads to fight either resident wild Pokémon or see off any fool who dares challenge your authority, you also have the option to send them to do peaceful tasks. These include eating food, mining for Gold and interacting with unique features in each location. This micromanagement element is somewhat enjoyable as the AI will occasionally pounce on any mistakes you make, such as taking over poorly guarded or unoccupied kingdoms. However, the game also makes a point that any kingdoms you lose this way must be re-obtained before continuing your path of conquest, which again limits any tactical manoeuvres you were thinking about exploiting the situation to your advantage.
We’ve since seen the likes of Nippon Ichi come along and completely reinvent the Tactical RPG genre by twisting the mechanics in such a way that it literally squeezes the hours out of you. Pokémon Conquest in comparison feels too simple in comparison and the reason is that despite each one having a unique ability that aids them in battle, every Pokémon only has one attack. This means your Eevee will only ever learn Quick Attack until it evolves. Granted the evolved attacks pack more of a punch, but it would have been better for the move sets to mimic the core Pokémon titles.
Tactics allow for temporary upgrades for your army that can be used once per battle; while equipped items add healing properties when standing on certain tiles, or increases the Link obtained per skirmish. This doesn’t detract from the fact that battles are essentially a case of who has the biggest attack. Thankfully, each map is far more interesting in comparison to the combat itself. Some have secret passages; others have fiery chasms that sprout out after a certain amount of turns. Just don’t expect much in the way of difficulty as with a balanced army, you can overcome any obstacle in your path, including Nobunaga himself!
While it takes around ten hours or so to conquer the entire Ransei region, there is a ton of post-game episodic content to mess around with, all with varying objectives and conditions. One requests that you befriend 100 Pokémon before the other kingdoms do, a feat that seems like a mammoth task at face value compared to just merely conquering kingdoms. Having different perspectives is a nice touch, though some of the scenarios do feel a little forced in their themes. Collectors will also want to fill the gallery with the various data on both Pokémon and their Warlords. The AI in these episodes is also more ruthless, actively attacking your countries and providing a real challenge. Essentially though, it all boils down to whether or not you can stomach any more simplistic tactical combat.
The cartoony look of Pokémon Conquest suits not only the theme of kid friendly military warfare, but also looks fantastic on the old dinosaur that is the Nintendo DS. Vibrant and varied landscapes keep the game looking fresh with your ever-changing squad of troops giving some kind of diversity to the gameplay. The downside is though that it does feel a bit dated. If the decision had been taken to put it on the 3DS, we could have a far superior tactical display that really pushes the engine. Even for the DS it isn’t pushing any boundaries as the visuals look comparable with the Gameboy Advance. With such limited camera options, the tactical overhead can potentially cause some confusion about which places that are traversable as well, though being able to swivel the camera to a more comfortable position is handy for this purpose.
The lack of more tactical combat is a bit of a deal breaker with regards to Pokémon Conquest. I’ve been subjected to more unique and varied strategy RPGs since my first foray with the genre, with some certainly standing taller than others. While Pokémon Conquest looks pretty good on the aging Nintendo DS and is certainly competent in terms of its accessibility and how long I will be playing it for, but it fails to bring the much-needed depth with move-sets required to make this a fun game to play. That isn’t to say the battles are a complete drag as the interactive environments are the best I’ve seen in the genre and ruling the Kingdoms adds much to the flow of the campaign. Younger players are bound to get more out of this, due to the slightly more kid friendly mechanics and combat, but this really boils down to whether or not you’ve played tactical RPGs before, as the lack of depth in the combat system really shows.