When Tecmo Koei first revealed that it was working on a crossover between Pokemon and Nobunaga's Ambition, heads were understandably turned. While I'd have much preferred Dynasty Warriors, the concept was nonetheless intriguing and worthy of attention, seeming just too ridiculous to not be worth at least a chance. Of course, baffling games that sound great on paper don't often end up too well in practice.
As it happens, Pokemon Conquest is more than just a silly idea, managing to be quite an enjoyable game at the same time. In fact, I've not been glued to a portable system like this in quite some time.
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Pokemon Conquest (Nintendo DS)
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokemon Company
Released: June 18, 2012
Pokemon Conquest is set in an alternate reality, distinct from the fictional universe established in mainline Pokemon titles. People are still as creepily obsessed with pocket monsters as ever, but this time they are used as weapons in battle to determine who will conquer the realm of Ransei -- a place that is definitely not feudal Japan, despite looking exactly like it and housing a huge number of samurai.
Though Nobunaga's Ambition is the inspiration for the crossover, characters share both the looks and personalities of their counterparts on Omega Force's Samurai Warriors series, making their appearances more recognizable to a wider audience. If anything, it's Samurai Warriors that has been crossed over, with Ambition's strategy sensibilities providing only a light foundation upon which everything else is built.
Players name their own generic, gender-selectable warrior and start with a single kingdom, looking to conquer more and ultimately defeat Nobunaga Oda. The realm is split into a number of these kingdoms which, when conquered, contain a number of battlefields and shops. Over the course of the game, players will amass a vast army of warriors, who can inhabit these castles and be made to work -- mining for gold, training their Pokemon, and scouting for more free warriors. Managing one's empire is straightforward and simple, and while the threat of enemy forces attacking is worth considering, they will rarely ever do so.
The core of the game focuses far more on battles than governance, which is a good thing considering how much fun it is to take the field. Up to six Pokemon per side can battle it out on a variety of grid-based maps, with teams taking it in turns to move their Pokemon, attack, or use Warrior skills -- powers unique to the warrior rather than the Pokemon, which can help out the entire team or boost an individual monster. Taking a fair few cues from Advance Wars, the turn-based battles are easily digestible and straightforward, but no less enjoyable for their lack of complexity.
Each Pokemon has a single attack, which it can use whenever it is range of an enemy. This range varies depending on what the attack is, with some monsters needing to fight up close and others being able to hurl projectiles. Monsters also have a passive skill which activates whenever the right conditions are met -- Ekans possesses the Intimidate skill, which lowers the attack power of all opponents within a large radius. As fans will expect, each combatant has its own elemental type, making it stronger or weaker against other Pokemon, and many of them can evolve, dramatically boosting their health and damage as well as changing the nature of their main attacks.
Beating a rival warrior within four turns or with a "super effective" move will often allow you to recruit him or her, gaining access to new potential skills and Pokemon. In addition, warriors already in your employ can capture more Pokemon to add to their personal collection -- though they can only use one in a battle. In order to gain extra creatures, one must find wild ones in the battlefield and "link" with them by moving in close and initiating a minigame consisting of timed button presses. When successful, the linked Pokemon can replace the warrior's current monster in battle ... or just sit around in its roster, doing nothing.
There are two hundred Pokemon to find, spanning the entire breadth of the series from Red and Blue to Black and White, and there can be some light strategy in exploring their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a Pokemon with a weak attack might have a great passive ability that allows it to influence the battle by weakening enemies or strengthening allied forces. Some heavy hitters might be hard to use due to low movement ranges or attacks with huge areas of effect that could hit just as many allies as enemies. None of these considerations are worth losing sleep over, but they lend a little extra thought to the proceedings.
Pokemon Conquest is certainly a simple game, and the campaign tends to lull in the mid-section since things get a bit too easy. The game also has the aggravating tendency to scroll through pointless information that cannot be skipped at the end of each in-game month. I wish there was a way to skip or at least fast forward the boring rundown on all the changes that have occurred in each of the player's kingdoms, since it's easy to just assume that trained Pokemon will get stronger and those warriors mining for gold will get gold. It gets rather irritating to have these things reconfirmed every turn.
Things get engrossing again toward the end, when enemies start using tougher elemental types and introduce battlefields with all manner of natural hazards, but this is still a very simple game built with accessibility in mind. It takes the "Catch 'em All" mentality of Pokemon and marries it to a strategy RPG, but it lacks the full depth of either concept, and may leave some players feeling unchallenged and underwhelmed.
Nevertheless, I couldn't stop playing it. It might not be the toughest strategy game on the market, but it's full of Nintendo charm and it never stops the player from feeling like they're amassing a pleasantly powerful force of their favorite creatures. Clever battles involving the capturing of flags or the activation of traps help keep things interesting, while the obsessive need to catch and evolve fighting animals is as compelling as ever.
It should take you between six and eight hours to beat the story, if you put a little extra grinding in, and the game unlocks a number of extra campaigns upon completion, telling the story of established warriors rather than a player-created character. Add to that the promise of further content updates, not to mention local multiplayer battles, and there's plenty to be getting on with. My one disappointment is the lack of any sort of "free" mode. I'd love to have a randomly generated set of kingdoms to fight, without the story getting in the way, especially since it could add infinite replay value. Still, the content on the cartridge is certainly enough to be worth the asking price.
Pokemon Conquest could have been a cheap tie-in with a terrible gimmick, but instead it's managed to be a fun and rewarding little strategy game with its heart in the right place. It's not going to tax your mind and it's not going to provide anything too complex, but it will more than like suck up hours of your time while you gladly let it, because it's just too satisfying to grab as many Pokemon as possible and see what they can do.
As far as Pokemon spin-off games go, this is definitely one of the best offerings on the market, and is worth picking up by any fan of the series.
Pokemon Conquest reviewed by Jim Sterling
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide