If there’s one series that needs a kick up the behind, it’s Pokemon. Not so long ago, those lovable critters spawned a wide variety of critically-acclaimed games. From the GameBoy RPG’s, to N64 battling sims, a Trading Card Game and even a photography simulator. Nowadays Pokemon isn’t so hot on variety, with only the RPG series and the occasional Mystery Dungeon spinoff being worth discussing.
Pokemon Conquest is the first attempt to do something different with the brand in a while. A blend of Pokemon and Nobunaga’s Ambition, a best-selling turn based strategy series developed by Koei (of Dynasty Warriors fame); it’s a mostly successful crossover title, merging enough character from both franchises to make it seem more than just a half-hearted cash in.
Pokemon Conquest is essentially Fire Emblem-with-Pokemon. Turn based isometric strategy at its purest. You take control of half a dozen individual units who can move a set amount of squares each turn, and after you move you can then attack any enemy units that are within range of you. It’s a blindingly simple formula, one that has been aped to perfection by games such as Advance Wars, and one that works well with the rock-paper-scissors dynamic of Pokemon. Jump into a new game and you’ll learn pretty much everything the game has to offer within ten minutes. It’s a very immediate experience obviously designed with younger gamers and people that haven’t played something like it before, and it works well.
The Pokemon part comes into play when you get down to battling. Each unit you control is a single Pokemon, and they in turn each come with an assigned trainer. They work in tandem, levelling up together, and both monster and trainer have a special ability that can activate during battle. The usual tactical elements of Pokemon are present – using the right type of Pokemon in the right battle is still the key to victory – and it’s a good fit for the handheld platform. A fairly forgiving experience, your Pokemon are usually strong enough to beat down enemy monsters in any given stage with consummate ease, and when they aren’t you’ll find catchable Pokemon nearby that can help you out. The AI opponents are substantially intelligent, although I did encounter one or two baffling decisions on their part where a strong group of enemies would inexplicably split into weaker groups, ripe for me to slaughter. Conquest isn’t a taxing game, but it has just enough depth to its mechanics that you have to think a turn ahead.
The other influence on Conquest, the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, is equally self-evident. The story is an almost absurdly simple tale of your character conquering the nineteen areas that make up the main game. Once you have a few areas under your control the game opens up some macromanagement options, allowing you to store unused Pokemon in territories, enter new areas to fight wild monsters, mine for gold, shop, or just assign a delegate to decide all this stuff on your behalf. To anybody that’s ever played a PC strategy game such as Civilisation, it’ll seem laughably basic, but it is a welcome change to the formula and gives the player something of note to do outside of moving to the next area and clearing it of enemies.
Presumably because the sales model is more profitable, Conquest and also the upcoming Pokemon Black & White 2 are DS titles instead of 3DS games. This means the visuals take a massive hit, and they really diminish from the longevity of the game. With the gameplay being so basic, the game struggles to hold my attention for very long. An easy way to combat this would have been to make it nice to look at, but instead all we get is two dimensional sprites and the most basic of attack animations.
There are some points of merit as far as how the game looks, though. There’s a decent variety in environments, and you’ll battle on a variety of fields that incorporate extendable vine bridges, waterfalls and lava flows. The overworld has a nicely traditional Japanese aesthetic that lends itself well to the Nobunaga backdrop, and all the menus are easy to navigate, with tooltips and shortcuts present to help you streamline your choices as much as you can.
Whilst it’s a solid game in almost every aspect, there’s an inherent basicness to Pokemon Conquest that makes it hard for it to hold my attention. I’m not an MLG-level Starcraft guy, but having played my fair share of PC strategy games, and Fire Emblem and Advance Wars before that, there isn’t enough meat on the bones of the gameplay concepts to keep me involved.
However, I’m not sure how valid a criticism this can be, because I really don’t think this game was made with me in mind. It was made for young gamers, the type of gamer who was too young to play Advance Wars at the peak of its popularity and who might never have tried something of this genre before. Using the concept of Pokemon to draw them in, they’re then sucker punched by a great new type of gaming experience they wouldn’t necessarily have tried otherwise. You kind of have to commend Nintendo for that. In a way, they’re trying to open the eyes of a whole new generation of gamers with Conquest, in the same way that Pokemon Red was the first game I ever played in which I had the ability to save.
Conquest doesn’t excel at anything it does, but it doesn’t really take any missteps either. For what it’s worth, the fact that someone is trying something new and outside-the-box with Pokemon is commendable in itself, and I hope that this game is enough of a success that it makes it viable for The Pokemon Company to keep trying new things with the franchise in the future.