I swore I was done with Pokémon.
I managed to survive the stage of my childrens’ lives where Nintendo’s ubiquitous pocket monsters were the engouement du jour. I collected several bazillion of them myself over the course of countless versions of the games, even though the basic and addictive gameplay formula evolved so much less than the Pokémon themselves ever did. So frankly, the prospect of an umpteenth round of “gotta catch ‘em all” sounded about as enticing as sitting through a Real Housewives of New Jersey marathon.
But like Al Pacino in the Godfather 3, Brett Favre in the NFL and gamers and anything Call of Duty, I got sucked in yet again, this time with the promise of something new: Pokémon crossed with Fire Emblem-like strategy role-playing. Yes, Pikachu and company have a schizophrenic record of genre mashups (Pokémon Ranger = good, Pokémon Rush = abomination) but Pokémon Conquest had real promise.
And to a large degree, it delivers on that promise. Half the game is based in city and unit management. You’re cast as an aspiring warlord who must conquer enough castles/kingdoms to take out Nobunaga, a villain ripped right out of Japanese history and the strategy-RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition. (The names of the various and sundry warlords you’ll encounter are also fact-based; their clownish and petulant personalities, not so much). Big N’s looking to capitalize on the prophecy that the one who controls all 17 of the castles in the kingdom of Ransei will awaken and command legendary Pokémon.
Gee, where have we heard that before?
We’ve heard it, yes, but the play’s the thing, and Conquest has something far deeper and more interesting in mind. The turn-based battle half of Conquest takes place on typically wacko arenas that are, of course, littered with strategic elements that can either be exploited or ruin your day, things like random lightning bolts, rolling boulders and springboards that send your six-Pokémon army hurtling to unexpected areas of the field. Sometimes, winning requires obliterating all the enemy Pokémon in a limited number of turns. Elsewhere, you’ll be capturing banners and/or hanging onto them for dear life. You’ll always be paying close attention to your Pokémon’s position on the battlefield, making sure you’re not turning your back, offering bonus damage to a dangerous opponent or setting up multiple hits for your enemies.
In between capturing castles, you’ll spend each unit’s monthly turn doing everything from mining gold to maintaining your Pokémon’s energy levels and recruiting allies and wild Pokémon through more turn-based action. It’s possible to delegate these tasks to your soldiers, and once your army has reached a semi-imposing stage, you’ll probably want to—that is, unless you relish pounding on the same set of Pokémon enemies ad infinitum. Each one of your warriors can bond with a certain number of wild Pokémon, captured in battle by nailing a simplistic rhythm-based game. Their stats soar as you use them, and certain types are designed to bond with certain warriors, resulting in even more powerful combos. That’s a compelling reason to keep searching for that perfect match. And no, Magikarp is probably not involved.
Some parts of the turn-based piece feel just right—the melee damage you can pile on if you position your Pokémon to surround an enemy, the one-time-use Warrior abilities that can make a huge difference in a critical battle. Others feel like somebody fell asleep on top of their copy of Sun Tzu. Your Pokémon only ever get to bust one move in battle, even after they finally evolve, which feels both utterly limiting and a major break from the Pokémon experience we’ve come to expect.
Pokémon Conquest’s central drawback is insurmountable—it’s too damn easy. If you know your Pokémon rock-paper-scissor lore—and by now, how could you not?—it’s simple to stack your army with whatever’s strong against what you’re facing. (Helpfully, each kingdom is themed by Pokémon type. Even more helpfully, your second-in-command tells you exactly which types of Pokémon will romp and fail before each battle launches.) The threat of rival warlords storming and swiping your castles is supposed to loom over your every strategic decision, but unless you’re daft enough to leave a castle completely unguarded at the edges of your kingdom, your foes are generally more than content to let you while away the months burnishing your unit stats until your army is powerful enough to crush them on the first try. Completing the lengthy campaign opens up a huge set of new challenges. And there’s local multiplayer, which holds the added benefit of matching wits against an opponent that’ll probably attack more aggressively than the AI.
Okay, so it’s easy. It’s also deceptively deep and addictive, packed with little triumphs that’ll keep you battling through to the campaign’s end and beyond. Like the first time you use a divide-and-conquer strategy to win in an arena that asks you to hold and defend four banners on a raised platform—the hitch being that any hit from an opponent Pokémon knocks your pet off the platform’s edge. Pokémon Conquest is packed with strategic moments like this. Discovering and mastering them all is a bigger blast than you might have expected.
+ “Catch’em all”—still crack-like after all these years–pairs well with turn-based strategy gameplay
+ Ransei is a fully realized universe
+ Little strategic touches run surprisingly deep
– Main campaign is ridiculously easy
– Pokémon are limited to a single attack
– Game leaves too many key concepts unexplained
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Tecmo Koei/Pokémon Company
Release Date: 6/18/2012
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Review copy provided by publisher