Pokémon, Japanese warlords, turn-based strategy. That’s pretty much how you sum up Pokémon Conquest in just one sentence. Bringing together cute Pokémon and the historical Japanese strategy title Nobunaga’s Ambition certainly appears an odd move. Yet, surprisingly, Pokémon Conquest does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of both games, although it falls a little flat on delivering the stellar gameplay each series is capable of.
Set in the Ransei region, Pokémon Conquest tells a simple story of a young warlord venturing out to capture a legendary Pokémon and unite the area’s warring factions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the story exists solely to set the scene and provide motivation for your expedition. There are a couple of interesting twists and turns, but nothing that will blow your socks off. Aside from character names, the historical aspects are rather sparse too, so Japanese history enthusiasts need not apply.
Your conquest of Ransei begins in the small, humble kingdom of Aurora. From there, it’s up to you to recruit warriors, link with Pokémon and conquer all 17 kingdoms. Each kingdom specialises in a different Pokémon type (fire, water, poison etc.), just like gyms from the RPG series, and strategy usually boils down to using the appropriate super-effective type against them. After you take control of a kingdom, wild Pokémon start roaming about. By entering the right map, you can find one and then “link” it with one of your warriors. Certain warriors are more closely tied to certain Pokémon which means that as their bond grows, their partner can evolve and reach higher levels of strength. Only one Pokémon can be used at a time, but others can be kept in reserve. Wandering warriors can be recruited in the same way.
“So, how do battles work?” I hear you ask. In many ways, they play just like typical turn-based strategy maps. You can take up to six warriors into battle (all with one Pokémon each), take a turn to move them across the isometric field, use them to attack an enemy or employ a warrior skill to improve movement range or attack power, among other buffs. Then your opponent takes a turn and has an opportunity to employ their tactics. Most battles are won via wiping out the enemy, but some require capturing flags or holding territory. There’s not much variety among victory conditions, but there is enough to keep battles fresh.
Pokémon units have limited customisation, so strategy is usually about the various gimmicks that maps employ, some of which are incredibly original. These include pillars of fire that turn on and off, doors that can open and close remotely, poison-inflicting puddles, jump ramps, portals and more. Considering the intricacies of some maps, positioning your units in just the right spot is one of many keys to victory. In terms of team-building, each Pokémon is limited to a single attack that changes when they evolve. Attacks are relatively varied in their type, the ailments they can inflict and their range, but it’s incredibly frustrating to lose a useful attack during evolution. Shinx, for example, loses its single-target attack for an awkward, friendly-fire area of attack when it evolves in to Luxio.
As you march from kingdom to kingdom on your glorious campaign, managing all of those Pokémon and warriors becomes quite a handful. There are over 200 warriors and 200 Pokémon to “catch” throughout the game, but each of the 17 kingdoms can only house 6 warriors at a time. As a result (do the math), you have no choice but to move units around, or in extreme cases, dismiss them. You can always recruit them again later as nothing is ever missable, but surely there could have been a better way to hang on to all those extra warriors or, alternatively, not have included so many. Most are not useful in combat (especially once you start recruiting more powerful warlords) and are back-benched to mindless automated training in empty kingdoms. Likewise, marching units around the map is a time consuming and irritating task when you’re low on space.
Once you clear the main story which, frankly, feels more like a tutorial, side episodes are available. There are 33 of these episodes, and in each you take control of a different warlord to accomplish a slightly different task. These range from straightforward conquest to catching a certain number of Pokémon, or they may simply confine you to a smaller area of Ransei. Many of these are more difficult than the main story and are generally a refreshing change of pace. It’s a pity that it takes 15-20 hours to beat the game and gain access to them. Further, many players have complained that your hard work from the main story goes down the drain when you start over in a new episode. This is partially true, but as long as you have registered warriors in the gallery by using them in battle, you can recruit them with the same Pokémon in any other episode. Their Pokémon’s stats are reset, but they retain any evolutions from other stories. As a bonus, these episodes are the only places where legendary Pokémon can be caught. Once you manage to clear them all, a new, harder main campaign becomes available with more aggressive AI.
Perhaps the most critical mistake that the game makes is constant repetition of tasks. The side episodes may have different goals or rules, but they still involve the same locations and the same Pokémon, and they only vary by the initial warlord you control. Similarly, I grew tired of the main game about half-way through, due to constantly battling in the same maps against similar Pokémon. Optional battles feel too grindy, and start to lose their fun factor about 10 or so hours in. Fortunately, the invasion battles sport far more interesting maps, as I mentioned earlier, and are continually fun to play. Sadly, even the appeal of those maps wears thin once you’ve invaded the same kingdom multiple times across different episodes.
If the game clicks with you, you can expect to spend around 50 hours with the enormous amount of content. If you plan to fill out the gallery with every warrior and Pokémon, then you could expect at least another dozen. There is plenty of content available as long as you’re prepared to fight similar battles over and over. Extra episodes can even be downloaded online at no extra charge, and more are still planned for release.
Artistically, Pokémon Conquest stands tall with a mix of Pokémon charm and stoic feudal warriors. All Pokémon have brand new sprites true to their original designs, and many are especially charming. Likewise, maps have interestingly different themes that suit their respective types. The icy floors of Nixtorm are a delight, as are the deserts of Terrera or the steel gears of Valora. Warlords look terrific too, and showcase appealing and varied deign from “cute young girl” to “old wizened veteran.” Only the warrior designs let the game down, as between the 200 of them, there are only a few dozen different portraits. Their names differ, but most warriors have identical designs, which is truly disappointing. It also makes remembering which warrior is which more difficult than it should be.
In terms of music, the game gets a passing grade. The traditional Japanese style mixed with more modern pieces works well and sets the stage competently for many a battle. The final encounter of the main story features a particularly stirring number. Sound effects are not of a high quality, but will be familiar to Pokémon players. In fact, Conquest on the whole does an excellent job of translating the feel of RPG Pokémon to turn-based strategy.
For Pokémon fans, Conquest is a sure hit. It incorporates the best of the RPG series and works it in to the strategy formula. It’s certainly on the easier side, but clever maps remedy this to a degree. All in all, Pokémon Conquest is solid across the board, but it is lacking in a few key areas that are likely to turn away non-Pokémon fans and hardcore strategy players. However, if you don’t go in expecting the next Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, then there’s plenty to enjoy.