Since the release of the first Pokémon role-playing game in 1996, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company have attempted to capitalize on the success of the core series by overlaying its colorful cartoon characters on other genres. Thanks in no small part to the power of the brand, Pokémon pinball, puzzle, turn-based dungeon crawlers and more have all enjoyed at least a modicum of success.
Pokémon Conquest presents the strangest melding yet, combining the whimsical menagerie with Tecmo Koei's long-running turn-based Japanese historical war game series Nobunaga's Ambition. In a classic Trojan horse maneuver, the series that never quite gained a significant foothold in the West is slipping inside a giant wooden Eevee, ready to take North America by surprise.
I certainly didn't see it coming.
When Nintendo announces a new game in the Pokémon series proper it's cause for celebration, despite the fact that the gameplay hasn't really changed much since the first title hit Japan in 1996. Why mess with a winning formula? That's what Pokémon spinoffs are for.
The reaction to a new side story in the Pokémon universe is quite different.
The Five Stages of Pokémon Spinoff Reaction
1. Excitement — There's a new Pokémon game!
2. Confusion — Wait, this isn't a Pokémon game...
3. Dismissal — What a stupid idea.
4. Reconsideration — But it does have Jigglypuff on the cover...
5. Submission — Oh fine, I'll buy it.
This formula holds especially true with Pokémon Conquest. My initial reaction to the news that I would be catching cartoon versions of historical Japanese warlords that do battle with bonded pocket monsters was to stare at the announcement for several minutes, head cocked to the side like a dog hearing a sound it doesn't understand. How could two such wildly disparate properties possibly work in tandem?
Initially they don't.
Playing through the few hours with Pokémon Conquest I was acutely aware of these two properties attempting to merge into one. I had trouble understanding why there were Pokémon in my strategy war game; they felt completely unnecessary; a layer floating above the game I wanted to play keeping me from achieving focus.
It doesn't help that the back story of the game is so flimsy. Pokémon Conquest takes place in the feudal Japan-styled Ransei Region, where legends speak of a mystical creator Pokémon that will bestow absolute power on the warlord that unites the nation under his or her banner. The player recruits Pokémon-bonded hero to their cause and launches a campaign to do just that. Unfortunately the legendary Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga has caught wind of this legend as well, giving players a rival much worthier than Professor Oak's grandson.
So we know our goal, but what we don't know is much of anything about the land we're fighting for. How did the warlords of Ransei come to partner with Pokémon, strengthening their bonds through battle? Why do these warlords sit on the sidelines, letting their little critters do the work for them? How did they develop the powers that allow them to enhance their creatures, granting them special skills in battle?
This lack of fictional depth punctuates the feeling that this is another game painted over with Pokémon.
It's a feeling that doesn't last, fortunately. After about five hours I was so involved with managing my troops, planning attacks, and defending against possible enemy incursions that there was no more room in my mind to worry about the disconnect.
While not quite as deep as a proper Nobunaga game, conquering Pokémon Conquest requires a fair amount of strategic planning and forward thinking. There are 17 kingdoms in the Ransei Region, each based on an elemental Pokémon grouping, each with its own weaknesses and strength. It's not enough to place a squad of fighting Pokémon warlords in the path of a psychic one; you've also got to prepare for the possibility that a rock warlord is waiting around the corner to strike when the next month-turn comes around.
It's in these preparation stages that Pokémon Conquest is at its best. I was an ancient military commander standing over an unfurled map, imperiously directing my forces with the tap of the stylus.
Unfortunately the depth of planning makes the simplicity of actual battle more pronounced. Despite dynamic battlegrounds filled with traps, pitfalls, and moving parts, Pokémon Conquest battles are turn-based tactics at their most basic. Individual Pokémon have a single attack they can perform that's success is measured by the relation of their opponent's element against their own. It's a simple matter of attacking units with more powerful or elemental opposite units until the battle is won. Special circumstances required to recruit fallen warlords (usually defeating them within four turns) add a bit of tension, but otherwise there's really not much to it.
I suppose that's the way it is in battle, really. Months of planning leading to quick and bloody skirmish. I just wish there was more here.
The game could use a little more Pokémon in its conquest as well. Fans of the core series might be disappointed that their boon companions are reduced to little more than living artillery in a battle between rival Warlords. There's no Pokémon-specific skill management. There are wild Pokémon to battle, but instead of joining your merry band (as rival warlords do) they simply fall, sacrificed in the name of increasing the bond between your soldiers and their weapons (note that warlords can bond with wild Pokémon; it's just not the same). During the course of the story a character comments that they've heard of a strange land where Pokémon are carried about in balls. The game could use more balls.
What Pokémon Conquest lacks in balls it makes up for in content. The expansive single-player campaign easily spans a dozen or more hours, and once it's done even more campaigns are unlocked. With the addition of promised downloadable content, this is a game that could keep DS or 3DS in business for months to come.
The concept of Pokémon Conquest is completely absurd yet somehow, in the grand tradition of whack television sitcoms, "It sounds crazy but it just might work" actually worked. Pokémon's rock-paper-scissors element mechanic makes the complicated strategy of Nobunaga's Ambition easier to manage, while the delightful complexity of Tecmo Koei's strategy game adds layers of depth to an otherwise shallow property. The end result is one of the best series crossovers I've ever played, the perfect game for the aging Pokémon fan looking for a more challenging experience without losing the cuddly pink things.