Despite being around for more than a decade, Pokémon is a popular franchise worldwide. Kids of all ages still line up to get the latest adventure starring their favorite trainable creatures. To a lesser extent, the Nobunaga's Ambition stories and games also have a devout legion of fans, even if the fan base doesn't extend beyond Japan. Despite the two franchises having nothing in common, they've teamed up for Pokémon Conquest, a game that works surprisingly well despite bringing both series out of their comfort zone.
The plot certainly feels like a typical Pokémon game but with a stylized historical slant. You play the role of a damiyo, either male or female, with a loyal Eevee at your side. As the newest damiyo in the Japan-inspired land of Ransei, you swear to unify the land under your banner to awaken a legendary Pokémon and bring peace to the region. To do so, you go to the 17 other regions with your Pokémon army to challenge and defeat the other damiyos until you reach Nobunaga, the man who initiated the unification of Japan but wants to harness the power of a legendary Pokémon to destroy Ransei.
Though gameplay is still turn-based, the game plays much differently than any other Pokémon title, both in and out of battle. Instead of going with a more traditional RPG battle system, the game switches to something similar to a strategy RPG system. After selecting up to six Pokémon and their respective warlords, you're sent into a battlefield against up to six other Pokémon and their warlords to fulfill the goals necessary for a win. Some of those goals include capturing a set of war banners first or surviving a number of turns, but most involve defeating every enemy before all of the turns are used up.
The battlefield contains your standard grid with elevation differences, and there are other environmental hazards, such as falling rocks, pillars of flame, and pits. At the beginning of each turn, you can move your Pokémon to any space within its reach or use an item to cure ailments, replenish energy or temporarily augment abilities. You can also call upon the abilities of the selected warlords to further augment the abilities of the individual Pokémon or the whole team. Combat is also governed by the given attack's reach and environmental factors, such as land elevation and the position of the Pokémon you're attacking. Such factors determine the likelihood of an effective attack as well as the amount of damage you'll inflict.
These simple battle mechanics are simplified even due to some restrictions. The warlords can only carry one item per fight, and their personal ability can only be used once per fight. The Pokémon only come with one attack, and it can't be swapped out for another ability, though they have a non-attack ability that automatically triggers under certain conditions. Combos are nonexistent, and the leveling system is replaced by a bonding system. The more you fight with that Pokémon, the stronger the bond becomes between Pokémon and warlord, which, in turn, automatically increases their stats.
Amazingly enough, the simplicity of the battles actually makes the battles more exciting. The item limitations make you focus on which essential items you need to bring into battle since you can't just grab healing potions at any time. The limited move is better suited for aggressive players since you can't spend every turn belting out defensive maneuvers, but that omission doesn't feel like a detriment once you start playing. You get the feeling that the game is actively trying to avoid battles of attrition, and at a time when strategy RPGs feel overly complicated, the simpler approach feels new and will hopefully bring more people to the genre.
Outside of battles, Pokémon Conquest retains the traits of a strategy RPG rather than a traditional Pokémon title. There are kingdoms you can visit, but you don't get to walk through them. You also can't go into the wilderness between the kingdoms and expect to run into foes. Instead, you're limited to direct travel from one kingdom to another, and travel within the kingdoms is restricted to specific shops for items. There also happen to be food shops where you can give your Pokémon a quick strength boost to help foster the bond between warlord and Pokémon.
The non-combat segments of the game serve a greater purpose: kingdom management. You'll eventually have enough warlords following you around that you can't have them go into every battle. Once this happens, you can assign these warlords to preside over the conquered portions of the kingdom to protect against invasion and automatically harvest things, like gold. They can also be called on as reinforcements when you invade neighboring kingdoms, similar to the Empires spin-offs of the Dynasty Warriors/Samurai Warriors series. That's really the extent of it, but it provides another layer outside of army management for strategy fans.
For the strategy fan, all of this sounds like fun, and even though it lacks the complicated mechanics of the other console strategy RPGs, the simplicity doesn't make it any less engaging. Even the game's length seems perfect. The main mission doesn't take that long to complete, but several bonus missions make up for that by giving players the chance to play without being shackled by the main tale.
However, there are a few things that will disappoint the more dedicated Pokémon fans simply due to their expectations. Even though the creature roster covers the gamut from the original Red/Blue games to the more recent Black/White games, there are only 200 Pokémon available in this title. Each warlord can only carry one Pokémon at a time, and the very limited move set on the Pokémon means that classic strategies may be thrown out the window. Also, the innate desire to catch every Pokémon just isn't there. Doing so fills up a gallery in the main menu, but since it abandons the idea of collecting the creatures to help a professor's research, there's little motivation coming from the story, only die-hard fans will partake in the collection endeavor.
Like a good number of Pokémon titles, the game has a multiplayer mode where you'll pit your army of warlords and Pokémon against another player's army. As expected, the multiplayer battles are quite good, but it is still limited to local play with multiple carts. Despite having the Wi-Fi logo on the box, online is limited to content downloads only, so those who are hoping for online combat will have to wait for the next game in the series to hopefully support it.
Graphically, Pokémon Conquest does well. The sprite-based graphics appear more detailed, and the Pokémon look a little more detailed than before, but the attacks carry more frames of animation and more effects, making them stand out more and become more meaningful. The backgrounds also benefit from the added detail, and even though the battles adopt the standard floating polygon plane such as games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, the battlegrounds feel rich thanks to the little things, like rushing water in the rivers, plumes of fire and smoke in the lava lands, and the leaves of the bushes rustling in the wind. Armed with the bright colors most Nintendo games have been known for, it may not boast graphics that push the system, but it does remain a good-looking title on the old portable.
As far as sound is concerned, it's no different from the other Pokémon titles that have come before. The music still carries a whimsical tone to make the traditional Japanese-themed score feel familiar to longtime fans. The score is comprised of completely original works, though, so don't expect to hear any reimagined pieces from other Pokémon titles here. The effects are just as good as they are in the main game, with the volume and pitch coming out just right from the system's speakers. The game still stays away from voices when the Pokémon appear on the field and when any of the warlords speak, but that's been a trait of the games for so long that few will mind.
Pokémon Conquest ends up being a fun title thanks to its simple but effective take on the strategy RPG genre. The presentation is done nicely, and the game manages to stick to some of the tenets of the series well enough to not alienate longtime Pokémon fans. Though the game feels like it breezes by rather quickly compared to the other series spin-offs, the bonus missions, the promise of downloadable content, and the prospect of local multiplayer give the game some legs and should appeal nicely to those who want to test their strategy chops with familiar characters. It's a very solid and fun effort that is possibly one of the last standout titles for the aging DS system.
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