Nobunaga’s Ambition stands out in my mind as a true anomaly; it was the video game I didn’t like. Sure, I’d played bad games before, flawed and un-enjoyable affairs – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on the 2600, for example – but it was the first title I’d encountered since Nintendo’s resurrection of the home console market that I simply didn’t get. I remember grainy textures and mountains of blocky, on-screen text. I remember arduous resource management and tinny, repetitive music. Moreover, I remember being utterly perplexed at finding absolutely no joy in it. Not having fun with a video game seemed, to my younger self, to be a deeply perplexing experience.
I didn’t grok turn-based strategy in 1989, but somehow a dozen years later that genre would become one of my favorites. Series like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem would eventually climb to the very top of my list of most cherished properties, and now, after more than two decades, the warlord Nobunaga looks poised to join their ranks. All it took was a little added maturity on my part. And a blessed infusion of Pocket Monsters.
Pokémon Conquest is as much a style mash-up as any you could imagine because, though the frantic turned-based combat of Pokémon and the deliberate tactics of Nobunaga’s Ambition may seem somewhat tonic, the fantastic streets of Vermilion City and the pseudo-historical realms of Ransei are light-years away. One is bubbly, cartoony and inviting, the other calculated, almost menacing with a myriad of opposing forces lurking around every bend. Still, the manner in which Conquest marries the two properties couldn’t be more satisfying.
Though not exactly a dumbed-down version of the classic strategy role playing formula, the title is a nice jumping-off point for those new to this style of gaming. Old hands, however, will be easily familiar with the formula. March your armies into disputed territory, move the individual units around the gridded battlefield and eliminate the enemy in as expedient a manner as possible.
The twist is that this tried and true combat element relies on Pokémon instead of archers or cavalry, and that it draws heavily on that property’s classic type system, wherein fire monsters easily outmatch grass Pokémon but are ill effective against water-types. It’s a central touchstone that ably opens the sometimes confusing world of SRPGs up to any gamer that’s ever tossed a Pokéball. It also plays well alongside other standard conventions of this game type – elements like terrain effects, elevation, unit placement and an awareness of environmental hazards can be used to give an attacking Pokémon an additional edge over simple type superiority. While these don’t seem to be as integral as in many similar titles (and the classic counterattack opportunity seems wholly absent), Pokémon Conquest never feels like an uninspired strategy RPG-lite. It is instead a subtle variation on a theme.
With hundreds of warriors and Pokémon at your disposal you must marshal your forces and battle your way through the 17 kingdoms of Ransei, overtaking the defending armies and, assuming your attacks were effective and your victory timely enough, adding them to your own ranks. Each individual trainer begins with a single Pokémon, but the link option allows for the recruitment of additional wild Pocket Monsters to further enhance your arsenal. The warrior/Pokémon bond is strengthened through combat, and, as an added wrinkle, each warrior can achieve a “perfect link” with a particular Pokémon, making for the most effective combat lineup.
The game’s RPG elements shine as your creatures accrue strength and experience with each passing battle, eventually evolving into deadlier (though often equally cuddly) combatants. Similarly, the warriors that command them evolve as the game progresses, further supplementing the game’s thrill of near-constant achievement.
These elements alone would make for a perfectly satisfying handheld endeavor, but Pokémon Conquest doesn’t just bring its A-game on the battlefield. Captured kingdoms must be managed, and can even be micro-managed if that’s your thing. Each contains specific landmarks where warriors can buy equipment, increase their Pokémons’ energy and search for additional recruit-able warriors. Control freaks can choose to manually explore each location with every warrior during a given month (the game’s time measurement increment), but the rest of us will likely just delegate these responsibilities to a specific warrior stationed at a given location. This helps to build up additional resources and, in time, mold disparate fighters in a more powerful and cohesive force. This ever-increasing selection of warriors, monsters and related special abilities makes what is already a deep experience seemingly limitless. Even after the initial story mode has concluded there’s still supplementary missions and multiplayer options to keep even the most fickle gamer interested.
In the waning days of the Nintendo DS, Pokémon Conquest pulls out all the stops with engaging sounds and gorgeous visuals, but its true strength is its positively amazing breadth of gameplay. If you’ve got a young Pokémon fan thirsting for a new challenge or if you yourself are in the market for a strategy title that truly delivers, it’s exactly the game you’re looking for. You may no longer feel the need to catch ’em all, but this is one title you’d be wise to pick up.
WIRED: handsome graphics, wonderfully thematic soundtrack, well-balanced gameplay, intuitive controls, tons of content, proper pacing, true depth that neither frustrates nor overwhelms
TIRED: unit placement and terrain bonuses underutilized, attack ranges/types rather limited, its brand of historical Japanese warfare seems oddly short on giant enemy crabs
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America