Battle mechanics are tight, deep, and accessible; a copious amount of Pokémon and warriors to recruit; a ton of content; kingdom simulator adds depth to the core gameplay; superb presentation values, graphics, and art style.
Story is shallow and feels more like a means to an end; battling becomes rather repetitive after a while; lack of mission and gameplay variety; Pokémon only have one attack each, forgettable soundtrack.
Pokémon Conquest is one of those games that looks awful on paper, but is brilliant in its delivery. Despite initially appearing to be a bizarre mash-up of KOEI’s Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise and Nintendo’s beloved Pokémon series, Conquest somehow makes sense. At its core, it’s a strategy RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, with a very light dash of kingdom simulator thrown in for good measure. Gone are the traditional ways of Pokémon, however. Capturing little critters via Pokéballs, basic turn-based battles, and earning gym badges have all been tossed out the window to be replaced by the recruiting of Warriors and Pokémon, tactical battles, conquering kingdoms, and historical Japanese warlords. Yes, it all sounds like madness– and in truth it is– but by hook or crook Conquest works, and it works very well.
For starters, it never forgets it’s a handheld game. Despite boasting enough content to fill 50+ hours, the game sucks players in with a fun, light-hearted story that manages to get the tone just right. Conquest stars you, the hero, as a fledgling warlord in a land called the Ransei Region. But warriors don’t use weapons to settle a score here– they use Pokémon, and it’s your task to use your ‘Mon to conquer the land’s seventeen kingdoms and unite them under one banner. The story is just enough to give players motivation to pick up and play without ever feeling like it’s doing too much. Conversations are doled out in petite packages with no self-indulgent expositions about the typical themes of love, betrayal and human liberty in sight. The trade-off for not having to plow through reams of text, however, often means the story feels a thin and predictable because of it.
But while the story may be a little flat, the gameplay feels robust, nuanced, and surprisingly accessible. It mainly revolves around strategic, Tactics Ogre-style battles where players are dropped into a bite-sized map with their companions of choice and must fight it out to the death. While the battling itself is exceedingly tactical, deciding who and what to take into each battle is where the real fun is. Throughout the game, players can recruit warriors and Pokémon and pair them up accordingly. Altogether, there are 200 warriors and 200 Pokémon to employ, which makes for a sizable number of combinations one can come up with, as you can join different warriors with different Pokémon.
You might ask why you’d want to mix and match the two, but that’s where the “Link” system comes into play. Each warrior shares a bond (or “link”) with their Pokémon, and that bond is measured by a percentage– the higher the percentage, the better the bond, and the better the bond, the more effective the Pokémon is in battle.
You can only take a certain number of Pokémon into the fray with you, though, so many battles come down to a clever process of matching the right Pokémon to your opponent’s set-up, including their elemental types. In this respect, it’s not far off a typical Pokémon title, but the tactical battles make the strategy far more important than ever before. Deciding when to flank enemies, where to place your Pokémon, and, of course, how to best achieve the map’s objective, require a good deal of pre-planning, making this a far deeper experience than anything Pokémon’s achieved before. Fortunately, Pokémon Conquest is also extremely friendly to newbies of the genre, providing intuitive tutorials via easily-accessible menu screens.
But while most SRPGs tend to boil down to “defeat all enemies”, Conquest mixes it up by enlisting an array of victory conditions, such as capturing and holding certain points or killing specific enemies. Players must also maintain their kingdoms, station troops at vulnerable, border regions, recruit and level up new Pokémon after each battle, and keep up on enemy locations in order to fend off invasions– which are pretty exhilarating, might I add.
But while all this certainly helps to keep the game feeling fresh, these gimmicks do become rather repetitive over time, even with the invasions. At the end of the day, the very nature of the game means you’ll be doing a lot of fighting over the twenty-odd hour campaign, but the main problem is that you’ll visit the same maps, fight the same Pokémon, and be required to complete the same objectives in every battle, and this lack of diversity makes the game feel almost like an endurance test by the end of your adventure.
You’ll be seeing a lot of these two screens, that I promise.
Adding to this seeming war of attrition is the fact that each Pokémon only has one attack. No matter how much time you invest into battling, fights simply start to feel a bit mundane by the end and you’ll see the identical attack animations over and over…and over again (although the Pokémon themselves and their attack animations look really great).
Persist, though, and you certainly won’t be at a loose end, that’s for sure. With a lengthy single player campaign, thirty-three side-episodes to tackle after completing the story mode, and competitive Wi-Fi play, there really is quite a lot to do, and because of this feels like an excellent first effort in a new franchise. It’s easily the best entry in the series outside of the main installments, as it feels polished, solid, and complete. It does have some shortcomings, namely the lack of variety in the battling, but everything else mostly makes up for this hiccup. The upfront absurdity of Pokémon co-mingling with historic Japanese warriors may be hard for some to overcome, but once you do, you’ll find a deep strategy RPG that’s fun, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. If you like the Pokémon series, you’ll probably want to pick up this game.