Review: Pokémon Conquest for Nintendo DS

As much as I love Nintendo, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Pokémon. That isn’t to say I don’t like it; I used to watch the anime, and I’ve also read some of the early Pokémon Adventures manga (Red could beat the pants off of Ash any day, and true to his name, Blue is so much cooler than Gary).

Heck, as I speak, I even have several talking Pokémon figures sitting on my desk: Charmander, Pikachu, Meowth, Togepi, Psyduck, plus a Dragonite model kit, and I have a small plush Polywhirl (Red’s starter) around somewhere. Oldschool stuff, all– this is from when it hit big in the 90’s.

But the games? Those have had less of a hold on me; a Pokémon Master, I am not. I have my fun with them, sure, but the main series is a little too RPG-grindy for me to fill my Pokédex. I’m a fan, but there are much bigger fans out there.

And yet, here we have Pokémon Conquest, a side-game which turns so much of the series on its head… and it’s great!

“Are you a boy or a girl?” This classic question kicks things off as you choose the gender which corresponds to your own… or just to your preference. Either way, an Eevee will be your Pokémon at the outset– no choice of Water, Fire, or Plant types here, though you can “link” with other wild Pokémon later on.

Once that is done, you are introduced to a Pokémon world unlike any you’ve seen before. Rather than trotting about the Kanto or Johto or whatever regions as a young Pokémon Trainer looking to make his or her mark in the world, you are introduced to the Ransei Region, a group of kingdoms inspired by feudal Japan.

As the young new Warlord of Aurora, it is up to you to protect your kingdom from invasion. And rather than merely running around and catching wild Pokémon, you will set out to battle other kingdoms and bring them to your side. Recruiting their Pokémon Warriors to your side will help strengthen your chances in battle and help you to ultimately thwart the ambition of the Warlord Nobunaga, who seeks to find the legendary Pokémon Arceus, creator of Ransei, to use its power to level the region.

“Nobunaga’s ambition?” you might be asking. Indeed, this game is not only a part of Nintendo’s Pokémon series, but is also a crossover with Tecmo Koei’s longstanding Nobunaga’s Ambition strategy role playing games, with the latter company handling development chores on this title. In fact, the Japanese version of the game is even titled very simply as Pokémon + Nobunaga’s Ambition.

Suffice to say, it’s an interesting shake-up of the Pokémon norm… and one I sort of hope is canon to the Pokémon world, for what that’s worth (as many side-games feel like they don’t really relate to the “real” Pokémon games).

In addition to the story, the combat is a bit of a departure from the Pokémon norm, though Nobunaga’s Ambition fans may feel more at home. On-foot travel and random encounters are replaced by strategically choosing where to go on a map screen, with characters only able to make one move per month in game time. These options include things as basic as shopping or training, or setting off to conquer one of the other 16 kingdoms spread throughout the land. And as you conquer, you’ll find more places to do things, though you will also have to set recruited followers up to watch things while you’re away.

The battles are where the biggest difference lies. You’ll engage other Pokémon Warriors and Warlords on a map, sometimes elementally-themed, where you must maneuver your Pokémon into place in order to complete your goals. These can range from defeating all other enemies to claiming all the banners on the map for your own. And as you might guess, elemental Pokémon on a map with a similar element will have an advantage, such as Fire Pokémon being able to traverse molten magma as if it were solid ground.

The combat is turn-based, and you’re allowed to move into position (within a certain range) and then attack in each turn. Unlike traditional Pokémon games, you don’t have a wide variety of attacks to choose from with each Pokémon. You do, however, have a special skill you can use to help turn the tide; these range from healing powers to curing status effects and more. Once you’ve moved all of your Pokémon (up to six), it’s the other side’s turn.

It’s a great, easy-to-learn system that is also a lot of fun. One of Official Nintendo Magazine‘s writers, Joe Skrebels, even thinks that it is a system that the main series should adopt. Personally, I find it difficult to disagree, though I’ll admit that the RPG standard used in the main series never did much for me in the first place.

One of the game’s more interesting charms is its cast of characters. Each of the Warlords and Warlord Leaders (save for your own player character) are inspired by actual figures from Japanese history, some of which might be familiar to fans of such games as Samurai Warriors (also by Tecmo Koei) and, of course, Nobunaga’s Ambition.

The designs are rather remarkable as well. At first glance, you might see an anime character dressed in traditional, perhaps somewhat-exaggerated Japanese armor and clothing. But when you look more closely, you can see small elements from Pokémon that have been worked into their design. The most common of these is the integration of a Pokéball in various ways, though keen eyes may spot other elements in other Warriors which more closely links them to their respective Pokémon.

These designs are put to good use, as dialogue is most frequently conveyed by large images of the characters, similar to those seen in Capcom’s Ace Attorney series. The art and changing of poses and expressions definitely calls back to those games, though things admittedly don’t get quite as humorous and light-hearted as in Phoenix Wright and Apollo Justice’s adventures. At the same time, it’s hard not to see a little of Maya Fey in Oichi, this game’s young female sidekick.

Overall, there isn’t a lot to find fault with in Pokémon Conquest. The graphics aren’t anything mind-blowing, but we’re hard-pressed to find a Pokémon game which really took a Nintendo system to its limit, anyway. And as noted above, the character portraits help make up for this. On top of that, a good localization helps give them all a bit of extra character.

With 17 kingdoms to unite, 32 extra episodes featuring the cast of other Warlords, and downloadable content to come later, there is plenty to do. There is also a multiplayer mode, though it is unfortunately for local players only. No online here, which for some may be the game’s one major downfall.

Pokémon Conquest is undoubtedly the most interesting and engaging title to bear the Pokémon name in quite some time. Though it’s possible that the upcoming Pokémon Black & White 2 could sway some people on the matter, this is still likely to be far more different from the norm than those games will be.

In fact, even if the regular style of Pokémon isn’t your cup of tea, you should still give this one a look. It may be just the thing you’ve been looking for, and Pokémon fans should appreciate the change of pace as well.

At the end of the day, we’re left with only one question: Can they manage a sequel? Well, if Nobunaga’s Ambition has been able to run for as long as it has, then maybe!

Pokémon Conquest was released for the Nintendo DS (and is playable on the Nintendo 3DS) on June 18th, 2012, and is priced at $34.99. A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.


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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.