On…Pokemon Conquest (DS)

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On paper, this game sounds amazing: a strategy RPG using Pokemon as units. Of course, Pokemon spin-off games have been a bit of a lucky dip in terms of quality, but I am happy to report that Pokemon Conquest is one of the better ones. Whilst it’s definitely not perfect and it isn’t the best strategy RPG offering that the console has, it has some interesting ideas and is rather compelling. It uses the Pokemon license well, although it doesn’t particularly do anything special with it. I would rate the game as above average, though just a bit too ambitious. Still, fans of strategy RPGs will probably enjoy this game, even if you’re not a Pokemon fan.

In Pokemon Conquest, you play as a warlord and your goal is to reunite several warring kingdoms through tactical warfare. Whilst it might sound a bit more bloodthirsty than your traditional Pokemon game, it isn’t actually as violent as it might sound; you win over cities and feudal villages through pokemon battles, and they just kind of submit to your will after showing off your pokemon prowess.

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The battles themselves though are the heart of the game and are very difficult from the main series. In this game, you have several pokemon out on a grid-based field and take it in turns to move across it, take actions such as fighting or using items, and you win by defeating the other pokemon. If you’ve ever played a tactical RPG before like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, you’ll be in familiar territory here.

What Pokemon Conquest brings to the genre though is the huge library of already established pokemon – with over 200 pokemon in the game, the number ofunits available is staggering. To simplify matters though, each pokemon is limited to just one attack. But the pokemon staples like type-advantages still stand here, so your fire type Cyndaquil is going to do more damage to a grass type Bulbasaur. The 200 pokemon chosen for this title range across all the currently available 600+, and they’ve mostly picked the more memorable and well-known ones, as well as throwing in a few that even a pokemon veteran like myself had completely forgotten about.

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Just to further add to the complexity and variety is the different battlefields you’ll travel and battle through. Full of traps and teleporters and hills and valleys, each map offers certain strategic strong points. There’s also some variety in the victory conditions of each map, with some played king-of-the-hill style rather than as a full out battle. As different attacks have different ranges, different pokemon have different stats, there’s just a huge amount of customisation.

Not to mention, outside of battles, there’s a lot you can do in order to recruit more pokemon to your cause. You do this by recruiting warlords who bring their pokemon along with them, but you can then add more pokemon to their roster. Match the right type of pokemon with the compatible warlord and you get bonuses as well.

There’s a lot of other mechanics that the game offers, and for the most part, the tutorials do a good job of introducing you to the layers upon layers of strategy available to you. I think even the most hardcore strategy fans will be satisfied with the depth of this game, as there really is a lot of complex stuff right from the get go. The game feels relatively balanced, although there are moments of randomness which can be a bit frustrating; for the most part though, the gameplay feels really solid and tight, and battles are tense with strategic excitement.

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The other part of the game is also a kind of kingdom management simulator. As you can only have so many pokemon in your warring army at any time, you’ll leave a lot of pokemon behind to defend your captured territory. Swapping these pokemon around in and out of your warring party can be a bit tricky at times, and keeping everyone trained up and in tip top shape is a big part of the management side of this game. As well as gaining exp in battles, pokemon can do training exercises and eat special berries which increase their condition. Plus, I found it was essential to keep lots of pokemon of different types trained up because each warlord, like gym leaders, tends to favour certain types. Having a type advantage in your battles is overwhelmingly strong, and unlike in the main pokemon games where you can just have one pokemon carry the team, you really do need a full team of strong critters to withstand your opponents.

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Still, whilst a lot of people will enjoy the complexity, others will be turned off. I found myself enjoying the variety of pokemon, but then found having to balance that huge amount of pokemon, as well as the warlords you have under your control, and then the various types of training available…it was just too much. There’s way too much micro-management to do and you can get really bogged down in the details. In the end, it doesn’t feel like that level of complexity pays off; you can just as easily beat a hard warlord battle with brute force using type advantage and a bit of luck. The game offers you all these customisation options, but it doesn’t seem to cash in on that. There are harder difficulty modes though, but at the end of the day, the AI just doesn’t seem robust enough for your micro-management to really pay off.

The other slight flaw is the story is quite simplistic. The character dialogue is witty and interesting, but there’s just not enough cohesiveness between the characters to really carry it. You meet warlords and then never have to deal with them again. As far as strategy RPGs go, I really do prefer the story of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem and for me, the story plays a huge part in my engagement with the game. With Pokemon Conquest, the open-nature of the story allowing you to progress at your own speed means that urgency in the plot is sacrificed in order to focus  more on gameplay. For strategy fans, that’s great, but I think some RPG fans will lament the lack of a good, lofty story just to make the game a bit more compelling.

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Despite this, there’s a lot to commend the game for. Visually, it’s really nice with sharp sprites on the field as well as gorgeous anime portraits. The animations as well are delightful, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that they’re better than the animations in the main Pokemon series. The music as well is splendid and really immerses you into its feudal Japan setting. All that wrapped around an incredibly in-depth, mechanically sound and strategically complex game which is one of the strongest offerings in this genre for the DS.

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