Pokemon Conquest is one of the most interesting and in-depth Pokemon spin-offs. After the popularity of Pokemon exploded with the screening of the anime and the release of Red and Blue there has been a steady stream of Pokemon-branded titles outside the main series. Like many spin-offs and ties ins the quality of these has been inconsistent; for every Pokemon Snap there is a Hey You, Pikachu!. The DS era is really when Pokemon tie-ins became prolific, with both Pokemon Ranger and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon releasing several titles each (to say nothing of titles like Pokemon Dash, Pokemon Link or Pokemon Typing Adventure).
The game is an unlikely combination of Pokemon and Nobunaga’s Ambition that sees the player leading a group of warlords and their Pokemon into conflict with one another. The game does not overload the player with justifications for this pairing: warlords battle with Pokemon. Its a premise that you’ll either accept unquestioningly, or come away from unconvinced. Like the colourfully attired warlords themselves, adorned in the manner of their favourite ‘mon, you’ll either think they look cool or odd. Gameplay wise it seems a match made in heaven. The game is a strategy-RPG, Pokemon are ordered around a grid in a manner that will be familiar to players of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. This grid based combat adds some additional strategy to the Pokemon RPG formula. That’s not to say the main Pokemon series games lack depth, but its makes you consider your moves much more carefully even during standard battles.
Disappointingly Pokemon Conquest is lighter on the roleplaying elements than either of those; I didn’t feel the same sense of ownership or team building and as a result it is not as satisfying. From a Pokemon perspective, however, the pairing is wholly worthwhile. Many of the series’ main elements are missing. You do not get to walk around the country. You do not compete in gyms. Mechanics for recruiting and ‘levelling’ Pokemon are present, but take some figuring out. Rather than simply gaining experience or levels for defeating Pokemon or winning battles Pokemon has a link percentage with their warlord. The higher the number the better. Different species have different caps with different warlords, however, and if you want to get the upmost
What I appreciated the most about Pokemon Conquest was the way this change-up in gameplay allowed for a utilisation of different Pokemon; for different Pokemon’s strengths to be recognised. The strong Pokemon, particularly the beefy ones, are still powerful but things like small movement allowances make sure they only have limited appeal. Pokemon may only have one move each here, but that again is another reason to choose a different Pokemon: maybe its move has a useful effect, strikes from a distance, or can hit multiple foes at once. These are not new considerations, but in this different play style they feel fresh. Warlords’ affinities for certain types or species of Pokemon also make a contribution here, and it all comes together to give a deeper appreciation of the wider cast of Pokemon characters.
The main issue I had with Pokemon Conquest was the way the game play was broken down into sections. The main story mode of the game is not exactly short, but definitely brief for a strategy RPG. Following this there is a whole host of episodes or characters, effectively different scenarios, to play through. The internet reliably informs me that completing all of these rewards you with a final, more satisfying section. I’ll never know – I did not get that far. Perhaps the blandness of the setting – the realm of Ransei – is an issue here. Between different ‘post-game’ episodes you’ll find yourself retraining the same Pokemon and recapturing the same towns and I did start to wonder why I should care. With no sense of progress besides completing each episode it makes the repetition hard to stomach. Though that’s not necessarily a criticism of the game: I enjoyed it, had my fill of it, and there’s still more to go at for those who want it.
There’s no denying that many of the elements here would have befitted from further refinement or expansion but Pokemon Conquest is a realm gem of the original DS library. It works so well its hard to believe there hasn’t been a follow up. It seems like it would be a perfect fit for the Switch, and with other DS classics getting ports and sequels it’d be nice to think we may not have heard the last of Pokemon Conquest. I’d recommend this strongly as an introduction to strategy-RPGs and to Pokemon fans hungry for something a little bit different.