Gotta conquer it all

Since the “Gotta Catch ‘em All” superfad days of the late ’90s, Pokemon’s been a gaming staple that’s transcended audiences due to its addictive, turn-based RPG base and its cute, family-friendly humor and themes. But like all great Nintendo cash cows, it also needs to break away from the formula every once in a while in order to possibly reach new audiences (and wallets). That’s what led to the creation of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spin-off, after all—and to the game we’re looking at today.

Pokémon Conquest is a cross between the pocket monsters we know and love and the classic Tecmo Koei strategy series Nobunaga’s Ambition, which tasks players with uniting feudal Japan under one banner. In this game, you’re the newest daimyo in the land of Ransei, a Japanese-inspired realm. Along with your loyal pet Eevee, you’ll build an army comprised of the best Pokémon trainers in the land in order to conquer the 17 other daimyos and rule Ransei. Each daimyo, just like in all the other Pokémon games, battles using themes based around specific types of Pokémon—and, with 17 daimyos to conquer, you’re sure to see each type represented once.

But if you’re expecting a traditional Pokémon game beyond those aspects, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Pokémon you wield are simply tools to carry out macro and micro strategies on a gridlike battlefield. In fact, Pokémon traditionalists may well be irked by the gameplay. But if you can look past what this game isn’t and focus more on what it is, you’ll find a deep, well-polished, engrossing strategy offering.

The bulk of the actual gameplay sees you positioning your Pokémon around a field, moving them square by square in standard strategy-game fashion and then either choosing to attack, hold your position, or use an item, which reminded me of a poor man’s Fire Emblem. One downside to this, though, is that each Pokémon only has one attack move instead of the traditional four. That means that once you choose to attack, your turn with that Pokémon is all but over. For a game revolving around strategy, removing that classic Pokémon element is somewhat puzzling. That, and when—or if—a Pokémon evolves almost seems to come at random, as the leveling-up system we know and love has also been replaced by a Pokémon’s “strength rating” and a meter measuring the relationship with their respective trainer.

The biggest key to success in Pokémon Conquest, though, is that instead of capturing new Pokémon, you recruit new trainers and their specific Pokémon to your cause and build your army up. This is an interesting dynamic, as you can fight with up to six Pokemon per turn; once you reach the limit of six trainers in your party, though, you’ll need to start distributing other trainers to previously conquered lands. But since each land can also only hold six trainers at a time, you’re very limited in who you can or can’t recruit—and this will surely frustrate players used to trying to complete their Pokédex (now replaced by a common gallery) and having as many Pokéballs they could buy and then just storing them in a massive PC.

Though the Pokémon label might be slightly disingenuous, Conquest does offer a novel, enjoyable take on the strategy genre—and the Pokémon brand also gives the traditionally hardcore strategy genre a modicum of accessibility to a wider audience. If the wider Pokémon fanbase can look past a few curious decisions in regards to this odd franchise marriage, they’ll find a strong strategy title that should provide some severe addiction in its own right.

SUMMARY: Another solid Pokémon spin-off, but die-hard fans will quickly miss much of the gameplay from the main series.

  • THE GOOD: Interesting blend of turn-based strategy elements with Pokémon.
  • THE BAD: Hardcore Pokémon fans will miss the traditional catching and leveling aspects of the main series.
  • THE UGLY: Some of the simplest level design you’ll ever see.

SCORE: 8.0

Pokémon Conquest is a Nintendo DS exclusive.