Pokémon Conquest Review

After the Mystery Dungeon and Ranger franchises, the fifth generation brought an unlikely addition to the Pokémon spin-off game roster. A crossover with the Nobunaga's Ambition series, Pokémon Conquest is a turn-based strategy game taking place in a Pokémon version of feudal Japan, though in-game dialogue suggests it's actually contemporaneous with the main series and the region of Ransei is just technologically backwards.

Story

In Pokémon Conquest, you play as a rookie warlord, male or female, who sets out to conquer all seventeen type-themed kingdoms of Ransei to unite the region before the sinister Nobunaga can take over. There is a legend that if any warrior rules the entirety of Ransei, a legendary Pokémon will appear before him or her.

...And that is pretty much all there is to it. While the Ranger and Mystery Dungeon games are more plot- and character-based than the main Pokémon series, this is most emphatically not so with Conquest; it is a pure turn-based strategy game, and its plot is simply a thin wrapper of an excuse for why you're doing what you're doing. If you were hoping for an epic dramatic storyline, or a standard RPG level of storyline, or even just the main Pokémon series' level of storyline, this is not the game for you. This is chess with Pokémon and pretty illustrations and occasional inconsequential banter between the characters. Nominally it has a couple of plot twists, but even those don't change your goals or understanding of what you're doing in any significant way; the dialogue in the game is almost entirely window dressing.

I wouldn't exactly call the story or lack thereof a flaw in the game, because it doesn't really seem to be trying for much of a plot - complaining about it would be missing the point. However, it does mean that if you like your games story-based, you should probably not get Pokémon Conquest.

Aesthetics

Pokémon Conquest is pretty gorgeous to look at. The Pokémon portraits look fantastic - they have interesting, dynamic poses and a smooth and beautiful art style. And the designs of the warriors generally look great, with warlords having unique costumes that generally call to mind their partner Pokémon without looking too contrived. In battle, the graphics aren't quite as impressive - the Pokémon's idle animations are a couple of frames that also constitute their walking animation, and the game has an annoying tendency to zoom in on the sprites while they're attacking despite that this makes them look ugly and pixelated - but it still all looks generally nice.

The music varies. There are some battle themes that are quite catchy, but others are forgettable; moreover, the same music plays at all times in the overworld, and although it's not that bad a piece, it gets rather repetitive.

Gameplay

As expected from a turn-based strategy game, the gameplay as a whole proceeds in turns, each standing for one month of in-world time. During each turn, each warrior you have recruited can perform one action such as participating in a battle or using one of the overworld facilities in the kingdom they're located in; they can be moved between kingdoms before acting, but are stuck where they are once they've used up their action. Battles can either be fights against wild Pokémon and warriors that happen to have appeared in one of a kingdom's "areas", or fights over the ownership of a kingdom. Each warrior can only use one Pokémon at a time, but up to six warriors may take part in any given battle. During battles, you can move your Pokémon around the battlefield grid and use them to attack the enemy's Pokémon, as well as using your warriors' special abilities which can do things such as heal, boost stats, or allow the Pokémon to climb slopes it couldn't otherwise. Meanwhile, the battlefields are various, with different terrains, obstacles and other quirks.

The Pokémon capture mechanic in Conquest is called "linking". When you're in battle against some wild Pokémon, you can send one of your warriors' Pokémon up to one of the wild ones and choose the special "Link" option instead of attacking; this starts a sort of rhythm-based minigame where you must press A at the right moment as orbs of light fly past. If you succeed well enough, the warrior whose Pokémon you used the Link option with will obtain that Pokémon and be able to use it in future battles.

The idea of links also replaces the experience system. Each Pokémon has a certain link percentage with its partnered warrior, and as the warrior performs activities such as battling with that Pokémon, the link will increase. The link percentage indicates how much of the Pokémon's full potential it has reached with this warrior: the Pokémon's stats are scaled according to the percentage value, and moves additionally increase in power and effect chance as the link increases. Complicating things is the fact that different warriors have different maximum links with each Pokémon that they can link with at all; most warriors can only get a perfect 100% link with one family of Pokémon, with steadily decreasing maximum numbers for Pokémon that are further from matching the warrior's temperament and personality. Helping you figure out what kinds of Pokémon your warriors are likely to prefer, each warrior has one or two types that they specialize in, which can be seen on their profiles in-game, and they're generally going to have high maximum links with Pokémon of one or both of those types. You can also see while battling wild Pokémon whether any of your warriors have a particularly strong maximum link with any of them - when you have a warrior's Pokémon selected, any wild Pokémon on the field will have a marker above their head indicating whether they can link with that warrior at all and whether the maximum link is 90% or more (indicated with a gold marker), 70%-90% (silver marker) or lower (bronze marker).

While you can switch which of a warrior's linked Pokémon is active at any given time, there is no way for warriors to trade Pokémon; each warrior is stuck with the ones they've personally linked with, no matter how much better a partner for some other warrior that Pokémon would be. It's not that this is a gameplay flaw so much as that it's psychologically maddening: over and over again in the game, you'll recruit warriors who are already carrying exactly the rare Pokémon one of your other warriors has a perfect link with, but no matter how crippled that Pokémon is with its current partner - some Pokémon/warrior combinations have maximum link percentages as low as 28% - you can't just have them switch. The game wouldn't exactly be better if you could trade, but because of some combination of the heavy emphasis on trading in the main series and the fact it's impossible in the one game where it matters who is training what Pokémon, it feels a bit like the game is constantly taunting you with all the random warriors you can recruit that are carrying Pokémon you haven't been able to find in the wild yet.

The battling is a pretty good adaptation of the regular Pokémon battle system; though it's simplified, it keeps the important stuff for the most part. The biggest difference is that Conquest battles take place on a grid where the Pokémon have to move around to reach one another with their attacks, and in line with that, attacks have different targeting patterns: they may target one or many squares, immediately in front of the user or a square or two away, and the targeted squares can even form a complex pattern (Fire Blast, for instance, targets squares in the five-pronged kanji pattern we see it form when it hits in the main series games). Another big difference is that any given Pokémon species only has one move it can use; on the one hand that obviously reduces the variety in ways to use a given Pokémon and leads to awkward situations where some normally good Pokémon are next to useless in Conquest because their single move just isn't any good, but on the other hand I somewhat see why they did it, as it makes each Pokémon more specialized and makes it harder to just have a few warriors that can beat anything.

This forms part of the reason why, like the Mystery Dungeon games, Conquest suffers from too much luck in the battle system. Most moves have the same base accuracy as they do in the main series (except Dragon Rage, which has been made 75% accurate because it would otherwise be hideously overpowered due to the generally low HP of Pokémon in the game). However, in the main series you can choose an alternative, accurate move when you want reliability; not so in Conquest, where any Pokémon with an inaccurate move is stuck using nothing but that move, ever (until it evolves, at any rate). In general, battles in Pokémon Conquest very frequently turn on something as arbitrary as precisely how many of your 75% accurate moves actually hit and when, or the random placement of the Pokémon on the battlefield when the battle starts: being able or not able to reach certain squares, or being close to this opponent instead of that opponent, can be crucial. And as if that weren't enough, it also adds luck-based abilities (some of Conquest's Pokémon abilities are based on abilities from the main series, but others not) such as "Parry" and "Instinct", which allow the Pokémon to dodge direct/indirect attacks respectively at about a 50% chance. They're handy when they work in your favor, but when they don't, you'll want to throw your DS at a wall - I lost about five times in a row in Illusio purely by running out of time because Kenshin's Gallade's Parry ability would seemingly activate every single time I attacked it.

Conquest's stat system is simplified by eliminating the physical/special distinction: Pokémon only have one Attack stat and one Defense stat. The Attack stat for a Pokémon is generally based on the stat corresponding to the main series damage type of the move that they have, unless the other offensive stat is much higher; the Defense stat is an average of the main series defensive stats. Because in Conquest there is no set turn order - you can move your warriors' Pokémon in any order you like - Speed, while based on the Speed stat of the main series, is really a completely different stat that primarily affects accuracy: faster Pokémon attacking slower Pokémon are more likely to hit. In addition to Speed, Pokémon have a Range stat that determines by how many squares they can move each turn, which is generally also based on how speedy the Pokémon is. HP is the same as in the main series. Meanwhile, a new mechanic, Energy, causes fluctuations in Pokémon's stats between in-game months: when they're particularly pumped up, their stats are higher, and special food, "ponigiri", can be bought to increase the Energy of your warriors' Pokémon.

All in all, Pokémon Conquest battling feels reasonably Pokémonlike and is quite fun in itself even if you prefer the main series battle system. However, if you don't like the battle system, you'll probably find the game rather repetitive and dull, since there isn't much to it other than battling, battling and then battling some more - the non-battle gameplay elements consist of mining for gold (which is just going through menus) and using the gold to buy stuff (items, ponigiri, or location upgrades that increase the variety of Pokémon that can appear in a kingdom - which is also just going through menus).

Controls and Player Experience

Sadly, this is one of the main failing points of Pokémon Conquest, at least to me; it seems like the least thought-out aspect of the game, and it really detracts from it. To start with, the game does not do a very good job of explaining itself to the player. It completely fails to tell you, for instance, that actually the main storyline is basically one huge tutorial mission, and that when you've finished it you'll have dozens of other missions, each of which will have you basically starting over with a small number of warriors and low link levels for their Pokémon. I wasted hours upon hours laboring to train all my warriors in the main storyline before a friend happened to tell me this. It fails to tell you that half of the Pokémon in the game can only be found wild after you've upgraded the locations in a kingdom - an option which doesn't become available at all until after beating the main storyline, and which you'd never know existed just from playing the main story. The overworld options tend to be poorly explained as well - I still don't know exactly what delegation actually does or how it compares to doing things manually.

Moreover, the user interface is pretty all-around shoddy and irritating. In order to have your Pokémon stay in place and attack an opponent that's already standing where your attack can target it, you need to first select your Pokémon and then press A again to select its current location before you will be given the option to press Fight. Conversely, if you move your Pokémon to a square where it cannot reach any possible target with its attack, the game still gives you the Fight option and allows you to select it, and it is still the first, highlighted option; if you press it, you'll simply be unable to do anything and will have to press B to go back and then explicitly select the Wait option. This is incredibly clunky and irritating. Meanwhile, if your Pokémon is asleep/frozen/etc. and therefore cannot move, the Fight option will be grayed out and not selected, but when you select the Pokémon, there is an inexplicable one- or two-second delay before it actually brings up the Fight and Wait options to begin with. The only explanation I can think of is that they wanted to ensure that you don't accidentally select Wait by pressing A once too often, but at the very least it would have been better to just have Fight auto-selected but make it do nothing, rather than making the controls randomly seem unresponsive.

And it's not just in battle, either. While on the overworld screens you can see the portraits of the warriors located in each kingdom and their Pokémon, you can't see their names - which is a pretty huge problem because many warriors can have the same portrait and be carrying the same species of Pokémon, and there is no way to tell which is which without entering the "Info" screen for a particular kingdom. This same "Info" screen is also where you can switch your warriors' Pokémon around; if you want to do that when you're, say, picking warriors to enter into a battle because that's when you'll generally want to be reconsidering your warriors' active Pokémon, tough luck. You'll have to exit that screen and enter the "Info" screen instead, then go back into the battle selection screen. And of course, before you can do that you'll have to figure out that that's where you can switch them around to begin with, which isn't exactly the most intuitive place for it to be (why would you press "Info", a command that implies read-only information, to change something?) and doesn't advertise itself to you even when you're on that screen.

This and the gameplay annoyances mentioned above lead to a generally frustrating game experience - even if you actually like the game, there is a certain undercurrent of irritation that is the hallmark of any game with poorly designed controls or interface. It's a shame, because it would have been so easy to do it better.

Conclusion

I happen to like turn-based strategy, and for all its flaws, I actually enjoy Pokémon Conquest (this probably comes as a surprise after all the complaining above). But it is definitely not for everyone: ultimately, it is mostly a battle system with some pretty wrapping paper, and if you don't like the battle system, there is little hope you'll find any part of it appealing at all. Try it before you buy it.

Page last modified August 12 2016 at 22:34 GMT