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SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers. If you do not wish to spoil the game for yourself, skip the sections with (S) in the heading.
There is something extremely appealing about the idea of using an army of Pokemon to conquer an island nation—indeed, I doubt that there is anybody who has not considered the possibility since the first Pokemon games came out. And so, at last, Nintendo has seen fit to grace our miserable lives with one of the most entertaining prospects for a spin-off game yet—a fusion of everybody's favorite battle slaves and a hardcore Japanese strategy game. I will be the first to admit that this game has had its ups and downs for me personally—my initial happy thoughts of commanding my loyal legion of thousands of arquebus-wielding Gyarados to steamroll the enemy forces were marred slightly when I realized I was expected to invade and conquer a rival nation armed with nothing but my pride, an Eevee, and a Jigglypuff, but once one gets over the initial disappointment, it is hard to not be won over by the game's simple charm and effortless play value.
To be perfectly honest, to describe Pokemon Conquest as an amalgamation of Pokemon and Nobunaga's Ambition would be a little bit dodgy. There aren't a lot of similarities between Nobunaga's Ambition and Pokemon Conquest, other than the fact that they are turn-based strategy games which happen to involve a chap called Nobunaga in some capacity (which is a pretty tenuous link at best). Interestingly, though, one of Koei's other game series, Samurai Warriors (which admittedly is loosely based on Nobunaga's Ambition) happens to share many similarities with Pokemon Conquest; so many, in fact, that you could quite easily describe Pokemon Conquest as a fusion of Samurai Warriors and Pokemon. Samurai Warriors is well-known for its mass beat-'em-up style of gameplay, preposterously large weapons, and eyebrow-raisingly flamboyant costumes, which look somewhat out-of-place in feudal Japan—in fact, with this backdrop, the introduction of irrepressibly powerful fluffy animals to the mix hardly serves to make the game more ridiculous at all. If anything, it strengthens it.
Anyway, Samurai Warriors provides the groundwork for all the unique characters in the game, their personalities, base costumes (there are some small edits, such as Nobunaga's famous flower emblem having a Poké Ball in the centre), and indeed relationships to one another (after all, Saika Magoichi and Date Masamune probably never even met one another, except in the minds of the Koei developers, and the ninja Kunoichi never even existed). Of course, since this is a Pokemon game, these are somewhat watered down—in order to avoid confusing the little children, their clan names are removed, everybody is slightly less bloodthirsty and murderous, and all mention of any kind of romantic relationship is removed entirely (No is one of Nobunaga's generals rather than his wife, Nene / Hideyoshi and Ginchiyo / Muneshige happen to be in the same respective castles but nothing more, and Nagamasa does not even exist). So, what this means is that this game has a rather good selection of characters immediately, each with their own distinguishable personality, character portrait, and hence some sort of note, with only a few hiccups along the way (Hanzo repeats his Samurai Warriors line of only living to serve his master endlessly, irrespective of the fact that he doesn't actually have one for most of the game).
You may well say, what is the point of including all these historically relevant characters at all? Disregarding the fact that most of the Warlords were not even contemporaries of one another at all, there doesn't seem to be much reason to have them there anyway, as they're not in feudal Japan (they are in "Ransei", which is definitely not Japan), and they are surrounded by magical animal things. And yet, it's almost as though the two concepts were made for one another. Heavily romanticized versions of rather boring, moustachioed strategists from a bygone era can be slightly off-putting when the title is clearly meant to be based on historical events—the sheer idiocy of the scenario can be as startling as it is amusing—but once you add Pokemon to the mixture, everything is suddenly all right. The game almost stops taking itself too seriously—even though you can tell that the developers were trying their utmost, and failing spectacularly, to make the game seem serious without any references to death or bodily injury, you can appreciate the storyline, and the characters, for their own sake—as a fictional creation. Certainly you may find that the more ruthless pedants will take issue with the idea that Oda Nobunaga had a magical dragon that shot lightning bolts—but don't mind them. The key thing here is that the natural charm of Pokemon has been carried over, which is a big plus.
Now, without giving too much away, I should like to talk a little bit about the story, as I feel that it is one of the most important things a good game needs. Now, if you don't like spoilers, I would suggest that you skip past the following paragraphs. To put it briefly, though, the story is pretty short, and relies largely upon the special episodes to drag out the playtime—all of which are pretty poor as far as the storyline is concerned. In fact, it would be more accurate, rather than describing the first episode as the "main game" and the rest as the "post-game", to describe the first episode as simply an extended tutorial, a nice, easy starter to get you prepared for the more challenging special episodes. Even with my penchant for unnecessary over-training of everything, I managed to complete the main story in a day, or roughly twelve hours.
The storyline for the first game is fairly straightforward. You are the young, handsome, strapping leader of the Normal-type kingdom, who is somehow dragged into conquering the entirety of the Ransei region due to the apparent incapability of any of the other Warlord leaders to do anything about the fact that Nobunaga is rampaging through the north, aided and abetted by your equally talented sidekick, Oichi (who is quite obviously Nobunaga's sister, even if you haven't played Samurai Warriors, but you aren't supposed to know that at the beginning), the patronizing midgets Mitsunari, Kiyomasa, and Masanori (who are for no obvious reason depicted as children in this game, and have no connection to Hideyoshi), and the frankly alarming Keiji (who to be quite honest defies description, other than that he appears to have reached Super Saiyan 10). Anyway, after conquering the entirety of the south, you meet up with Nobunaga and his Zekrom, who explains that he always talks about himself in the third person, has quite bizarre anarchist tendencies, and invites you to conquer all the castles he spent time and effort capturing while he puts his feet up in the northernmost kingdom.
Long story short, you capture all the castles, beat Nobunaga, link with Arceus, ditching your beloved childhood friend in the process (wow nobody saw that coming), beat Nobunaga again (who has inexplicably switched his Zekrom for a black Rayquaza, despite not using it the first time), you learn that Nobunaga wasn't actually that bad a guy after all (since nobody's allowed to be totally evil in this game, with the possible exception of Kotaro and maybe those random thieves), and Arceus goes off somewhere. Now, despite the fact that the ending is pretty contrived, I like it for some reason—it seems to raise important moral questions about a society in which Pokemon are used to wage war and, er, stuff like that. But hey, let's look at the positives. Certainly, the storyline isn't Pokemon Conquest's strong point, but it is tolerable, and better than you would find in most strategy games, and anyway, the gameplay more than makes up for it.
Let's get something pretty clear, very quickly—Pokemon Conquest is easy. While it will certainly present a challenge if you attack your opponents' castles with nothing but under-levelled Bidoof, this would be the case even in one of the main Pokemon games. The same things generally apply here—if you attack using super effective moves and strong Pokemon, you will find it pretty easy, especially as you know the strength and the moves of the opposing Pokemon before you even begin. However, there are several aspects of the game that are pretty easy to abuse. The first is the ability to save during your turn—this makes it pretty easy to reset the DS if you were frozen, or burned, or got hit by a critical hit, or missed Dragon Rage, or indeed anything. The second is the fact that all the Pokemon you collect, or indeed evolve, with any character are recorded in the gallery; thus, it is fairly easy, once you have completed a few episodes, to simply target those kingdoms where your Mewtwo-wielding champion is lurking, re-recruit them, and set about bulldozing everything else.
In fact, these faults render quite a lot of the things you can hypothetically do to make your force stronger somewhat useless. I had no need of the shop, no need of Warrior Powers, no need of items, no need of passwords, no need of upgrading facilities, no need of recruiting warriors—in fact, it got to a stage where training altogether was pointless—it was easier to just steamroll the nearest kingdom and reap the glorious experience gain. In fact, the game seems to actively discourage you from doing anything but battling, as it apparently takes you a month to pop down to the shops for a Super Potion. You do notice the increased difficulty as you pass through episodes—only just OHKOing your opponent's Shinx where previously you would have hit the 999 damage cap, say—but it gets to a stage where you sort of cease to care. A prime example of this is the final Hero episode, where every facility is maxed, every Warlord has their highest-evolution partner, and all the link levels are far higher than yours—but when my starting characters were a Zekrom and a Glaceon (and a Wigglytuff, but let's ignore that), it didn't really matter. When I started the game, I would not enter a battle unless my force was at least twice as strong as the opponent's; after the first few episodes, I would split my force into two or three smaller armies and conquer two or three kingdoms per month; by the final episode, I was sending one Warrior, alone, into an enemy kingdom, equipped with a Guardian Charm, which worked out at around six kingdoms a month at best.
Still, these are all faults with the difficulty, not the gameplay itself, which is relatively solid, with all the advantages of the Pokemon game behind it—type advantages, items, different stats, and the like. With only one move to work with, strategies are rather different—for example, all ganging up on the opponent's strongest Pokemon and ignoring the minnows, or else making the most of different move ranges and movement ranges to execute various strategies. This is easy and pleasant to do, and as an added bonus, the game will tell you the average damage you can expect the attack to do, as well as the accuracy, and will allow you to cancel the move if you reconsider, before you attack. The depth of strategy possible in this game is remarkable for what it appears to be on the surface, and there is something pleasantly satisfying about breaking three Pokemon in a turn by executing some skilful manoeuvre. Alternatively, you can just use Staraptor to massacre everything. Either works.
Of course, this is Pokemon, and it wouldn't be Pokemon without some lovely, liberal dollops of dripping, juicy, rage-inducing, upper-lip-chewing hax. Yes, this game positively has it in spades. One mechanic that particularly annoys me is that accuracy is calculated according to the two Speed stats of the attacker and victim, which is particularly annoying as it means that slow Pokemon can barely hit anything, but that's not by any means the limit. Poison and burn are everywhere, and seem to have a far greater chance to inflict status than in the main games (though that may just be my gut feeling). Even the battlefields themselves are out to get you, with random falling meteors and thunderbolts and variously placed pit traps where you weren't expecting them. Surprisingly, there are very few maps with too many annoying gimmicks—most of the time they are fairly self-explanatory and mesh well with the level design. I could name some that don't—the ridiculously overcrowded Valora map, the impossible-to-navigate Illusio map, and indeed the horribly designed Spectra map are some examples (the Spectra map in particular takes forever to beat owing to its insistence on taking forever to randomly move every statue on the field, and every Will-O-Wisp, at the end of every turn, which is as obnoxious as anything). I could go on for ages about all the little things that irritate me, but it's mainly the case that, once you have played each map enough times, you will find your own preferred strategy for dealing with them (and consequently make them rather trivial in later episodes).
Regardless, the game is fun and innovative and all the other meaningless adjectives that are often applied to these sorts of games, I'm sure, and will only occasionally make you want to tear your hair out and start chewing your plush toys—if some game-changing hax has prevented you from recruiting a warlord, say. For my own part, all I care about is that it is that rarest-of-rare things—a game which has nearly infinite replay value. There is no endgame stagnation, as with most main Pokemon games—even if you do finish the post-game episodes, you can pick it up again after a few days and play any episode you want, and the somewhat addictive gameplay will throw you right in. More than anything else, it's a game that makes you feel good about yourself more than it makes you frustrated—well, if you are the sort of person who feels good about beating a game designed to challenge ten-year-olds (like me).
There's not much to say here. It's a Pokemon game. The music is well done and each battlefield has its own music score that reliably sets the tone of the battle. Ignis is fast-paced and exciting, Yaksha is sinister and hiding something, and Valora is going to annoy the heck out of you. I'm not one to talk about music with any great deal of vim, but rest assured that you should not be disappointed by this title in that field—unless, of course, you dislike the music in the main Pokemon games, in which case I can strongly recommend that you consider purchasing a box of fuzzy felt in lieu of any video games.
There's not really much else to say in this regard, other than that it all works well. While the layout is admittedly quite simple, and there's not an awful lot to actually do in the overworld, it's very easy to equip and unequip items, move Warriors from A to B, attack a nation, and the like, and there are very few frustrating elements to the overworld. Likewise, the in-battle options are discreetly placed at the bottom of the screen, you can rotate, zoom in, or just neither, it's easy to see how far you can move, how much damage you can do, and how accurate your attacks are, and the like. There is really nothing much to complain about, except that it's all a bit plain sometimes. But perhaps that's a positive thing in many ways.
Now, one of the more confusing things about Pokemon Conquest is exactly what happens once you complete the main game. So here, in a few words, are your answers. No, you can never play the original story again. Yes, you keep all the Pokemon you caught. No, your Pokemon are all reset to the standard max link when you start a new episode—the maximum you have ever achieved is stored in the gallery. No, you don't get to keep Arceus. Yes, it's a pain. No, you can't have your money back.
Anyway, one of the many things that Pokemon Conquest adopts from Samurai Warriors is the idea of using multiple different scenarios centring on each of the unique characters in the game to boost the game's length—with 34 different episodes of varying lengths (plus 3 more off Wi-fi), you are looking at a very long game indeed—for my own part, I can estimate that there are about 80 hours of gameplay in there for a moderate player, and my own current time—which involved evolving all Warlords, collecting all legendaries, collecting all Eeveelutions, and replaying a few episodes for fun—stands at about 100 hours. While this sounds very nice, there is no getting away from the fact that quite a few of these special episodes are, not to put too fine a point on it, er… a little bit repetitive.
All of the special episodes follow some sort of pattern, of which there are quite a few variations. There are the Conquer Ransei episodes (essentially, if a character has been raving about ruling the land in the main game, you can bet that's what they'll be doing in their episode), the Beauty Competition episodes (where only female Warlords participate—well, females and Ranmaru—I believe this is another throwback to Samurai Warriors), the Ninja Competition episodes (where only ninja characters participate), the Warriors Competition episodes (where the Warlords do not take part—you are probably detecting a pattern here), the Collect-100-Pokemon and Collect-40-Warriors episodes (where you can capture the original protagonist, which you can't do in other episodes), the Rivals episodes (first one to win 5 battles takes the lot), the Child episodes (which can be beaten in literally ten minutes), the Rebellion episodes (arguably the most fun and difficult episodes, as you must defeat Nobunaga, complete with super-powered Hydreigon, within a time limit of three years), and of course, the final Hero episode at the end (no spoilers). When you complete the main story, you get a selection of eight episodes, each of which corresponds to one of these categories. Each time you complete an episode, another three seem to be unlocked, giving the distinct impression that you are warring against a veritable Hydra of a game.
Now, this is all very well when these are all fresh and new and exciting, and indeed, the slightly more aggressive AI (well alright, they take a bit of time to actually start attacking other nations, but once they do it gets exciting) and freedom from cutscenes can be very nice. However, once you have completed what is essentially the same episode for the third time, the charm seems to wear off a little. Samurai Warriors could sort of get away with this because, well, it's a new story for every character, and all that. But with Pokemon Conquest, you are lucky to get even dialogue at the beginning and end of the episode—most of the time, the character just natters to themselves for a bit, and then the familiar war starts again. This, I think, is the game's greatest letdown, greater than anything else in fact—the post-game stories have no real incentive to complete them, barring for completing the game's sake. I stuck to it in the desperate hope that at least one episode would delve deeper into some of the characters' psyches, or at least have some humorous dialogue, but the most I got during the episodes themselves was "The enemy is at Honnoji Spectra" during Mitsuhide's campaign. Even the final episode had no content to it—and Oichi didn't even have a speaking part. I feel this could have been so easily rectified by triggering a general cutscene after having claimed x number of nations, or reaching a kingdom adjacent to y Warlord—but alas, this was not to be. This is something that the main Pokemon games and, indeed, Samurai Warriors both have, which Pokemon Conquest lacks.
Finally, we must talk about the Pokemon. Now, I am of the opinion that Pokemon Conquest has actually executed this rather brilliantly. I was afraid that there would be a huge emphasis on BW Pokemon, and indeed I do think that there is something of a moderate bias towards including them, but for the most part the roster of 200 Pokemon is well balanced and well supported, with a surprising number of my favourite Pokemon making it in. Five of the six pseudo-legendaries made it in, and there were legendaries from every era save GSC (which I don't quite understand, but there you are). All in all, this was, I think, one of the more balanced rosters for a spin-off. Although the necessity of swarms to collect certain Pokemon was annoying, as well as the nasty reliance on the random arrival of the travelling merchant to procure evolution items that were almost certainly too expensive for you to purchase anyway, it is certainly very easy and entirely possible to complete your Pokedex. It is not quite so easy to collect every Warrior in the game, given that they all look the same, and even harder to get all of them with their respective Best Link—but if you're going for these goals, you are probably playing the game a bit too seriously. Speaking of Best Links, you are unlikely to ever reach 100% or even 60-70% in any episode save the first one, so the issue of Link capacity is very rarely an issue, so you need not worry about not being able to recruit your favourite Pokemon—you are very likely to be able to get your ideal team without any serious reduction in your team's efficacy. For example, I much prefer Scizor to Forretress on Yoshimoto.
Another great thing about this game is that, in fact, nearly every Pokemon in the entire game is usable, and in some cases, evolved forms are worse, or less useful than, their unevolved counterparts. The Pokemon are more or less identical in stats to their main game counterparts—principally, this is achieved through moves (Luxio learns the excellent Discharge, but Luxray is stuck with Thunder), and through movement range. Most unevolved Pokemon have movement ranges of 4, which is an incredible advantage in this game. By contrast, some of the big, powerful Pokemon, like Dragonite, Charizard, and Tyranitar, are stuck with movement ranges of 2, which actually serves to make them almost unusable without movement-increasing Warrior Powers, as they cannot get near to the opponent before the rest of your team has already destroyed them. This is a problem with most of the super-powerful Pokemon, which means that quite a few of the best Pokemon in Smogon's standard OU are actually suboptimal in this game. Garchomp is still pretty good, though (but Hydreigon is better, largely due to Levitate). Interestingly, Beedrill is a standalone Pokemon in this game—there is no Weedle or Kakuna. I suppose they couldn't find a way to make them usable. There is no Special Attack; there is only Attack (which is always cut in half by burn irrespective of what move you're using, I have found) so there is no Blissey to shut down special attackers, no Will-O-Wisp to ruin physical attackers, no set-up sweepers—there is just an attack, and a result. Consider this—in this game, Starly is an absolute, 100% Groudon counter.
It's not all great, though. As previously mentioned, quite a few fan-favourite Pokemon are rendered useless through their movement ranges—also, status effects appear to occur more often than not, Dragon-types are disproportionately powerful due to their STAB options, Flying-types and Pokemon with Levitate are ridiculously strong due to being able to navigate nearly all maps with ease (and also to fly behind opponents to get a stronger hit in), and Intimidate is very, very good indeed. The best abilities generally serve to make the best Pokemon better rather than the weakest Pokemon viable, and quite a few Pokemon have been stuffed by the hand they were dealt. Consider poor Rhyperior, who was given a movement range of 2, low Speed (so misses everything) and Rock Wrecker as its only move, which is as bad in this game as it is in the main games (so seriously, don't bother using Shingen at all*).
Now, we should probably end on a note about the legendaries. I am actually rather impressed with some of the thought put into some of the choices, while being thoroughly baffled by some others. Now, for the most part, the choices for the Warlords' speciality types make perfect sense with their characters, and their Best Link Pokemon are very well chosen indeed. Hideyoshi works as a Fire-type leader and gives leave for the developers to play on his "monkey" nickname by partnering him with Infernape, Nobunaga's Dragon-type speciality marks him as the most powerful of all the Warlords (and conveniently resists the STAB moves of Vaporeon, Flareon, Jolteon, and Leafeon, the easiest three Eeveelutions to obtain), and the like. Everything just seems to slot into place so neatly with minimal edits to either the Pokemon or to the Samurai Warriors characters (well, until they evolve and start wearing cosplay outfits, anyway). For the most part, the legendaries are similarly well picked. Nobunaga's Zekrom is a nice and intimidating black dragon, to be sure, but then they give Hideyoshi a Reshiram, which is an excellent way of tying together the two unifiers, and also brings into question the idea of Truth versus Ideals. Of course, to complete the triangle they should have given Ieyasu a Kyurem, but instead they gave him a Registeel, supposedly because they're both round.
Other legendaries are similarly bizarre. Tadakatsu doesn't appear to have any special significance at all, but gets his own character-specific item as well as Dialga (who is worse than Metagross anyway, but it's the principle of the thing). Similarly, Keiji gets a Terrakion for no apparent reason. And then, horror of horrors, Nobunaga ditches his Zekrom—which the entire main game, not to mention the cover art, had been building up to—in favour of a shiny Rayquaza, which had not been mentioned or even existed up until that point. Which sort of deflates the whole unifiers message. I'm also irritated that more Warlords didn't get legendaries. After all, Masamune is the One-Eyed Dragon, so you'd think that Rayquaza would be pretty fitting for him (better than his rubbish Braviary, anyway). And I think that Motochika was referred to as the Ogre of Shikoku at some point, so I'm sure that Ky-ogre would have made an excellent match (yes I know that pun wouldn't work in Japanese, stop spoiling it). And then there's Ginchiyo and Muneshige, who have the whole Raijin-Fujin thing going on, so Thundurus and Tornadus would be their natural partners… maybe…
Yeah I think I'll stop now.
*Disclaimer: Please do not send angry messages. The assertion that Rhyperior is objectively awful compared to everything else in the game is purely the opinion of the author, who respects the right of the reader to construct his or her own opinion, especially in a game so sensitive to the player as this.
I am fervently of the opinion that Pokemon Conquest is an excellent game, and only inferior to the main games on the grounds of its repetitiveness. Certainly it has its faults, but I feel that for a first try, as it were, it was a splendid effort. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable and more than anything else makes you want to keep playing, and as such it is one of those games that do indeed have lasting value. Its length may be extended through dubious means, but if you drag it out long enough (and don't obsessively play the game for days on end like I did), you are unlikely to get bored too quickly, I think.
If you really want a numerical score for this game, I'd give it forty-seven.
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