Review by DDJ
"Incredible potential. Abysmal execution."
Review in Brief
Game: A Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG with a strong Japanese motif.
Good: Pokemon is a natural fit for a turn-based strategy RPG.
Bad: Terrible, terrible execution; a non-intuitive game structure and flow; a redundant and needless warrior/Pokemon dynamic; several unnecessary gameplay features; a completely uninteresting plot; short, shallow, and outdated as compared to any turn-based strategy RPG in the last 10 years.
Verdict: An abysmal waste of incredible potential, either by poor design or an ill-advised crossover.
Recommendation: Hardcore Pokemon fans may still enjoy it a bit, but no one else will; fans of turn-based strategy RPGs may weep openly.
"Incredible potential. Abysmal execution."
When I first heard that they were coming out with a Pokemon traditional turn-based strategy RPG, I was ecstatic. First of all, it represented the merger of one of my favorite game franchises (although in recent years, I've ragged on it a good bit) and one of my favorite game genres. It also seemed to represent a step towards branching out for a series that really hasn't made any advancements over the past several releases. Most importantly, however, it seemed like a truly natural fit. Honestly, my first reaction upon hearing that they were releasing such a game was, "Why didn't they think of that earlier?" Pokemon seems like an incredibly natural fit to be turned into a turn-based strategy RPG. I had incredibly high hopes for this installment. It seemed like, for once, the best game would be the easiest one to develop. Pokemon lent itself as a franchise so well to the turn-based strategy genre that it seemed all the developers would have to do is create the most straightforward translation of the games concepts to the new genre to create a truly special experience.
The potential for a great game was there, yet somehow, the developers managed to get it all wrong. The end result is a game that is mediocre as a Pokemon game, downright awful as a turn-based strategy RPG, and represents the most profound wasted potential of any game franchise I can recall seeing in recent years. The game's flow and structure are incredibly clunky and non-intuitive. The game's story is far too short and incredibly simplistic, while all the additional stories intended to pad out the gameplay are nothing more than slightly differing flavors on the exact same game structure and goals. Rather than opting for the most simple and easily-understood translation from Pokemon to turn-based strategy, the developers instead seem to want to put Pokemon into an existing turn-based strategy RPG, and the results is an overcomplicated, non-intuitive game that actually provides very little enjoyment.
But the biggest travesty here is the potential that was wasted. There exist bad games that you would never know would be bad until they're developed. There exist ideas that seem like a good idea on the drawing board but never translate into engaging gameplay. Those are somewhat excusable because it is only in actually creating the games that we find out the games are not enjoyable. For Pokemon Conquest, however, that is not the case. This game had the potential to be great. This game had the potential to start a successful and decorated spinoff franchise that actually could stand on its own two feet, rather than just riding the coattails of the main franchise like the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Pokemon Ranger series. This could have been Pokemon's Final Fantasy Tactics, a game so strong it created a new sub-franchise. Instead, it's nothing but a mediocre turn-based strategy game, a mediocre Pokemon game, and a mediocre game all-around. Its only positive features are those that come naturally with a Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG: within the realm of that franchise and genre combination, every possible mistake was made and every possible opportunity was missed.
Before I continue, let me preemptively address the easiest criticism that could be lobbed at this review. Pokemon Conquest is actually a crossover between two franchises: Pokemon and Nobunaga's Ambition. Nobunaga's Ambition is a long-running turn-based strategy RPG series that has very rarely been localized to the United States (or anywhere outside Japan, for that matter). Nobunaga's Ambition focuses on its title character and his efforts to conquer Japan. The reason I bring this up is because many of my criticisms of Pokemon Conquest could be summarized as the inclusion of too many features from Nobunaga's Ambition. You might summarize my critiques as being more about the initial decisions regarding the game rather than the execution of those decisions. I disagree, for several reasons. First, Pokemon is the title franchise of the game's name and far and away the more popular of the two franchises, and therefore, in my opinion, it is reasonable to analyze this game from the perspective of Pokemon rather than as a crossover altogether. Secondly, given that Nobunaga's Ambition has almost never been localized to the United States, my audience for the game does not include people familiar with Nobunaga's Ambition, and therefore analyzing it from the perspective of a franchise we have never heard of or played is giving it too much leeway. Thirdly, and most importantly, the reason why the game is mediocre is irrelevant in light of the fact that the game is, in fact, mediocre. My suggestions for how the game could have been improved might err heavily on the side of focusing on Pokemon and deemphasizing Nobunaga's Ambition; however, my thoughts on how to improve the game do not impact the score given to the game or my labeling of the game as mediocre.
Pokemon Conquest is a turn-based strategy RPG based in the Pokemon universe. It takes place in the region of Ransei, where instead of traditional one-on-one Pokemon battles, warriors engage in larger battles using multiple Pokemon at a time, each commanded by its own warrior (or trainer). The region is divided among 17 different kingdoms, each based on a particular element in very much the same way individual gyms are based on particular elements in classic Pokemon games. An ancient prophecy stated that if any individual was ever able to conquer all 17 kingdoms of the Ransei region, the mythical Pokemon who created the region would appear. You, as the main character, are to try and conquer all 17 kingdoms. Your opponent Nobunaga, however, is also trying to conquer all 17 kingdoms in order to summon the mythical Pokemon and destroy the region of Ransei. Thus, you must conquer all 17 regions before he does to defeat him and save the region. You begin the game as a new warlord -- the name given to those in charge of armies of warriors -- with an Eevee, as well as a partner, Oishi, and her Jigglypuff.
In terms of gameplay, Pokemon Conquest sees you overseeing a potentially massive army of warriors, each with their own Pokemon (typically only one, although warriors may have more than one Pokemon as well). At any given time, you'll go into battle with six warriors, while you can also assign and delegate other warriors to the various kingdoms you have conquered. You play the game by attacking other kingdoms with your army, and, when counterattacked, defending your own kingdoms from incoming attacks. The overall game structure is such that each warrior can only do one thing per turn, and when all warriors have completed their task for a turn, the game advances to the next turn, giving enemies a chance to maneuver in the meantime.
Within the actual battle, you command a team of up to six warriors each commanding one Pokemon. Each warrior has a Warrior Skill that can be used to increase stats, heal Pokemon, or perform other beneficial actions once per battle. Each individual Pokemon has four primary stats: attack, defense, speed (accuracy and evasion combined), and range (number of squares they can move at a time. Each Pokemon also has exactly one attack (though that attack might change as they level up and evolve) and one special ability which is automatically enacted when the circumstances are correct (examples include Jolteon absorbing electric attacks with the Volt Absorb ability, Carnivine levitating over obstacles, etc.). As Pokemon battle, their link with their warrior trainer increases; this link is the game's experience system, and attaining certain levels of experience will cause the Pokemon to evolve and strengthen.
As I stated in the introduction to this review, I was excited when I heard that they were developing a Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG. The franchise seemed like a natural fit for the genre. Unfortunately, the only good qualities of the game are those that naturally come with creating a turn-based strategy Pokemon game. There is a certain appeal to the game that comes solely from how naturally the franchise and genre fit together.
A Natural Fit
To put it simply, Pokemon just plain works as a turn-based strategy RPG. The franchise comes naturally equipped with a structure that easily lends itself to this sort of genre. I maintain that the developers made every mistake they possibly could make in actually implementing a Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG, and yet, despite all those mistakes, there is still a sort of appeal to the game. That appeal largely comes from how naturally the franchise and genre fit together.
In order to explain some of the design mistakes I believe that the developers made in creating Pokemon Conquest, I'm going to take a little bit of space to elaborate on why exactly I find the fit between Pokemon and a turn-based strategy RPG to be so natural. There will be a temptation here, however, to criticize this review as simply being bitter that they did not create the exact same game I would have created. That is not the case: they could have created any number of good games that would be different from the description of the natural fit that I am supplying here. This is just one example of how a Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG could have been good. There are others, but the one that they chose simply is not satisfactory. Please note also: the below is not a description of how Pokemon Conquest actually plays, but rather just a description of how traditional Pokemon principles easily correspond to traditional turn-based strategy principles.
Within the Pokemon franchise, there is already a perfectly adequate framework for creating a turn-based strategy RPG. A team of Pokemon typically consists of six Pokemon, while a turn-based strategy RPG typically consists of a maximum of six fighters on each side. A typical turn-based strategy game gives each warrior different roles and different abilities, and similarly, each Pokemon has four skills at a given time. These skills are obtained by leveling up via gaining experience, just as the fighters in a turn-based strategy RPG gain experience and level up as they participate in battle. Just as fighters in a turn-based strategy RPG have stats that rise as they gain experience and levels, so also to Pokemon have stats that rise as they gain experience and levels. In Pokemon, the player takes the role of the trainer, giving a reason why the items can be used on any Pokemon at a time, giving an explanation to turn-based strategy RPGs' typical "invisible" mastermind who holds all the items at a time.
Just that little bit of background shows how perfectly suited Pokemon was to a turn-based strategy RPG. Just take a normal trainer with their six Pokemon and put them on a turn-based strategy-style battlefield. Keep every other feature from both Pokemon and turn-based strategy RPGs. Let the Pokemon still gain experience from their actions on the battlefield, let them keep four skills and learn new skills as they level up to overwrite the old ones, let the player keep their items to use at any given time, let the Pokemon keep their stats as the fighters have in any turn-based strategy RPG, and, generally, simply carry over as many normal features as you can into this new genre. Pokemon lends itself well enough to being a turn-based strategy game that there is no need to change things simply for the purpose of changing them. There will, of course, have to be certain additions to the Pokemon gameplay canon, such as defining the range for various Pokemon and defining the shape and area of effect of their attacks. Still, these are relatively simple additions needed to translate the Pokemon franchise into a high-quality turn-based strategy RPG. The alignment is so great that the potential is enormous; and what's more, it doesn't require an enormous design effort to realize that potential.
The game does have some appeal despite the mistakes that the developers made that I'm going to enumerate in excruciating detail below. That appeal, though, as I've stated, is largely derived from that natural alignment between Pokemon and turn-based strategy RPGs. It's fun to move and direct the same Pokemon we have been playing with for generations in this new genre. There is a natural appeal in seeing Jolteon and Pikachu and Charizard using their attacks in new and interesting ways. It's interesting to see how certain attacks were translated into a turn-based strategy RPG layout, such as Jolteon's Thunderbolt affecting a horizontal line of opponents while Charizard's flamethrower attacks a vertical line of opponents. There is quite simply a natural appeal to any sort of turn-based strategy Pokemon game that no amount of development mistakes could destroy. Unfortunately, outside of the natural appeal, there is nothing appealing about the game.
If there was a design mistake to be made in Pokemon Conquest, the designers made it. One angle to take on this is that the designers attempted to merge too many features between the two franchises, and as a result, created a game that is confusing and lacks an identity. You could say it is like trying to create a birthday cake with bacon as the center layer: cake is delicious, bacon is delicious, but merging the two creates something that loses the appeal of both and is pretty disgusting on its own (not that I've tried... I swear).
That isn't the angle I'm taking on the game, largely because I'm not familiar enough with Nobunaga's Ambition to know which features come from that franchise and which are brand-new bad ideas. Instead, I'm approaching the game from the perspective of a Pokemon turn-based strategy RPG that managed to get everything wrong.
Incredibly Convoluted Overall Game Structure
I detailed in the above section just how natural is the alignment between Pokemon and turn-based strategy RPGs; that was largely to draw a sharp contrast with the way in which various features were actually executed. We saw in my above description that there could have been a very simple translation process from Pokemon to the turn-based strategy genre. Instead of opting for that simple process, the designers seemed to over-engineer and over-design a much more complicated game structure that ends up nearly entirely sabotaging the game.
Redundant Warrior/Pokemon Dynamic
The most clear example of this is a convoluted and non-intuitive relationship between what the game refers to as warriors (basically, trainers) and the actual Pokemon. As the warlord for your kingdom, you command an army of warriors as well as have Pokemon of your own. Each of your warriors also have their own Pokemon. Each warrior can only use one Pokemon per battle, meaning that when you enter battle, you are effectively simply commanding six Pokemon. The game animates it such that when you give a Pokemon a command, its own warrior actually gives it its command, but in effect, you as the player are still giving all the orders as you would expect.
If the existence of both warriors and Pokemon seems a little bit redundant to you, then I accomplished what I set out to accomplish in the above paragraph. They are extremely redundant. Warriors are nothing but an unnecessary intermediate layer between the player and the Pokemon themselves. While the game could've been designed such that you as the trainer simply deployed your own six Pokemon like a traditional Pokemon game, instead they opted for this contrived and convoluted system whereby you command warriors who themselves command their Pokemon. It's entirely likely that this is one of those features that was carried over from Nobunaga's Ambition, but the game very easily could have been performed without it. The enemy warlords could have had their teams a Pokemon that you battle against rather than their own teams of warriors with their own Pokemon. You could have kept the multiple warriors per kingdom as well and just hand-waved over which warrior was actually in charge.
While the system is convoluted, it did not necessarily have to detract from the game as a whole. If the warriors were nothing but a visualization of the way in which the player character commanded their Pokemon, and if the warriors thus changed nothing about how the game was actually played, that would be all right. It would still be unnecessary and a little bit distracting, but it wouldn't detract terribly from the game. That is not the case, however. Instead, warriors constrain the gameplay in bizarre and frustrating ways. Take, for example, the relationship between warriors and their individual Pokemon. Any given warrior can have multiple Pokemon, but can only use one per battle. That means that if you have one warrior with two solid Pokemon, you can never use them both in the same battle. Considering that warriors themselves level up just like Pokemon do, this can constrain gameplay in a very frustrating way. If you encounter a wild Pokemon that you want to take into your team, your only choices are to either give it to a weak warrior whose existing Pokemon are not that strong, or to give it to a strong warrior and effectively prevent yourself from ever using that strong warrior's other strong Pokemon in the same battle as this new Pokemon. Without spoiling anything, this becomes a pretty obnoxious problem when at one point in the game, one of your warriors receives a new Pokemon halfway through a battle, thus preventing their previous Pokemon from participating in the battle anymore.
Adding to the redundancy between warriors and Pokemon is the recruitment angle. There are two ways to bring new Pokemon onto your team: you can recruit new warriors that come with their own Pokemon, or you can "link" with wild Pokemon, the game's version of catching. Why the game felt the need to create a new system for catching Pokemon rather than just using the traditional Pokéball is beyond me. The bigger problem here, though, is that there are two different ways to gain new Pokemon when in reality there was no reason not to have only one. Both are performed in similar ways: in each case, you must meet the other on the battlefield. For recruiting new warriors, you must defeat them under certain circumstances (with a super effective attack or within the first several turns of the fight), while for wild Pokemon, you must link with them using a little minigame while on the battlefield. After that, new warriors will be yours to command while newly recruited wild Pokemon will be attached to the warrior that linked with them. The need for both systems is still beyond me: the existence of warriors mandated the two different ways of recruiting, but the two ways basically just facilitate an already-bad system. The feature that most fully emphasizes this redundancy is the fact that wild Pokemon and unrecruited warriors fight side-by-side, with only a small visualization indicating which are wild and which are warriors'.
One of the features that comes with having warriors rather than just an army of Pokemon is that each warrior has their own Warrior Skill. As mentioned above, Warrior Skills are typically things that raise some of the stats of the warrior's Pokemon, either permanently for the battle or for a limited number of turns. Warrior Skills have several of their own oddities to them. First of all, the only opportunity to use a warrior skill is before moving a Pokemon on a given turn. Strategically, that makes some sense, but when playing the game it often feels like the prompt to use a warrior skill only comes up at a very narrow time. More importantly, there exist warrior skills for which there is rarely if ever a reason not to use them right at the beginning of battle, making the first turn of battle oftentimes a repetitive process of applying the same skills as the previous several battles. Warrior Skills are perhaps the only thing that would not easily translated into a version of the game without warriors, but they would certainly be a fair sacrifice for the more simple game structure.
The interface that supplies Warrior Skills is also the interface that supplies item usage. You the player do not hold items and use them, but rather each individual warrior in your employ holds one item at a time. That introduces a myriad of problems on its own. First of all, it renders status-healing items nearly useless since any given warrior can only hold the item for one potential status effect. With a half-dozen different status affects present in the game, the odds of having the right item for the right status effect our slim. This also limits the number of items that can be used on each Pokemon to one per battle. That limitation is not bad in and of itself since otherwise it would be possible to win any battle via attrition, but the means with which they justify that are flimsy. Would it not make more sense just to say that each Pokemon holds its own item and uses it on command?
Further increasing the redundancy between Pokemon and warriors is the fact that warriors themselves can evolve as well -- but only certain warriors, and only under certain conditions that the game doesn't seem to feel particularly motivated to actually dislose, so you may, like me, find you had the potential to evolve other warriors all along but simply weren't jumping through the hoops the game had hidden. In my game, I only ever saw one warrior level up in a scripted event (which shows you just how easy it is to beat the game's main plot line), thus changing the Warrior Skill to which he had access. The ability for warriors themselves the level, however, adds yet another level of convoluted gameplay to an already-complicated gameplay structure. Warriors just don't serve very much gameplay purpose in the game, and yet the existence of levels for warriors forces the player to pay attention to them even though otherwise it might be possible to ignore warriors as nothing but an insignificant intermediary between the player and the Pokemon. Warriors can even the evolve into more powerful warriors. If that doesn't emphasize how redundant warriors and Pokemon are, I don't know what does.
The warrior-Pokemon dynamic is, in my opinion, a horrible sabotage of the game's structure. It was utterly unnecessary, overcomplicated, and constrains the game in bizarre and frustrating ways. It may have been carried over from Nobunaga's Ambition, but that does not justify the bizarre negative effect that it has on the game as a whole. One of the most important design criteria for any game (and any software as a whole) is called "KISS": Keep It Simple, Stupid. The designers of Pokemon Conquest did not pay nearly enough attention to this design guideline.
Non-Intuitive Game Flow
The overall flow of the game also takes a significant amount of getting used to, even by the standards of sometimes-complicated turn-based strategy games. Part of this is because the game flow itself is non-intuitive, and part of it is because the game does a lackluster job of actually explaining the game flow.
At a broad level, the game is played via a set of turns. Each warrior in your entire army can perform one action per turn. An action includes fighting a battle, digging for gold, training, raising their energy (whatever that means, it was never clear to me), or various other tasks. Once every warrior has performed one of these tasks for the turn, your only choice is to move on to the next turn. Explained that way, it seems somewhat natural (I hope), but if you are used to a traditional turn-based strategy RPG, it comes across as very strange. The way it plays, it seems like a way for the game to give your opponents time to maneuver and counterattack. However, in modern turn-based strategy RPGs, such a system is usually somewhat emergent from implicit turns based on travel time and battle participation. In making the system so formal and explicit, Pokemon Conquest comes across somewhat outdated.
There are numerous other elements to the game's flow that are highly non-intuitive as well. Related to the above idea is the notion of moving warriors around from kingdom the kingdom. A given kingdom can only have six warriors residing within it. As your army grows beyond six warriors, you must start assigning warriors to other kingdoms where they can train on their own or search for other new warriors to recruit for your army. In order to move a warrior from one place to another, you first must select their kingdom, choose a command to tell them where to march, and then choose the kingdom to which to send them. It may not sound overly complicated, but managing an entire army in this way can become quite tedious, especially when you find yourself looking for warriors with particular Pokemon that you have assigned elsewhere for the time being. There is an interface that sorts all of your warriors based on several different criteria (alphabetically by warrior, alphabetically by Pokemon, by location, etc.), but using it still isn't much faster than just searching your kingdoms to find the warrior. But the most annoying element of this is the fact that you cannot move warriors through a kingdom without them counting as in residence there for a time. In other words, if Kingdom A and Kingdom B are connected and I want to launch an assault on Kingdom A from Kingdom B, I cannot do so without leaving Kingdom B empty. I have the opportunity to reassign warriors after the battle who had not yet done anything, but the inability to have a "main" party that does not count against a kingdom's local residence limit is frustrating. It plays as if the game has no recognition of the player's "main" party, whereas the player themselves has a very natural understanding of who their main party happens to be.
There are also large portions of the game that feel unnaturally mechanical. One of the most clear examples of this is the method by which the player can recruit new warriors into their army. As mentioned above, a warrior will be available for recruitment if either they are defeated in the first four turns of battle or are defeated by a move with a type advantage. Why? This feature just feels very artificial rather than like it flows naturally from some element of the game world. Another similar feature in the same vein is the turn limit placed on battles. Each battle has a certain number of turns to the player has to win; if the player fails to win in this number of turns, they lose. It does not matter how much they are winning by when the turn limit is hit; they lose, period. The only battle I ever lost in playing through the main storyline of the game was the final battle, and I only lost it on the basis of this turn limit. Why would it matter if the player wins in a certain number of turns in the game world? And more importantly, why does failing to win in that number of turns mean a loss rather than a stalemate?
Lastly, various elements regarding the development of individual Pokemon are counterintuitive and seem to needlessly deviate from the established Pokemon franchise. As mentioned above, rather than experience points, Pokemon level up by increasing their link level with their warrior. Given that a Pokemon cannot be shifted to a different warrior, however, the system does not differ at all from being strict experience. In that case, if it is not going to be functionally different, why describe it differently? The idea of leveling up when certain new levels are reached is an idea that has been around for years in both Pokemon and turn-based strategy RPGs; why change it now? The result is the player finds themselves a bit confused as to what this value represents even though it is no different than what they've seen for years previously; it is just needlessly reframed. New skills and evolutions thus feel like random probability-based occurrences given that achieving a new round number on a percent scale seems more arbitrary than actually seeing a level up notification followed by a notification of evolution.
Underused, Underrepresented, or Unnecessary Functions
The third element of the convoluted game structure is the existence of several game features that are simply underutilized as you go through the game. Anytime you play a game, you are confronted with multiple systems: systems for equipment, systems for leveling up, systems for shopping, systems for recruiting, etc. A good game features no more systems than necessary: the player should need to use every system available. If there are systems in play that never are necessary, they end up distracting from the game and oftentimes confusing the player. They prevent the player from ever feeling like they are a master of the game while simultaneously feeling like they are doing just fine without understanding the systems.
Pokemon Conquest is full of systems that never seem to be necessary. There is an entire shopping system there remains a bit more complicated than what you traditionally see in a Pokemon game: in addition to potions, status-healing items, and strength enhancers, there are also items that are said to be used to create more powerful new items. You never need to use these, however. Actually, I'm not even sure how you use these items; a system for merging items was never made clear in the gameplay, and it certainly was not necessary either judging from the ease with which I completed the game's main plot.
Another similar system is the notion of protecting your kingdoms from attack by enemy kingdoms. The way it works is that when you complete a turn, there is the chance that an enemy kingdom will attack one of your kingdoms if there is such an available connection. If you have warriors stationed at that kingdom, they will enter battle against the attackers. If you do not, the attackers will automatically take the kingdom and you will have to reconquer it. Such a system should probably be effectively the foundation of a turn-based strategy RPG's world map. Without dynamics like this, the notion of conquering other kingdoms is somewhat irrelevant and becomes just a glorified way for the player to be required to complete X number of battles in order to beat the game. Unfortunately, this system never seems to actually be used. In my entire time through the game's main plot line, only once was one of my kingdoms ever attacked. The system just is not used enough to add anything of value to the gameplay, and in fact, in the detracting from an distracting from the game. Of course, there is additional content after completing the main plot that might leverage this principle more, but I'll discuss later why don't consider that to be terribly relevant.
In addition to their being systems that are not sufficiently utilized to contribute to the game, there are also systems that just are not very clear. The experience system is one of these; at the end of each battle, each participating Pokemon receives an experience bump, but it is never clear what makes this bump higher or lower. In one battle, one of my Pokemon was defeated before ever even landing a blow, and yet at the end of the battle, that Pokemon received the most experience. This opaque system is even more frustrating when you are actually trying to utilize it for specific gain. Throughout the game, you are required to use to particular warriors, and the other one starts off with a Jigglypuff. About halfway through the game, you start discover that Jigglypuff is useless in later battles. So, I decided to get this required trainer a new Pokemon and then spend some battles leveling up to match my other team members. No matter what I did, it never seemed like I was able to give that Pokemon more experience than anyone else, and yet in every battle, some Pokemon earned more experience than others.
Another similar system that makes little sense is the dichotomy between energy and training. When you defeat other Pokemon and participate in battle, your Pokemon earn experience points which raise their stats and can make them evolve. There also exist places where your Pokemon can eat ponigiri, which is said to raise their energy. Nowhere is it clear, though, what this energy actually means. Once a Pokemon is stated to have maximized its energy, it cannot be fed more ponigiri. Yet, the effect this energy has on their performance in battle is never made clear.
Overall, the best way to describe this is to say that it feels like the developers supplied 10 different systems in the game, of which they only explained three and only made the impact of seven even visible. Thus, the player feels like they are playing inside of a narrow slice of a larger game world that they neither can nor need to understand.
Completely Throw-Away Plot
There's really no way to be nice about this one: the plot of Pokemon Conquest is awful. The overall structure is incredibly lazy, the writing is terrible, and even the presentation is pretty bad. Pokemon games aren't exactly known for their plots - I mean, how often can we be motivated to become a Pokemon master and to catch em all -- but this is bad even for this franchise.
To outline the game's overall plot structure, you start out as a young warlord who just took control of his kingdom. You are a young man (or young lady) in charge of your own army set to confront the adult, seasoned warlords from kingdoms all around the region. There is a legend that says if any person is able to unite all 17 kingdoms, and the ancient Pokemon that created the region will appear. Most warlords, therefore, fight with the dream of one day uniting the entire region. The game never suggests that you are motivated by this, however, as such a selfish ambition would not resonate well with the always-infallible Pokemon main characters. Fortunately, there is an enemy who is seeking to conquer all 17 kingdoms so that he may summon the legendary Pokemon and destroy the region. That gives you the motive you need to conquer all 17 kingdoms, since clearly the only way to stop his aggression is to be aggressive yourself.
The entire story is told in the form of short scripted scenes between the battles. There is basically no dialogue of substance during the battles themselves, and the scenes between the battles rarely if ever exceed 10 dialogue lines distributed amongst the characters. I would be interested in seeing a game script because I would venture to guess the entire game script would fit in under five pages. Perhaps that's the reason the story is so simple: with so little dialogue, how could you possibly tell a more complicated story? Such a shallow story, though, is not by any means a necessary element of a turn-based strategy RPG. In my opinion, the greatest video game story ever told comes from Final Fantasy Tactics, but that game actually put attention into its dialogue scenes. Dialogue often came up in the midst of battle, and the scenes between battles could often expose extremely significant plot developments. In Pokemon Conquest, the dialogue is completely throw-away. The entirety of the dialogue basically amounts to comments from your enemies telling them how badly they're going to whip you or from your allies saying how desperately you need to stop your enemy.
The presentation of this dialogue is incredibly lackluster as well. The entire dialogue is told between battles as a series of images of the speakers popping up and delivering lines one after the other. There is no true interactivity between these characters. Humorously, what it most reminded me of was the mission briefings from Star Fox 64: hilariously short and uninteresting. In that game, it worked, since the plot was not a driving factor; in this game, a plot was needed, but with such a simplistic method of giving the dialogue, a complex and interesting plot would not have been possible even if the writers had come up with one. Instead, we get a plot with about as much substance as Super Mario World, and with the presentation that is not all that much better.
In addition to the plot being lackluster, terribly presented, and prototypical, it still manages to also not really make sense in various different ways. For example, the game frames the entire conflict around this good-and-evil dynamic between you and your enemy; and yet, are you not both trying to take over the region and destroy all the other kingdoms? Under what grounds can they say that your enemy is evil and you are not? Perhaps sensing this, the game makes an active effort to make it clear that certain kingdoms you conquer battle not for aggression but rather for the joy of conflict. Many of these warlords will come to support you, either in word or in deed, with a couple even joining your side. Such a dynamic could have been presented in a nuanced and interesting way, but instead, the game basically slaps a name tag on each of these warlords that says either, "Hi, I'm on your side" or "Hi, I will always be your enemy." With those on the first side, you almost get the impression that they would have joined you even if the game didn't require you to fight them, making the fight itself seems strange and unnecessary. Plus, let's not even get into how little attention the game devotes to convincing you that a new warlord who looks no older than a teenager is somehow able to defeat all these adult warlords who have been in charge of their kingdoms for decades.
Another element of this that makes relatively little sense has to do with conquering certain kingdoms that had already been conquered by your enemy. It goes like this: your enemy had already conquered the kingdom, but the warlord of the kingdom does not support your enemy. Still, your enemy has left that warlord in charge of their kingdom. When you attack the kingdom, the warlord talks about how he does not support your enemy, and yet he still fights you. When you win, he comments that he must now go back to your enemy and face his fate. But wait: why was he indebted to your enemy in the first place? Wasn't it because your enemy conquered his kingdom? And haven't you now conquered his kingdom? So why is he not now indebted to you instead? More importantly, when your enemy conquers the kingdom, he lets its warlord retain control; when you conquer kingdom, you take full control over that kingdom and oust the warlord if he does not join you. How, then, is it your enemy that is evil and not you?
Lastly, although the game manages to make it almost all the way through the plot without bringing up this tired old theme yet again, it still manages to harp on that same stale idea of, "I just want to make people stop treating Pokemon as slaves" dynamic. It seems like we've been dwelling on this for generations now, with two entire spinoff franchises already trying to diminish the slavery idea in the Pokemon universe. In Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Pokemon Ranger, Pokemon are already treated as more like mutual partners than owned warriors. In Pokemon Black & White, the enemy's entire motive was to free the Pokemon from their human masters. Now, in Pokemon Conquest, instead of catching Pokemon, your warriors "link" with them, meaning that the Pokemon itself makes an active decision to join you just as you have made the active decision to catch it. With how much the franchise is dwelling on this dynamic, I'm starting to think that they really do see a problem with the structure that they invented right off the bat, even though ever since the first generation, one of the main recurring themes is that your character is friends with his Pokemon rather than just their master. The theme is getting very old, and this game almost manages to escape without making a reference to it; almost, but not quite.
Short, Shallow, and Out-of-Date
I do consider myself to be a fan of turn-based strategy RPGs, although I have not played all that many of them. Pokemon Conquest, however, is not satisfying to any fan of the genre because of how overwhelmingly short and shallow it is. It lacks many of the features that are characteristic of modern turn-based strategy RPGs, and some of the simplifying touches that it incorporates make it outdated even when compared to some of the earliest games of the genre. In my opinion, this isn't a matter of simplifying the game for the younger audience of Pokemon fans; the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games did a good job of simplifying the complex formula for younger audience. Pokemon Conquest, on the other hand, is just simply bad.
The first element of shallowness to the game is the incredibly narrow mapping between Pokemon and skills. Each Pokemon only has one attack. The one attack they have might change as they level up and evolve, but at any given time, they only have one attack at their disposal. That means that with a team of six Pokemon, you only have six total attacks you can use. I have never played a turn-based strategy RPG in which even one fighter on their own has as few as six attacks, let alone an entire team of fighters. This is not a matter of simplicity, but rather a matter of shallowness. The traditional Pokemon scheme of having four attacks per Pokemon would have worked perfectly in a turn-based strategy RPG. Instead, with each Pokemon only having one attack to use in a given battle, strategy and tactics in the playing almost no role compared to just a straight comparison between the two sides' respective strengths.
The limitation on attacks also impacts the strategy in a negative way as well by forcing the player to adjust their strategy based on evolution. When a Pokemon evolves, its attack changes. Since it only has one attack, this change in the nature of that attack can completely change the usefulness of that Pokemon. For example, one Pokemon might have an attack that hits the square right in front of them, while its evolution has attack that only hits a line two squares away. That evolution then completely converts that Pokemon from an upfront melee fighter to a ranged fighter. The lack of strategy elsewhere in the game means this is less of a major issue that would be in a real turn-based strategy RPG, but at the same time, it itself limits the strategy of the game by forcing the player to choose between a persistent role and an increase in stats. Another example of this becoming extremely notable is with Munna and its evolution Musharna. Munna's only attack is Hypnosis, a decent attack on its own. Musharna's only attack is Dream Eater, which cannot be used unless an opponent is asleep. Therefore, evolving Munna into Musharna can completely sabotaged the usefulness of Musharna if the team no longer has the ability to put opponents to sleep (in farness: Musharna's Ability does put opponents to sleep, but not reliably or predictably).
Having only one skill per fighter on the field is but one of the various water turn-based strategy features that Pokemon Conquest lacks. The game also does not let the player place their own Pokemon at the beginning of battle. Various times, I found myself wanting to match up certain ones of my Pokemon against certain enemies, only for the game automatically place them as far apart as possible while other members of my team were placed far closer. I've never played a game that did not allow the player to place their own characters, and it is beyond me why such a system would be desirable. Like most turn-based strategy RPGs, a typical turn consists of a Pokemon moving to a certain location and then executing a move. In most turn-based strategy games I've played, the fighter could also use an attack and then move away. In Pokemon Conquest, though, a Pokemon can never move after attacking, once again limiting the actual strategy involved in the game. The game also does not let you choose which way your Pokemon are facing at the conclusion of a turn, although it does seem to grant benefits to attacking a Pokemon from a certain side. It also allows each team to make all of its moves all at once rather than switching back and forth between individual Pokemon (although, in fairness, that might be less of a weakness than an intentional choice since it does impact the strategy of the game).
So, to summarize, the game has effectively no real strategy to it, which would seem to be a critical component for a turn-based strategy game to have. Fortunately, it doesn't matter as much as it could since the AI of the game sucks as well. On multiple occasions, I watched as the enemy AI bypassed two or three better moves in order to execute a much worse move. At one point, I watched as a Water type specifically jumped from a high level to a low level (via a ramp) so that it could attack my Electric- and Grass-types that were waiting below. At another point, I was facing an enemy's Psychic type whose attack had a range of 2 squares in front of it. It strolled right past my Fighting- and Poison-types, both of which could have been defeated by one attack given their HP, and instead attacked my Steel-type, doing only 4 HP damage. And don't even ask me to get into watching Munna try to hypnotize already-sleeping Pokemon over and over instead trying to hypnotize the awake Pokemon two squares away. The AI is awful, and I'm not convinced it does anything more than randomly choosing one of the possible attacks positions available to it.
All of that contributes to the game's shallowness. It has no real strategy to it based on how shallow the opportunities for developing individual Pokemon happened to be. The Warrior Skills don't add any strategy to the game either, given that the times to use them are always completely obvious. With only one attack per Pokemon and only six Pokemon per side, the outcome of each battle relies very little on the skill and strategy of the players and far more on the raw strength of the Pokemon that are fighting.
Fortunately, you never really get to see just how shallow the gameplay is because of how extraordinarily short the game is. The main plot line of the game took me only eight hours to beat. In the turn-based strategy genre, eight hours is nothing. Eight hours should not even be enough time to beat a chapter of the game, let alone an entire game. In a game that relies on strategy as a selling point, individual battles that take less than half an hour on their own do not give the player nearly enough time to demonstrate their strategy. And yet, Pokemon Conquest can be beaten in only eight hours. I didn't count at the time, but I estimate that in that eight hours I only had the fight 30 battles in order to beat the game: there are around 17 required battles to beat the game, and I'm sure I fought no more than 13 training battles on my own. That's too short for a deep plot, too short for deep gameplay and strategy, and far too short for a satisfying turn-based strategy RPG.
Some will criticize this review for claiming that the plot is so short, and in the interest of full disclosure, let me explain why. When you complete the game, you are presented with several more "stories" you can play through. These stories take different forms, putting you into different starting positions and giving you different requirements, like conquering particular kingdoms or taking over them all in a certain amount of time. These stories also open you up to having additional Pokemon you can attain, different warriors you can attain, etc. Some of the more positive and flattering reviews I've read have given these stories credit for lengthening the game. I disagree wholeheartedly. They don't lengthen the game, they pad the game: the distinction between these is crucial for a variety of reasons. First of all, these stories represent no more additional content from a game development point of view. Imagine playing beating a game, only to have the final screen say, "Great! Now play it again without using the X button." Would that lengthen the game? Of course not; it's just a slightly different flavor on the exact same game. That's true for these extra stories as well. They're slightly different flavors on the same game. They don't fix any of the other problems, they don't add any additional strategy, and they're incredibly formulaically determined. They truly feel like the developers got near release day and said, "Crap, it only takes eight hours to beat this game. How can we change that?" "Well, let's add in some arbitrary requirements on replaying the game thirty-four times." "Brilliant!"
The second problem is that these individual stories still have very short plot arcs, and thus, each individual story does not contribute notably to the overall game world. Thirty-four crappy stories don't equal one good story: they equal thirty-four crappy ones. One of the stories starts with one of the warlords saying, "I'm on the bad guy's side, but I disagree with his motives. I shall defeat him, then!", followed by a surrogate of the enemy popping up and saying, "Sir, this warlord has betrayed you!" And from there, you're off and running. Real A+ storytelling there. Being able to play the game through thirty-four different times with thirty-four slightly different sets of requirements and starting conditions and thirty-four different sets of completely interchangeable dialogue does not lengthen a game, it pads a game.
Thirdly, and arguably most significantly, these unrelated stories aren't stitched together to make one memorable gameplay experience. They're mutually exclusive looks at the gameplay world, which loses the ability to mount any of the appeal that usually comes with a sprawling, epic, hundred-hour-or-more game. It's anticlimactic, it's poorly framed, and it's badly presented. With disjoint stories, even the achievements that carry over from story to story seem out of place and illogical. There's no consistent player character, which severely squashes the motivation for active participation. It no longer feels like you are adopting the role of a character in the story, but rather instead you've finished your role and now you get to poke around the world and see what else is going on. But all of these criticisms flow from the formulaically-derived extra missions: of course you lose that rising and falling action that goes with a truly immense game when you break it up into such differentiated and distinguished nuggets. It's like playing through Final Fantasy VII, but instead of playing through the entire sweeping world story, you play through just the Midgar plot as several different characters one-by-one. You lose something profound by failing to stitch together these stories into an overarching narrative, but that's the penalty you pay when you pad your game out so blatantly.
Over-Reliance on Japanese Motif
For this last criticism, let me be very clear about one thing: this critique is not impacting the final score I am giving the game or the overall impression of the game that I am attempting to communicate in this review. This is more of a personal observation and may not apply to most people. Those who are bigger fans of Japanese culture that I am may not view this as a problem; in fact, they may view it as a strength. However, there is a certain psychological reason why I believe that this is a problem.
Probably borrowing from Nobunaga's Ambition, the entire game of Pokemon Conquest is centered around a Japanese cultural motif. Broadly, that's perfectly fine, but there's one area that could have been easily changed and localization that was not that I believe has a negative impact on my experience with the game: the names. Every character in the game has a Japanese name. Psychologically, we are more attuned to recognizing and remembering names with which we have more experience. If you speak English as your primary language and I were to introduce you to three of my friends named John, Fred, and George, you would likely remember those names more easily than if I introduced you to my friends Hideyoshi, Mitsuhide, and Yoshihiro. The more familiar you are with the name, the more easily you will remember it. Thus, in relying on Japanese names, Pokemon Conquest makes it very difficult for American audiences to retain recognition of their warriors. This is made doubly hard by how ridiculously many warriors you will encounter while playing the game; by the end of the game, I had over 50 in my army. Of course, I would not be able to remember 50 names whether they were Japanese or American, but I would be more able to distinguish the ones I was interested in from the others purely based on the ease of recognition. As a result, the player feels less of a connection with their characters and begins to identify them more by the more familiar Pokemon names than the foreign-sounding Japanese names, even further exacerbating the redundancy mentioned above between warriors and Pokemon.
Again, this is not one of my main criticisms, and it did not impact my rating of the game in any way. Instead, this is simply an observation on the effect of relying on Japanese names that could've easily been localized for an American audience.
Few game ideas come with the level of innate and natural potential that Pokemon Conquest had. Enormous elements of the original Pokemon franchise seemed to be perfectly suited to translation to a turn-based strategy RPG. In this instance, the less work and the less development that was done, the better. The game idea was an extremely natural fit for the franchise and represented a way for a stagnating franchise to begin to challenge itself again. All the developers had to do was not screw it up.
Apparently, not screwing it up was too high an order. Nearly every design mistake that the developers could have made was made. Instead of staying true to the Pokemon franchise formula, the game introduced a bizarre and redundant relationship between warriors and Pokemon, adding several unnecessary levels of confusion and constraint to the game. They also dumbed down the potential for those individual Pokemon, limiting them to only one move. With that simplicity and the redundant relationship mentioned above, the game into the having basically no strategy to it whatsoever. The success or failure of a particular battle could pretty easily be assessed simply by looking at the starting conditions. A straight comparison of the strength of the two sides would nearly always be sufficient to predict the outcome because so little strategy was actually in play during the battle itself.
Making matters worse, the story provided no impetus to play either, centering around a Good vs. Evil plot they really made no sense to begin with. When both sides are pursuing the same result -- conquering the entire region -- labeling good or bad is nothing but a lazy narrative exercise. Making matters worse here are the plot holes through which you could ride an Onix. The characters are forgettable and non-engaging, the plot twists (if you can even call them that) are hilariously contrived and pointless, and the themes are so stale for the franchise that they are about ready to become a running joke.
The only appeal of any kind that the game has is a natural appeal that is derived from porting the Pokemon franchise to the turn-based strategy genre. That idea alone has such natural appeal that any game that fits that description is going to be at least a little bit entertaining. From there, the only thing the developers would have to do to make a great game is stay as true as possible to the analogous Pokemon franchise characteristics and not mess up what could be a great thing. It might be poor design or it might be the incorporation of too many features from Nobunaga's Ambition, but whatever the reason, Pokemon Conquest is a poor game and an abysmal waste of incredible potential.
Hardcore fans of the Pokemon franchise might still enjoy it a bit, but no one else will. Fans of turn-based strategy RPGs in general should run away screaming.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.0 - Poor
Originally Posted: 06/25/12, Updated 06/28/12
Game Release: Pokemon Conquest (US, 06/18/12)
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