Platform: Nintendo DS
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Initial Scenario Finished, 50+ Hours.
Pokemon Recruitment and Multiplayer 45+ Hours
Pokémon meets SRPG? When Worlds Collide!
Pokémon Conquest was the game conceived when the respective heads of Nintendo’s Pokémon franchise and Tecmo Koei’s popular Japanese Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise decided to fashion their mutual respect into a crossover game. Play What You Like will focus on the result, encountered by non-Japanese with no knowledge of the Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise, but a considerable understanding of SRPGs.
We enjoy the Pokémon franchise including the early seasons of the show, and the combat system design in general. We enjoyed the combat oriented games like Pokémon Stadium, but the regular games, with their grinding and never-ending random encounters, were not our speed. So when Pokémon got fitted into the SRPG genre, we were pleased. The execution was not perfect, but we will take a good and fun crossover attempt like this any time over none. And fun it was.
Without expectations regarding Nobunaga’s Ambition, the feudal Japanese setting was a pleasant change-up setting. The warlords of that franchise were unfamiliar however, and in our opinion, not entirely helpful to the SRPG game. But if we are willing to put up with the gives and takes of such a crossover title, how much more those with knowledge of Nobunaga’s Ambition? Challenges occur in any game design process, and we can only imagine those were amplified in the melding of two popular franchises and the expectations that went along with them. No one’s expectations were going to be fully realized in a compromising crossover title by its very nature.
The layout of the game starts with a detailed and active world map. Cities have square, grid-based fighting areas of all sorts that are realized in full 3D and can be rotated at set 45 degree increments. Generally speaking, you will pick a team of up to six Pokémon and their trainers to battle AI Warlords or another person in multiplayer. Pokémon cannot be used without their warlords, who each have their own strengths and affinities for various Pokémon types (like grass, flying, etc.).
- Got to Develop Them All: There are like a zillion Pokémon. Conquest did a fine job including a great many in a deeper way than typical Pokémon games. This was no easy feat considering the variety in Pokémon. From types as varied as flying, fire, electric, and ghost to attack patterns, to additional abilities and attributes–let’s just say they crammed a lot of information into a DS game. The game did not scrimp when it came to the Pokémon.
- We Want You for a New Recruit:
Recruiting is a key element in any Pokémon game. Conquest did not let you throw Pokéballs, but they did come up with a skill and timing system. In a turn-based game, this is a risk. (We almost stopped playing a classic RPG because it made us chase down some stupid rats real-time! Props to anybody who comments on what we’re referencing.) The timing element was challenging enough to prevent over-recruiting, fun enough to be satisfying, and difficulty-balanced just right so turn-based sensibilities were not offended.
- Honorable Mentions:
- The game displayed the strength rating of opponent groups before you attacked. It helped you advance with less frustration through the story mode.
- In encounters where only one enemy could be attacked, the game automatically set up the aim for you. This sounds like a little thing, but times it by 1000 and you’ll quickly see its (time-saving) value.
A Little Something Extra: It’s true that, unlike other franchise games, Conquest only gave each Pokémon one attack. However this was ameliorated by a secondary ability, and better still you could pay to change it. Most Pokémon had three abilities from which to choose out of a larger pool all the Pokémon shared. Some were stat-increasing, like improving hit percentages. Some were defensive, like preventing critical hits. The ones we found especially fun were (low-percentage) abilities that could put nearby enemy Pokémon to sleep, or confuse them, or paralyze them on a temporary basis.
Too big for a bullet point: Dynamic Environments (that only look a little boring…)
One of the best things to happen to SRPGs was the dynamically changing battle environment. This feature was epitomized by Shining Force III in 1998 in which there was a train yard with cars that moved along different tracks every turn. You had to adjust your play, and choose your way, as new paths opened and closed.
Conquest was not so overt with its dynamic changes, but they still significantly affected gameplay. Consider the following elements the game employed:
- Ditches that could be flooded (by a switch) and were then only passable by water type Pokémon.
- Paths that could be blocked by flame geysers which needed to be attacked to be dispersed.
- Ice rafts that transported Pokémon down a river.
- Bridges that came and went.
- A machine-themed map that forced Pokémon onto giant cog hubs which rotated to open different paths.
Environments also had a few small dynamic pieces. Trees could be destroyed to gain an item. On certain maps, otherwise nondescript grid squares actually housed (really annoying) traps (not a good example to emulate). Boulders and logs could be pushed across a battlefield to induce damage (this was surprisingly fun–and sometimes tragic). One map had teleporters. Perhaps the idea was good on paper, but we found it to be more of a nuisance.
All these elements (in combination with terrain types) kept the environments from being static.
- Ash Has a Rival, Now You Can Too: Though setting up even multiplayer matches could be difficult (see “Ash Ketchum Versus the World” entry under Good and Bad), it was one of the most fun and challenging aspects of the game. We spent more hours in multiplayer, or training different Pokémon to debut in multiplayer, than we did playing the actual primary story. Unusual battlefields from story mode, with their dynamic elements, also made for excellent (but occasionally frustrating) multiplayer battlefields.
- Have it Your Way: Choosing a male or female protagonist fits the Pokémon franchise. But you were also able to determine how your main Pokémon, an eevee, would evolve. It is a rare Pokémon with multiple evolution choices. You like ice? Evolve eevee into glaceon. Fire? Flareon. Water? Vaporean. Dark? The cool-looking umbreon. And so on. It was not unlike choosing your class in a game like Final Fantasy Tactics. It was a good pillar about which to build this game.
- More Honorable Mentions:
- Elemental terrain like fire, water, or poison made it easier, harder, or impossible for certain Pokémon to traverse. It was a good way to add tactical variety to nearly flat terrain.
- The renderings of the Pokémon themselves was consistently good. They were, regardless of design, faithful and true and (mostly) interesting
The Good & The Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Pokémon 2000 in 3D: All the playing fields were real 3D, good for the DS. However, the design was a little lackluster and the rotation clunky. Additionally, finding Pokémon occluded by 3D geometry was more difficult than necessary since the blocking geometry did not go translucent. The modern SRPG mindset expects translucency, but in this case it was likely a hardware limitation. Still, we would rather have the 3D as is than not at all.
- Attack Pattern Delta: The Pokémon employed a large variety of attack patterns–referring to the combined shape and number of grid squares affected. Some attacked three grid squares straight out, others a rectangular shape made up of multiple squares, etc. It was excellent for inducing tactical thinking, however some Pokémon got the short end of the Pokéball. These unfortunate ones attacked only one square directly in front of them, or one square a certain distance away. Unless these were a super-powerful attacks–and they pretty much weren’t–it was imbalancing, relegating these poor Pokémon largely to the sidelines.
- Let’s Face It: It was a pleasant surprise that “facing” mattered. There was some value in attempting to attack your opponent from the sides or back. But after going through the trouble to implement this system, it would’ve been better to make it more meaningful. What we’re saying is, it didn’t matter very much…
- The character art was high quality but inconsistent. It ran the gamut from very good, to okay, to goofy.
- Occasionally, you could end up with opposing Pokémon immune to each other’s attacks. These rounds would automatically end anti-climatically.
- Most battles (vs CPU) could only last 20 turns. We could understand that as a preventative against cheesy tactics, but there were longer battles where we did not appreciate the pressure.
- “So you wanna to be a master of Pokémon…” This is the entry about Pokémon type. Type match ups, electric versus water, water versus rock, rock versus grass, etc. Every new generation of Pokémon games seem to introduce a couple new types of Pokémon. Light, dark, fairy, etc. You don’t need to be a math whiz to know that there are a lot of combinations when you consider every single type matching up with every single other type. If you cared–and you needed to for strategic play–you probably ended up looking at charts. Match-ups could be a pain, but added great depth to the game. However some of the match ups beyond the basics were not so intuitive.
- One Way or the Highway: Each Pokémon only had one attack (as mentioned above). It was well implemented. But we are talking about Pokémon, a franchise built upon the creatures each having four attacks. In light of of Conquest’s depth, four may have been out of reach. But even two would have gone a long way to capture the classic feeling.
- Click the Paint Bucket to Fill in the Square: A score of very different tile sets produced even more 3D environments. It was quite the elemental variety; from volcanic regions to icy lakes. From fertile green fields to rocky crags. The textures were decent, and there were also animated/color cycled textures for water, lava, etc. But more could have been done to prevent visual boredom. A good tile set needs extra variety.
Perhaps a procedural solution could be a remedy to boring textures. Maybe a moving, translucent layer of shadow mimicking clouds on a sunny day. Consider palette swapping the same textures to change day to dusk to night. Other procedural tricks like a rain, wind, or footprints could also liven it up.
- Statisticians Like Stats: Both the warlords and the Pokémon had stats. For the latter, stats like attack, defense, range, and speed went with the territory. This didn’t mean the stats were vital and necessary to access often, because they wern’t. Of even less use were the warlords’ attributes. Power, wisdom, charisma, etc… We aren’t rolling up pen and paper RPG characters with dice here. While the stats added depth to the game, their execution, necessity, and ease-of-use left much to be desired.
Don’t Be so Serious, It’s Just a Cartoon: A point we often emphasize is that death needs to matter in a SRPG, otherwise battles become pointless, sometimes boring exercises in which you have no investment. There was no penalty for losing a Pokémon in battle (except perhaps not gaining some small amount of experience). But that is the way Pokémon rolls. Did it help drama? No. Did it fit the franchise? Yes.
- That was Random: Certain items or events quite important to the advancement of story, gameplay, and/or the evolution of some Pokémon were only available randomly. We are all for fluidity and an active, unpredictable game world. But some points of importance need controlled delivery. After all, it is not too hard to end up on the wrong side of random.
- Book Smart but Poké-stupid: Certainly, use of online resources and FAQs can add dimension to a game. That was the case for Pokémon Conquest–perhaps too much so. It’s one thing to look up codes for rare Pokémon appearances, but add the likely chance of having to look up Pokémon versus Pokémon charts. Plus the clincher that burned so much time was determining the best warlord/Pokémon matchups. Wandering the game aimlessly to find out this information (if possible) would be no fun, but it wasn’t much fun constantly referring to online charts either.
Too big for a bullet point: Ash Ketchum Versus the World!
For those of us who’ve enjoyed the SRPG genre for a long time, being able to play head-to-head against another person is a rare thrill, at least as the game universe currently stands. So being able to do so wirelessly in Pokémon Conquest was something to which we were looking forward. But balancing such a system is key, and something we game developers ponder. How do you reward game experience yet still have an even match-up with someone who has played less?
The limiting/evening factor they came up with was “link percentage.” Some warlords could train, for example, an umbreon, all the way up to 100% of its potential, while others might only be able to take it up to 30%. Going into multiplayer, you could set a link percentage limit. Setting it to 60% brought down those higher. Those limited to a lower number could not rise to 60. The problems with this were manifold, especially if you only played the primary story and did not have the right warlords for your favorite Pokémon. They could only be recruited in the post main-story secondary quests (see entry “Two Halves…” under Bad).
But assuming you recruited the optimal warlord for the Pokémon you wanted (large assumptions in this game), “link percentage” was still more like a “battle strength suggestion.” Lower evolution Pokémon could almost never stand up to higher evolutions, which makes surface sense, but the franchise does star Ash and his Pikachu (retconned to a middle evolution from a first). This Pikachu defeats higher evolutions routinely. In Conquest, some of lower evolutions had their own cool features and were a lot of fun as is. It is too bad that they could never really be brought into a serious competition against higher evolutions regardless of link percentage or experience.
Link percentage just did not equal fighting power in too many situations.
What this game needed for multiplayer–and it is an idea that would serve the entire genre well–was a point system that took into account actual fighting strength. A numerical value assigned to level, speed, toughness, hit percentage, damage dealt, number of attacks, grid squares hittable–whatever the developers could think of that really made a difference in battle. The numbers would be weighted and crunched and a real value for balancing multiplayer would be at hand. (The sad part is that the game actually did have a point system that did this. You saw it when you went to attack cities controlled by your opponents, and at the beginning of multiplayer matches–after your choices were set and the match was started…)
- An Item For All Seasons (if by “all” you mean “barely one”): You could play this game from beginning to end without the item system and pretty much miss nothing. (The one small exception was stones needed to evolve certain Pokémon. This was uncommon.) A potion that restored 10 points of health was helpful for about the first hour of gameplay, and heavy-duty elixirs never came. Many items supposedly modified a stat, but it was so subtle as to be unnoticeable. When you have only one voluntary item slot, “unnoticeable” does not cut it. Overall the item system was unclear, unintuitive, unhelpful, and un-fun. File under, “Not the best use of developer hours.”
- Warlord OverPOpuLAtioN: There were a finite number of cities on the map, and each could hold only six warlords. Many recruiting opportunities presented as the game progressed. In fact, the hard part was knowing to not do so early enough to keep from being overloaded. It was easy to get too many. After that, much time was wasted juggling trainers from city to city, or constantly refusing their offers to join while waiting for a particular one to ask.
- Pokémon Overload: Collecting Pokémon, just because you can, soon overloaded the system. (Similar to recruiting trainers.) You ended up with bloated cities, and nowhere to put trainers and Pokémon. One of the ways the bloat manifested was trying to find certain Pokémon for multiplayer. When a trainer had more than one Pokémon assigned, only the active one showed. Searching had to be done with other sorting modes. Let the challenge be in the gameplay, not in finding Pokémon in your roster.
- Do it for the “Joy” of Training Pokémon: …because there’s not much story doled out to motivate you. Training Pokémon is fun, but in an SRPG, one does expect more story. There was the big baddie–Nobunaga (dubbed Nob-face by a player we know), who really wasn’t so bad, after all. However, aside from a few static lines of text, we really don’t know much about him for far too long. No conversations (where the bad guy threatens you or something), no cut scenes (until much later). There was just very little story motivation.
- Vanilla Ice: We are fans of archers in classic, fantasy-based SRPGs. We are also fans of the ice element when it comes to magic, or in this case, Pokémon type. The ice element featured a number of interesting Pokémon, but aside from a couple of the game’s favorites (like Glaceon), they were a little nerfed. That is, their effectiveness was, in our opinion, purposefully reduced. In this case it was their hit percentage that was made too low. When a Pokémon hits, but not very hard it is a little frustrating. When a Pokémon misses altogether, one is left more frustrated at the complete waste of a turn. It should be minimized.
- Olympic Heavyweight vs Middle School Featherweight: Pokémon match-ups, especially in multiplayer, are greatly influenced by type. Water is great against fire, electric is great against flying, etc. Some Pokémon seemed to have exceptional match-ups in more than their fair share of circumstances. These resulted in such one-sided encounters that they became a frustrating detraction from the game. We’re talking normally very tough Pokémon being taken out in one, overpowered, ginormous, unnecessarily powerful hit.
Playing Favorites: It’s okay for players to have their favorite Pokémon, but when the game does it you either have to go with the flow, or pay the price. Pokémon Conquest had its favorites. Okay, of course, we understand that eevee and all its evolutions are going to be good, after all they are the centerpiece of the game. But the game was overly biased towards new Pokémon like chandelure. That thing attacked like 57 times in one round… Between this and the story problem (see below), the game fought against you playing your favorite Pokémon (unless it happened to be their favorite too).
- As Time Goes By: Each warlord could fight only once per month despite being able to carry multiple Pokémon. This probably prevented some gross unbalancing exploit. However, even going to the shop used up a warlord’s action for that month. If you wanted to focus on certain warlords or Pokémon, you might find yourself advancing the months a lot. But every advancement took a sometimes annoying amount of time as the system displayed each city following its given orders. There had to be a better way to get more done without advancing the month, or making the month advancement less onerous. How about both?
Too big for a bullet point: What’s in a Name? (uh, that sounds similar to every other name…)
Games are localized for reason, and it’s more than just making the language understandable. Sometimes certain concepts or culturally specific things are modified to be more acceptable or understandable to the new region. Strong ethnic names can be difficult to decipher for those whose ears are not tuned to them. If it’s a single character in passing, it doesn’t really make a difference. But it does become an issue, if for gameplay reasons, one must constantly pour through a long list of similar sounding, almost identically spelled names.
Okay, we know Pokémon Conquest used the warlord names from the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, and there were scores of them. Each had their own strengths with various Pokémon. Selecting among them and knowing their stats was a sometimes laborious, but critical part of the game. A part made many times more difficult because of the naming. Take, for example, this short sampling: Kagekatsu Kanetsugu Katsuyori Kazumasu Masahide Masakage Masatoshi Masatoyo Masasuna Morichika Motochika Morikiyo Motoharu Motonari Motozane… Believe us, it goes on and on like this.
And as if all that was not enough, there were a limited number of warlord portraits. That’s right, Morichika and Motochika may have shared the same portrait… Many warlords did. Yay! The monikers seemed to have been designed by a “traditional Japanese name generator.” Take the following name components and see how many different ways you can combine them:
It’s like a game in itself!
Too big for a bullet point: Two Halves Make a Broken Whole
Probably our single biggest criticism of this otherwise quality offering was the decision to break the entire game into two unconnected parts. The first part was the “normal” SRPG story arc. You had to conquer the map, and along the way recruit Pokémon and warlords. The problem was that many Pokémon were unavailable in this mode, along with many warlords necessary to bring them to 100% link percentage. At some point while playing that first part this fact became evident. For some, it may have been after many hours of careful team building.
So then you had to determine whether you wanted to spend more hours playing the game as you had so carefully sculpted it, or finish the initial part only to have all your work wiped out. That’s right, at the completion of the first part, after you beat Nob-face, all your Pokémon and warlords were taken away and you pretty much had to start over. The second part was not like the first, either. It was dozens of unrelated quests. Were they better than grinding? Yes. Did we want to play them after spending many hours building our teams and defeating Nob-face? No.
The reality of how this played out was that you spent the game story not playing with all the Pokémon you wanted, nor having the warlords you needed. If you play Pokémon games, you undoubtedly have favorites. Imagine our elation at recruiting an onix, one of our favorites. Imagine our disappointment at finding out he could only be taken up to 30% experience with the trainers at hand. Imagine looking forward to recruiting a blitzle, only to find out that although it’s in the game, it’s only available at some point in the second part quests.
They could have made one seriously awesome narrative with all the material that was scattered about in the second part if they had combined it with the story arc of the first part. Instead we got an underwhelming story arc, and an underwhelming deluge of unrelated quests. We also did not get to play with all be available Pokémon we wanted, because we decided to stay with our investment of time in the first story part, and not throw it away as the game tried to force upon us.
Let not that last entry color our entire opinion of this otherwise fine game. There was much to it, very much, and it succeeded greatly at most of it. As for expectations, though easily raised, they should be guarded. This wasn’t Ash Ketchum’s Crazy SRPG Adventure. If that were the case we surmise they would have tried to more closely follow the various Pokémon paradigms.
As with any Pokémon game, YOU have to decide how much research you are going to do. How much time you are going to sink into the match-ups. The leveling. How far down the rabbit hole are you desirous of going? If you let it, Pokémon can become a second job (that doesn’t pay the bills…). If you want to play every possible quest in this game to its completion, it can last many, many hours. Not that all the quests offer fantastic, new gameplay avenues. They don’t. But if you have opportunity, try it against another person. That will be worth the effort.
Was Pokémon Conquest fully satisfying to Nob-face’s Ambition devotees? Few in America can answer that question, but we think it probably did with an amusing spin. Was it satisfying to Pokémon fans? We think certainly, especially to those who have played more than one of the standard Pokémon games and are looking for more game and less repetition.
Was it satisfying to SRPG aficionados? Though it is hard to separate out our appreciation for Pokémon, we think the SRPG aspects were worthy of their own enjoyment. Was it a super serious sword and magic political drama? (No. But it did have a positive ending.) Not every SRPG has to be as serious as Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor does one have to be clownish like Disgaea to be fun.