The Pokémon series, for all that people write it off as a bunch of kids’ games, harbors a frankly impressive mechanical depth that just might help us crank out a generation of intelligent young Americans despite our education system’s shambling collapse. Even without getting into all those terrifying invisible traits — natures and IVs and EVs and what have you — the Pokémon games reward spur-of-the-moment tactical thinking, long-term planning, and asset management alike. The series’ complex web of relative strengths and weaknesses and vast pool of moves and powers gains an extra layer of trade-offs and balances when you factor in the fact that you can only travel with six of more than 600 monsters, each of which can only hold four skills at a time.
Pokémon Conquest, a Koei-developed strategy game co-starring a hand-picked selection of 200 of Game Freak’s marketable little critters, may well be every bit as mentally demanding as the core Pokémon games. It might not seem it at first, though; not only does it contain far fewer pokémon than the upcoming Black & White Version 2, each creature carries only a single battle command into combat. On top of that, each skill is set per species from the start; if (hypothetically speaking) it turns out one pikachu wades into the fray with nothing but the Thunderbolt command at hand, that’s the skill every single pikachu will know. And you can forget all about those invisible traits; Pokémon Conquest knows nothing of IVs and EVs or even natures.
Sounds grossly simplified, right? Even the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games offer more nuanced pokémon abilities. Well, see, the thing about Conquest is that it’s less an RPG and more a strategy game. That means the game’s focus centers less on the individual combatants and more on team building and the shape of the overall combat campaign. The standard Pokémon titles limit your active party to six ‘mons at a time, and so does Conquest. The difference is that here, all six are on the field at once. Even more significantly, the others you’ve collected don’t sit around in your computer box in a disused limbo; rather, they’re spread out and about across the larger tactical map. Each pokémon you field pairs up with a legendary Japanese warlord, such as Shingen, and the duos set up camp at the various map points your side occupies.
Conquest’s action breaks down into chapters, each one a different battle campaign that plays out over the course of years, one month at a time. Your objective in the game is to take control of each map by building up your forces and launching assaults on enemy territory, conquering each key point while defending the territory you’ve already claimed. Each map point offers its own advantages and drawbacks, and the challenge of the game comes as much in divvying up your resources and balancing offense with defense as in the breakdown of each individual skirmish. And, this being Pokémon, each piece of territory possesses a different elemental attribute that confers boosts and disabilities upon the creatures you send into the fracas. A battlefield’s element also determines the in-battle gimmicks it features (for example, grass-type fields could include a bridge of ivy that extends and retracts as players initiate each new round of combat). Add into this mix the different competencies of each warlord, the fact that enemy leaders have their own pokémon counterparts, and the various resources (training dojos, food vendors, etc.) that need to be managed within each territory you hold, and the way any given warlord can only perform a single strategic action per game-month, and the fact that a badly-managed campaign can actually reach an unwinnable state and you start to realize that Conquest is as taxing as any core Pokémon title. It’s simply a different sort of complexity.
In reality, Conquest’s Pokémon patina sits atop the rather nakedly exposed framework of Koei’s Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise. That series actually predates the original Pokémon by a fair few years, and Koei has been refining its mechanics for decades. Conquest is considerably simplified compared to something like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI, but what it removes from its underlying source material it largely makes up for with the addition of the nuances of pokémon skills and elemental affiliations.
Conquest is a little like Robocop: One part strategy game, one part tactical RPG, all Pokémon. Hopefully it’ll be awesome, like the original Robocop, and not the sort of thing that makes you embarrassed for the human race, like Robocop 3.