When the idea of crossing Nintendo’s Pokémon with Koei’s feudal Japan set strategy series Nobunaga’s Ambition was first announced, we thought it had to be an April Fool’s joke. And even when it was confirmed, we assumed that Pokémon + Nobunaga’s Ambition, as it was known in Japan, would remain exclusive to its country of origin. Yet here it is, in the slightly more palatable Western guise of Pokémon Conquest. It’s still Pokémon and samurai battling for regional dominance in the 16th century and, as it turns out, the marriage of IP works incredibly well.
It’s hard to believe that nobody had the idea of making a Pokémon strategy RPG before, actually. With hundreds of monsters in the series history, each with their own array of powers and ability to evolve, the pocket monsters fit into this genre perfectly, satisfying that strategic urge to build teams of complementary units, or just your favourite monsters. And Nobunaga’s Ambition in particular is an especially good fit. Where some SRPGs see a single force works its way through a series of linear battles, Koei’s series sees players fighting over individual territories on a map of Japan. Each territory won becomes another fortification for the player to populate with another group of Pokémon. Every territory can house six warlords and each of these can carry around up to six of their own Pokémon, brilliantly tapping into the “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality at the core of the series.
Just about every facet of Pokémon gameplay you would expect is here, from catching wild monsters out in the field, to training and evolving them, powering them up with TMs and developing new powers. Pokémon don’t level up as such but the bond between warlord and monster can increase with experience, further strengthening the metaphor of samurai as ancient Pokémon trainer. Yet it’s Pokémon Conquest’s accomplishment as a strategy RPG that most impresses.
No one expected Pokémon Conquest to be anything more than a perfunctory RPG, and for a few hours at least it isn’t. The game spends a good 4-5 hours with the training wheels on, making the intro rather dull for anyone with experience of the genre, but later battles significantly pile on good ideas. Pokémon’s rock-paper-scissors mechanic comes into its own here as you can see what combination of monsters awaits in each territory and build your team accordingly, while the maps themselves are among some of the smartest we’ve seen in the genre. Elemental tiles play to the strengths and weaknesses of Pokémon units rather well, while unique mechanics in each area, such as flags to capture and hold, boulders you can push down hill or squares that randomly teleport units around the map, sometimes into secret areas, would be fun in any SRPG, Pokémon or other otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pokémon Conquest, however, is that it made us want to go back and play one of Koei’s earlier, duller and more convoluted Nobunaga games. And any game that can make us feel that way is worthy of high praise indeed.