Although avid Pokemon fans awaiting a 3DS installment (or simply one with 3D models instead of 2D sprites) may have to swallow their disappointment for a bit longer, we have on our hands a truly delightful spinoff to tide us over for the time being. Pokemon Conquest (a Nintendo DS game, playable in 2D on the 3DS, as Nintendo likes to remind everyone) is a highly addictive, deeply strategic RPG modeled closely after the chess-like gameplay of Final Fantasy Tactics. It features a storyline that blends Pokemon-themed fantasy with real-life historical figures from the Sengoku period of feudal Japan (two concepts one wouldn't ordinarily think to mash together). Startlingly, it works very well, and shapes into what is easily the best Pokemon spinoff ever.
You begin the game as an aspiring warrior in the land of Ransei, in which there is a legend of a warlord capable of summoning the legendary Pokemon that created the region by conquering and claiming all 17 of its kingdoms. Throughout this land, each warrior and warlord has the ability to communicate with Pokemon and engage them in battle, but only the Pokemon they have the highest compatibility ("link") with can best serve them in combat. The storyline borrows elements from Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition series (Koei also played a role in the game's development) and peppers them with the collectability factor and addictive battle mechanics of the Pokemon franchise. As you may guess from the storyline, your primary goal is to engage in a series of battles against various kingdoms in an effort to awaken the mysterious creationist Pokemon before the ruthless warlord Nobunaga (the game's primary antagonist, based off of real-life Oda Nobunaga, a major daimyo in the late 16th century) beats you to it.
The combat system is turn-based, like many traditional RPGs, and like the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics, you'll spend each turn advancing a certain number of spaces throughout the stage, and must be within range of an opponent in order to inflict damage with attacks. Different Pokemon have different attack and movement ranges, so you'll have to keep this in mind as you progress, since you'll want to advance toward your opponents without leaving yourself within their line of fire whenever possible. Fans of JRPGs such as Fire Emblem and old-school Final Fantasy titles will be fondly familiar with these mechanics, and like those games, battles in Pokemon Conquest can feel a great deal like thoughtfully planned out bouts of chess. Although these types of games can ordinarily turn off gamers who aren't into intense strategy, Pokemon Conquest impressively manages to coax newbies into easily understanding the mechanics all while building upon its array of thoughtful complexity and creative nuances. I myself was largely unfamiliar with this type of battle system and was notably doubtful as to how much I'd enjoy it, but after playing for hours and gaining much deeper understanding, I can wholeheartedly say I'm hooked.
For Pokemaniacs, most of the beloved gameplay elements are retained-there are still type weaknesses and strengths (Fire types still take extra damage from Water type attacks, and so forth), which you'll of course have to consider before sending your team into battle, in addition to character-specific abilities which activate in various scenarios and can be highly useful in specific situations. What adds a nice bit of zest to this is that in addition to the Pokemon having abilities, each warrior (trainer) has his or her own ability as well, which can be used only once per match. This is once again something worth considering in regard to which Pokemon you partner them up with and what teams you place them on, as abilities that increase defense, heal HP or cure status ailments may of course be better suited to certain teams and scenarios than others. You can also once again use items like Potions to heal HP or elemental stones to evolve (yes, Pokemon do evolve in this game, for those wondering). Additionally, warriors themselves evolve ("transform," more accurately) once they've gained strong enough partner links, causing their own abilities and team capacities to improve as well. When Pokemon are a part of a winning battle, and particularly when they land finishing blows to opponents, they don't gain experience points but instead strengthen their link with their trainer, and as their link grows, so does their strength and likelihood of evolving. As previously mentioned, warriors have differing links with different Pokemon, and you'll ideally want to track down the Pokemon that your trainers have 100% (maximum) compatibility with. Pokemon with lower compatibilities can still become powerful, but their strength will max out earlier than desired (a 70% compatibility Quagsire, for example, will stop gaining strength once its trainer link reaches 70, as where one with full compatibility could have continued growing).
Therein lies Pokemon's famous collectability; upon defeating each kingdom, you'll have the option of recruiting certain warriors whose Pokemon you defeated from there (the criteria for recruitment varies, as you may have to defeat certain warriors within an allotted number of turns or fulfill other requirements in order for them to become available to recruit). Each warrior may only be partnered with one Pokemon at a time in-battle, but you can add to their arsenal and switch around which one you'd like them to use (although different warriors have different team capacities, so you may have to let the less compatible ones go eventually). Some warriors are lucky enough to already have a highly compatible Pokemon by their side immediately upon recruitment, but you'll have to seek out something better for most of them. Once a kingdom is conquered, wild Pokemon (in addition to new warriors, or those you may have missed out on recruiting the first time around) will begin appearing inside. These instances will be your primary opportunities to seek out perfect matches for your warriors; a wild Pokemon's compatibility with a warrior will be displayed over their head in battle in the form of a medal; bronze indicates a low compatibility, silver equates to average, and a gold medal means the Pokemon is a great match for that warrior and is capable of a 100% link. You can link warriors with new wild Pokemon by approaching them and choosing the `Link' option, at which point you'll begin a DDR-styled mini-game in which you must press buttons at specific moments to strengthen the link. If you're successful, that Pokemon will belong to that warrior once the battle ends. You'll be able to tell which types of Pokemon to keep an eye out for based on each warrior's elemental specialty, listed in their menu profile; certain warriors favor Electric or Grass types, as where others may specialize in both Ghost and Fire. This doesn't necessarily mean every Pokemon of that type will be a perfect match for them, however, so you'll simply have to explore and experiment (i.e. pay attention to those medals)-trust me when I say 100% links are worth seeking out, because Pokemon with maxed out compatibilities become superbly powerful.
One of the greatest aspects of Pokemon Conquest's battles are their complexity-an ugly word to some gamers, but hear me out: when I say complexity, I mean the vast array of options you have to perform exciting setups, traps and defensive efforts out on the battlefield. Although certain elements of the gameplay may actually initially come off as simplistic, these in reality all come together as a beautifully cohesive whole to make for some of the most addictive, thought-provoking strategy ever presented in a Pokemon spinoff, and arguably any Pokemon game period. While in combat, you'll have to consider your opponent's types in addition to their positions on the field, since if Pokemon are attacked by an opponent they're facing away from, they take additional damage. Certain Pokemon abilities, meanwhile, must also be considered from a positional angle, since Jigglypuff's Lullaby ability can put nearby Pokemon to sleep, while Pansage's Melee ability causes adjacent opponents to randomly take damage. Because of this, you may want to use ranged attacks against specific opponents, or attack/approach them from an angle they may have difficulty retaliating from. Some Pokemon even have attack ranges that could endanger allies, so for example you'll definitely want to keep your Flying types out of your Electric type's potentially wide line of fire.
Adding to all this variety is that not all battles have the same goal; although defeating opponents is never a bad thing, each match has a limited number of turns, during which time you must complete the required goal. You'll sometimes have to claim banners throughout the stage to win, something you must accomplish before your opponent does first. This essentially makes for a Pokemon-ified version of capture the flag in which you must protect your own banners while seizing those your opponent has claimed as quickly as you can. There are also different stage hazards in different kingdoms, although they thankfully aren't wildly unpredictable catalysts for random or unfair chaos. No, Pokemon Conquest's stage hazards tie thematically into everything else presented here by being strategy-based first and foremost; one kingdom, for example, features a series of enormous balls placed throughout the field that can be attacked to send them bouncing down that entire row of spaces, doing substantial damage to any Pokemon in its path. Another kingdom, meanwhile, has trenches that can be filled with (or drained of) water each time a nearby button is pressed (stood on), which can once again damage Pokemon in the way. You'll want to utilize these hazards to your advantage whenever you can, while making sure to steer clear of them yourself.
Anyone obsessed with Pokemon knows that, regrettably, some of the coolest and cuddliest monsters are unfortunately ordinarily totally useless in competitive play; this is an issue remedied within Pokemon Conquest, as quite literally any Pokemon can become beastly in combat when paired with the proper warrior. So yes, anyone who's a big fan of the adorable but ordinarily weak Jigglypuff or Minccino is in for quite a treat. In all reality, Pokemon Conquest is such a comprehensive game so jam-packed full of features, it can be quite difficult to fit into one review without rambling. There are even options to delegate specific warriors to specific kingdoms to protect territories from incoming invasions (yes, after conquering so many yourself, you'll have to prepare for counterattacks later in the game), in addition to shopping options to purchase (and create by combination) some of the best items; different warriors have differing Charisma ratings, which affect how well they can exchange with shopkeepers, and you can also feed your Pokemon `Ponigiri' (this game's Poffins, more or less) to increase their strength. The calendar system makes it so that each warrior may perform only one action per month (whether that be mining for gold, shopping for items, engaging in battle or whatever else within different kingdoms), and you may manually proceed to the next month at your leisure; this system may sound wonky on paper but it in fact allows for a unique passage of time within the game and will increase your desire to thoughtfully plan out your course of action.
I have yet to experience a video game that's completely perfect, but Pokemon Conquest's setbacks are so minor that they're only barely worth mentioning. Although its graphical limitations certainly don't prevent it from being a great game, certain sprites or animations can be particularly clunky and pixelated, which may cause nitpickers to wonder what could have been on a more powerful console. Also, moving warriors around to different kingdoms (which you'll have to do fairly often, depending on what types of Pokemon appear and who you'll have to battle inside) can be a bit of a hassle, particularly if you don't remember which warriors are which or what their type specialties are; an option to more easily shift groups around in bulk or display their compatibilities/type specialties on the main screens would have been ideal. Additionally, just like each warrior can only use one Pokemon at a time, each Pokemon can only use one attack at a time, although these attacks change when they evolve, meaning if they're a dual-type, their primary attack type can change as well. This can make things a bit unpredictable and potentially unfavorable when your Dark-based Scraggy suddenly evolves into a Scrafty with a Fighting attack (meaning that Pokemon's strategy and what it can go up against may suddenly change without notice, and you may find yourself without a Dark move to rely on).
I bring the gripes up for the sole purpose of thoroughness; make no mistake, Pokemon Conquest is a fantastic game and should absolutely be owned by every Pokemon lover, in addition to anyone who enjoys RPG/strategy/battle games. Featuring an engaging storyline, incredibly addictive gameplay, wonderful anime-style artwork and the substantial replay value offered by an impressively lengthy 1-player quest in addition to a local wireless multiplayer mode (meaning yes, once you have a decent team formed you can compete with your friends in battle), Pokemon Conquest succeeds in just about every area it can. If there were to ever be a seamless introductory game to the JRPG genre with plentiful opportunity for increased strategizing and complexity, Pokemon Conquest is it. Even if you're not a big fan of the genre, give this one a try and I can almost guarantee you'll gain a newfound love.