Sunday, 12 January 2014

Rooksburg Reviews: Pokémon Conquest

Pokémon Conquest for the Nintendo DS ('Nobunaga's Ambition' in Japan) is arguably the most overlooked game in the Pokémon franchise, and that's quite understandable; it is the first attempt at a more mature game by the Pokémon company, has a completely different playing style from anything else in the franchise, and borrows heavily on Japanese references that will be lost on a Western audience.  That being said, I believe it's certainly worth a second look and this review should help explain why:

Obviously this is the most jarring aspect to new players.  This game is a Tactical Turn-Based RPG, meaning
it plays similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, and Advance Wars, though with a slight twist- namely the inclusion of pokémon.  On the world map you can manage your kingdoms in a simple manner- you can battle and attempt to recruit wild pokémon and warlords, you can mine for gold, spend gold in shops, or develop existing areas to increase power levels of wild pokémon or buy better items, etc.  Each kingdom can sustain six warlords, and each warlord has a set number of pokémon they can control, generally only extending to 3 or 4.  In combat each warlord uses a single pokémon, determined before battle starts and unable to be switched during battle.  Interestingly for this genre, each pokémon can use only one move determined by the pokémon's species- and generally the more powerful moves will have greater limitations to consider, such as recharge times and splash damage.  Overall this offers the same flexibility as other tactical games, but also makes the game feel more akin to a game of chess where each move must be carefully thought out.  Or it would, were it not for the horrific miss chances on attacks.
The dual screens are utilised well; top screen shows
unit information, bottom shows the battle itself.
User's speed determines accuracy, which is displayed each time you make an attack.  The majority of the time, this will be between 92-96%.  Despite this, I have fought many battles where I've missed 5 times in a row, and that's not taking into account abilities like 'instinct' that seemingly have a 50% chance miss-chance on top of the attack itself.  Prepare to rage a lot in this game, and I'm in awe of you if you manage an iron-man playthrough.

The Story:
The main story follows the hero/heroine, naturally played by you, as they attempt to unite the warlords of Ransei against the warmongering Nobunaga.  Legend says that whoever can successfully unite the land will be deemed worthy of gaining an audience and possibly befriending a powerful legendary pokémon.
Unfortunately the main storyline is possibly the reason why this game is so overlooked; there's very poor pacing, you can't evolve your starter until late in the game, and the characters look interesting but ultimately lack substance.  It may be ironic, then, that on completing the main quest everything is turned on its head as you find out every warlord you encountered (and then some) has their own story to tell- you can pick from 37 stories in total, each comprising a full game in themselves.  As they concentrate on specific characters and often contain a lot less kingdoms to worry about, there is now a lot more characterisation and better pacing; and because captured pokémon are carried over to these stories each could be considered a 'New Game +' feature.  It would be tempting to consider the possibility of if these stories were sidequests in the main story, or if they were simply available from the start, but unfortunately I think the way it's presented is the only way it could have worked.  Which is a pity, as few people will have the patience to complete the main quest so will never experience the mastery of the additional stories.

The Characters:
Interestingly, every single character in this game (excluding the hero/heroine) is based on a real life historical
figure.  The majority of characters you encounter will be generic carbon copies of about 6 templates, but each kingdom has warlords associated with it.  These warlords, whilst being considerably over-the-top, all have endearing features conveyed simply through facial expressions and the few lines of dialogue they have- though again I stress that little of this will come across in the main story.  Each character also has affinities with a certain type of pokémon, and within this type there will be one specific species that will be a 'perfect link'; this partner pokémon will appear next to the warlord in conversation, and only with a perfect link will a pokémon be able to reach its full potential.

The Art/Music:
I hesitate to call it 'graphics' as the only graphics to speak of are in battle; the rest is beautiful drawings.  Clearly a lot of effort went into this game's artwork, from the simple kingdom designs to the glorious cutscenes, but especially to the warlords who each wear elaborate clothing that perfectly matches their personalities whilst also dropping hints as to their perfect pokémon.  As for the in-battle graphics, little can be said about them; the models can be a little off at times, but move animations are smooth and the terrain is as accurate as you can expect from an isometric grid.
The music matches the artwork in terms of quality, and I could happily listen to it at any time.

When this game was first announced I could barely contain my excitement; a mature tactical pokémon game incorporating Japanese history sounded like a dream come true.  Then I played it, got halfway through the main quest, and ragequit from the miss-chances.  About a month ago, when I was without internet, I picked it up again and am now on my tenth post-game quest, truly amazed at how different it is after completing the main story.  I still get messed up by miss-chances but if I'm having a particularly bad time I'll just wait an in-game month and it generally sorts itself out- and the fact pokémon carry over between stories means it keeps getting easier.
I won't blame you if you don't get on with this game, but if you at least like the concept then I promise you it gets better after completing the main quest.

tl;dr review:
Gameplay: 7/10.  An interesting take on the genre, but those miss-chances really let it down.
Main Story: 4/10.  Generic domination story.
Post-Game Stories: 10/10.  Better pacing, better character development, and each is a different challenge.
Characters: 5/10.  The majority are carbon copies that share names with historical figures, and the important characters only develop in the post-game stories.
Graphics: 6/10.  Not amazing, but serve their purpose.
Art/Music: 9/10.  Excellent character art, if limited.  Likewise for music.

Overall: 7/10.  Flawed, but rewarding if you persevere.

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