Will Wright, the genius game designer behind SimCity, once said that he played one round of the strategy game Advance Wars every morning just to kickstart his brain. It makes sense that a person who made a career of playing with simulated people like pawns should like the chessmaster’s view of a battlefield. But there’s something more to such diversions than tactical maneuvering. Such games can also transport us to strange, new places and put us in the shoes of leaders who wear heavy crowns.
Pokémon Conquest imagines a land inspired by feudal Japan where warlords battle with magical creatures, like the famed Pikachu and Jigglypuff, at their sides. The leap isn’t all that crazy if you consider that the phenomenally popular Pokémon games are about kids who leave home to wander the earth like ronin samurai, honing skills and gathering cute, powerful allies as they explore their world.
Here there’s a goal more pressing than merely catching them all and being the best there ever was. Power-hungry conqueror Nobunaga, a stern, mustachioed warrior with a jet-black topknot, aims to invade and unite the 17 kingdoms under his iron fist. And legend has it that a legendary Pokémon will reveal itself to the warrior who accomplishes this feat. That’s where the player steps in―to beat Nobunaga at his own game.
Technically, Nobunaga’s game is the obscure (in America) but respected battlefield simulator Nobunaga’s Ambition―a Japanese series that has popped up on more than a dozen different consoles since the original game was released in 1983. Pokémon Conquest isn’t quite so complex or fiddly. Like Advance Wars, this amiable war game plays like an easygoing gateway to strategy. When it is time to fight, players field an army of warlords and their Pokémon buddies. The warriors may find themselves on islands floating in the sky or atop a frozen lake. The fight unspools turn-by-turn as the player maneuvers Pokémon across the treacherous terrain, trading blows with opponents.
Pokémon Conquest isn’t just about battle. It is also about preparing for battle. Every conquered castle is encompassed by hunting grounds where new Pokémon and warlord allies can be recruited. Armies are amassed and trained, jockeyed into position, and then deployed when the time feels right. Eventually, the player oversees a horde of human warriors and Pokémon so vast that it becomes necessary to delegate orders to each kingdom and let the warlords go about the business of training and recruiting on their own.
That’s right, where the wandering hero of your typical Pokémon adventure wrangles a pocketful of pets, the tactician playing Pokémon Conquest lords over kingdoms. The lesson here is that the single-minded Nobunaga has abstracted all humanity away from his pawns. Our young hero, an upstart who looks a mite underfed in traditional Japanese armor, still understands the joys and sorrows of battle from the ground. We share those sensations every time a hard-fought battle is won.
That’s because the rewards for these victories are many. Every win sees new warriors joining your ranks and treasures added to the arsenal. These colorful warriors are each sketched in handsome anime style, with ornate costumes, and their personalities are drawn by way of emotional battle chatter. The style is economic and effective, making each warlord-Pokémon pair feel like more than tin soldiers on a miniature battlefield.
The best moments, of course, revolve around Pokémon. Hunting these creatures down and convincing them to become allies is satisfying, despite the fact that there’s nary a Pokéball in sight. And when the creatures evolve after a battle, transforming into a stronger form, it is difficult not to beam with the pride of a parent.
It’s a little disappointing, after investing time in the game, to discover that there’s no continued conquest after the plot has reached its climax. Once the main story has concluded, players who crave more are left to scrap in stand-alone brawls, which tell the stories of the warlords you’ve encountered on the way to victory. Learning to love your pawns is well and good, but letting go of Pokémon Conquest’s spoils is bittersweet.