There are some series out there that I consider naturally innovative or creative. Pokémon usually isn't one of them. The main series has trundled along with its slow evolution of gameplay without ever shaking things up. Why rock the boat when it's perfectly sea-worthy, after all? Still, it's always interesting to see the franchise test the waters of different styles, and Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition is no exception. Of course, the most surprising part of this title is where it gets rechristened Pokémon Conquest and is confirmed for a June release in the United States.
"If you like the Pokémon series, buy it. If you like Koei's Nobunaga series, buy it. If you like tactical combat, buy it. If you like two or more of the above, you'll be in heaven."
And there's a damned good reason why it's surprising. In spite of the franchise label, this is not a game that, at first glance, would seem to attract Western attention. It's a quasi-war sim game with tactical battles based on one of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history. The developers went to great lengths to include about thirty major historical figures from that time period, most of whom have names that few Americans could pronounce properly.
Then again, this is Pokémon we're talking about here. What's more, it's Pokémon with tactical combat. That should sell a lot of copies right there.
For those without a college course in Japanese history under their belt, the Pokémon Conquest is thankfully light on the historical aspects. Most of the characters have relationships and allegiances that reflect their historical counterparts, and the Ranse region is definitely as Japanese as it can get, but there's no need to know who any of these characters are going in. Of course, if you're a major fanboy or -girl of Japanese samurai drama, you'll have plenty to gush over in any case. Everyone else can just enjoy the conquest of sixteen castles across the region, each with its own theme and gimmicks. It's a long way from the player's home of Hajime-no-Kuni to Nobunaga's stronghold in Ryuu-no-Kuni, after all.
Koei's got quite a few tactical and strategic games under its belt. In fact, many of the games that define the genre in Japan have come from this company. It is better to appreciate it from that angle, because there have been changes made that drastically alter how the character interacts with Nintendo's cutest critters.
First, the meat of the game: battles. I have no idea how they'll translate this for Pokémon Conquest, but in Japanese a special word for combat is used instead of the usual batoru (battle). Let's call it an engagement. In this game, every allied character can take part in one activity per month. That includes engagements, mining, relaxing with their partner, shopping, or a handful of special actions. There are two sorts of engagements: skirmishes, which are against random wild pokémon and possibly unallied commanders, and castle engagements, in which the player attempts to take an enemy stronghold. Castle engagements are the equivalent to gym battles, and to make things interesting the battlefield is littered with things like springboards, elevators, teleporters, and assorted hazards. Every castle is different, and some engagements even have special rules that need to be kept in order to win. It's not just a matter of picking favorable attack types.
To make the players think even more tactically, pokémon in this game have only one usable attack per species, though this attack changes as the creature evolves. Attacks have set ranges, and the really strong ones also have aftereffects to take into account. I can say with certainty that there are maps where you do not want to put out a lot of long-range attackers, because the terrain makes anything but close-in combat difficult to work with. With some creative team-building, any battle can be won (though Nobunaga himself is certainly a tough nut to crack). One potential downside is that it's now possible to have stalemated battles if the last two combatants are immune to each other's attacks (such as in a Ghost vs. Normal matchup). This makes the institution of a time limit (variable, ten rounds for skirmishes and castle engagements are always longer) much more understandable.
Second, there are no balls being thrown about (except in Sanagi-no-Kuni, where the local leader likes to play Poquet in the middle of battle). In one of the tutorial bits a samurai is even shown scoffing at the notion of treating pokémon so poorly as to stuff them in such a contraption. Instead, commanders forge bonds with new pokémon by sheer force of will. Available links are shown as little medals above wild critters when any given commander is chosen. Bronze is the weakest "good" affinity, with maybe a 50% rapport between human and pokémon. Silver is better, with these links often reaching 70% rapport. Gold is the best, though, with a 90% to 100% rapport. Why is rapport important? Because trust is not automatic, and must be built up through various actions. This percentage effectively takes the place of experience points and happiness used in the main series, and the potential for rapport is a level cap. Plenty of commanders will join up while possessing absolutely dismal rapport with their pokémon, so it's imperative that the player find the best matches for each ally. Everyone has one or two favored types, so it's usually not that hard to find at least a silver match. Just have that character's partner sidle up to a promising wild pokémon, choose to forge a link, and play a sort of beat-rhythm game. It takes two tries at most to succeed.
Finally, collecting commanders is every bit as important as collecting individual pokémon. Each commander can field one varmint in a battle, and his or her stats have an impact on everything. Strength raises the pokémon's effective attack power, intelligence bolsters defense, and charisma improves evasion. There's also a fourth stat that determines how many links that commander can make, which means that some characters are stuck with only two pokémon while others can have six (or more). Also, each commander has a special skill that can be used once per battle, and an equipment slot for consumable items as well. Skills may increase stats, add special conditions, heal one or more units, or have other effects. It's worth noting that this game's version of the Pokédex includes a section for humans, with two hundred commanders potentially recruitable. As for recruitment, just beat them hard and beat them fast in an engagement, and they'll wind up so impressed that they beg to join.
Seriously, there are plenty of reasons to get this. If you like the Pokémon series, buy it. If you like Koei's Nobunaga series, buy it. If you like tactical combat, buy it. If you like two or more of the above, you'll be in heaven.