If the last two decades of video gaming have taught us anything, it's that legitimately mastering crossovers and spinoffs is nearly a fool's errand for any other genre outside of the fighter. Delving deep into the pixelated past, history reveals that even fighting games themselves can run into trouble attempting to spawn innovative content with only fan service as a decreed selling point, and quite often it's the most unexpected franchise pairings that amount to the most distinguished titles. Games like Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom were seemingly born from the hazy pipe dreams of stoner nerds in the dog days of summer. Yet sometimes a crossover, usually an RPG of some sort, sneaks through the cracks of even the most imaginative consumer's mind, yielding a product that, while not quite perfection, ultimately appeals to more than just the deep-rooted fanbase of the content at hand (Kingdom Hearts, anyone?). Pokémon Conquest doesn't aspire to be Square Enix's divine fusion of the Final Fantasy and Disney universes, but it does something unheralded with its beloved Pocket Monsters that amounts to one of the year's most oddly satisfying role-playing experiences.
A curious soldering of Game Freak's flagship development with Tecmo Koei's extensive Nobunaga's Ambition series, Pokémon Conquest, in the simplest of terms, is a turn-based, grid-mapped strategy RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem that replaces archers and knights with the likes of Charmanders and Bidoofs. What truly separates Pokémon Conquest from any other Pokémon spinoff, though, is how effectively it tinkers around with the never-set-in-stone mythology of its source material by posing the especially intriguing query: What if ancient Japanese dynasty warlords waged their battles with Pokémon instead of spears and swords? The consummation of this question is a pleasant little placeholder to keep the Poké-obsessed occupied while Nintendo of America is hard at work coding the English version of Pokémon Black and White 2.
Pokémon Conquest's historical backdrop provides for a storyline that, while never altogether as inexplicably engaging as a mainline Pokémon adventure, does well to keep the player invested in narrative happenings between battles. Set in the conflicted region of Ransei, your up-and-coming warrior begins his or her quest to conquer the land's 17 kingdoms with a lowly Eevee, along the way recruiting other combatants to join his or her collective ranks. This recruitment element is perhaps the most drastic difference from Pokémon's classic formula. Rather than catching wild specimen in the field, you acquire new Pokémon by defeating their trainers in under four moves or with a special finishing attack, which opens up a separate enlistment menu post-fight (here you can either accept or decline your opponent's offer to unite). While this method isn't as entirely exciting as pitching Pokéballs at appropriately weakened wildlings, the comradery that eventually forms between each amassed soldier and their accompanying Pokémon, herein dubbed the Link system, makes up for the nostalgic lack of random encounters in tall grasses and traditional leveling/evolution process.
While Pokémon Conquest does a commendable job of quelling the most asinine "But I just want regular Pokémon!" complaints with its inclusion of the accustomed type-centered rock-paper-scissors combat blueprint (each kingdom has a corresponding type specialty and puzzle-centric terrain akin to a prototypical main-series gym, like sporadically appearing lava plumes in the fire kingdom), what it unfortunately gets wrong is how it doesn't allow for much freedom of exploration or personalized progression. The game proceeds relatively robotically, unnaturally ushering in the tedious month-by-month passing of time that follows each round of decision-making (some Pokémon are sent to battle while others go to the item shop or energy-enhancement stations). After your selections, a perpetually annoying message appears on screen: "All Pokémon have moved. Proceed to the next month?" This places unnecessary bumps in the road and clockwatching burdens in the midst of what's otherwise a very smooth, favorably streamlined undertaking.
Since this is 2012 and Pokémon Conquest is a DS game, you might expect less than spectacular graphics. But Tecmo Koei paints the domain of Ransei with a wide pallet of eye-popping colors, from deep flare reds to cool aquamarines. As with all DS games, it's forward compatible with the 3DS, but these various shades actually look far better on the DS than on a 3DS, which causes some unsightly blurring issues.
With over 200 species of Pokémon to collect, a bounty of worthwhile unlockables, decent localization (the fact that this niche-tastic game was even brought to our shores is something of a miracle), and befitting WiFi functions, Pokémon Conquest is a rare spinoff: one that integrates reputable, fail-safe SRPG components into an established cash cow. It has its drawbacks (it's not nearly as refined as it could be), yet its resourcefulness and entertainment value has the potential to turn even lifelong Pokéhaters into closet enthusiasts.