Last week I had two very different games vying for my attention: The Olympic ones on TV and Pokémon Conquest on my Nintendo DS.
Now, you might think it odd that I would lump those two competitions together. Then again, you could say Pokémon's animated characters have always been the Olympic competitors of the video gaming world. For over a decade now, these creative creatures have popped up over and over again to match their unique skill sets in winner-take-all contests, the rewards for which are shiny prizes to collect. And, come to think of it, both have their detractors and controversy too. The Olympics for doping allegations and letting professionals compete; Pokémon for pushing kids into a potentially all-consuming spiritualized world full of mysticism.
OK, OK, maybe track-and-field frenzy has incited me to take one corollary leap too many. But there's no denying the long-lived popularity of the Pokémon series. Year after year, new titles keep hitting the shelves with just enough tweaks to keep the series fresh.
Conquest's tweak? It blends the collect-'em-all monster brawler side of this cartoony title with elements of a history-based strategy game. It's an unexpected mash-up that actually works quite well.
Land of the Setting Poké
Instead of the fantasy world of trainers and their fanciful beasts that we've seen before, the action this time takes place in a version of the Sengoku period of feudal Japan. On an island nation called Ransei, gamers play as a male or female warrior who's been newly appointed as the warlord of one of the country's 17 kingdoms. And we soon learn of a fearsome conqueror from the north named Nobunaga who has nothing short of utter domination in mind.
It's said that if one warlord can conquer all the kingdoms, he'll draw forth the legendary Pokémon—a powerful creature that created everything in some ancient time. Of course, a man with that kind of power at his command could unify or destroy the land, depending on his nature. And it's pretty clear what kind of nature Nobunaga has. So it's up to a true hero to gather his troops, win all the kingdoms first and save Ransei.
The troops in this case are also known as Pokémon—animal-like critters which telepathically link with their human handlers. Gamers can connect with fire-breathing Charmanders or hard-fisted Machops out in the wild or recruit warriors who have already matched up with any of the 200 or so different Pokémon creatures available in this game.
This is where the RPG strategy side of things really kicks into gear. Turn by turn, gamers must manage the workings of their kingdom (or kingdoms) by first finding, developing and/or training up the cute monsters on their team. Then you take a hand-picked group of six and head off to challenge another kingdom's Poké-forces.
Pokémon, Meet Strategy
Successfully defeating the opposing combatants requires you to take into account each kingdom's elemental enemies and to counter those particular foes accordingly. For instance, challenging a kingdom of predominantly water-based Pokémon won't be an easy task if your team is composed of rock and fire troops. On the other hand, if your fire creature is up against a grass monster, well, game on.
Each kingdom also has unique battle arenas that will need to be taken into account. Environments rife with fire pits, scattered springboards or broad sheets of slippery ice will all impact how well your crew can perform. Thus, traditional Pokémon vs. Pokémon competitions morph into a grid-like board game of strategic planning and forward-thinking. All of that makes savvy team building a crucially important element.
There's plenty of stop-and-go gameplay packed into this handheld title as well. The main collect-and-conquer quest requires about 20 hours, after which you unlock 30 more side quests.
Gold or Tin?
In true Olympic fashion, the storyline delivers gold medal-worthy messages about getting along, being honorable and striving for your best. And as far as the combat content goes, this E-rated title keeps potentially messy bits to a minimum.
The creature battles are full of colorful attacks that range from water-squirting splashes to lightning bolt blasts to sharp-clawed slashes. But these miniature melees are bloodless, and when a Pokémon takes enough damage to fall, he doesn't die. Instead, he simply faints and retires to rest up for another day's battle.
The worst of it is one kingdom that features a vaguely vampire-looking warlord and his poison-pooled land of dark, ghost-like bats and wisps ... which brings up the only real concern here: spirituality. The Pokémon franchise has long been questioned by Christians concerned about its Eastern-influenced, Dungeons & Dragons-lite affection for fanciful forces that fly beyond where mere mortals can go. It's all presented with characteristically cartoony flair, of course. Which means families will have to decide whether that makes it more palatable ... or more tricky.