Thursday, April 12, 2012

Import Review: Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition (DS)

The appeal of Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition in the West is the word before the '+'. Nobunaga's Ambition is a franchise that has always been badly underrepresented outside of Japan, because Westerners find Japanese history boring or something. Unfortunately this game does very little for the Nobunaga's Ambition franchise, and is little more than a cheap and childish SRPG.

Pokémon do all the fighting in this game, and they do so in a grid fashion that works much like Final Fantasy Tactics. Just like the 'real' Pokémon games they have their special abilities and charming little character designs. They level up and fight enemy Pokémon characters. It's like the developers took the basic Pokemon game, and turned it into a turn-based SRPG.

The good news is that it's easy to get into and plays a little like "my first strategy game." That's good news because this game was clearly designed to introduce youngsters, or people less familiar with strategy games, to the genre. It works. There's a gentle difficulty curve and relatively few difficult strategic decisions that need to be made.

The downside is that without the hundreds of Pokémon and the intricate levelling system, there’s almost no real depth to the RPG side of this game. In fact, as a Pokémon game, Pokémon + Nobunaga’s Ambition misses the point far more than I would have thought possible. That leaves the strategy side of things to see the game through.

And that’s when the real problems with this game are going to be immediately obvious to anyone who has actually played a Nobunaga's Ambition game before. This is far, far too simple to get by on strategy. Those games are up there with the most hardcore strategy games imaginable for consoles. From managing resources to carefully building and training armies, to a real historical setting, Nobunaga's games are meant to be taken seriously.

There was the potential that Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition could have worked. It doesn't because the developers decided to focus on the Pokémon theme, and forgot somewhere along the line to put in the Nobunaga's Ambition bit. The plot is a complete fantasy, and the strategy is about as complex as a Samurai Warriors conquest mode. In fact, Pokémon + Samurai Warriors Conquest would have been a far more appropriate title.

There's no politicking in this game, no recruiting or training units of soldiers. No supplies, no taxes, no disasters to deal with. There’s a bit of town building, but that’s about as complex as a Farmville-like game. Nothing that resembles a Nobunaga game at all, really. When I first heard of this game I had assumed it would be a simplified territory conquest game, with Pokémon replacing the foot soldiers in battle. That's not what I got at all, and while that would have worked in a strange but fun kind of way, this mix doesn't work for me at all.

The actual characters from the Nobunaga's Ambition games take a back seat in this game. They're not much more important than the Pokémon trainers of a regular Pokémon game, though they do have a once-per-battle super power that can help tip the balance, and outside of battle there's not much to do with them, aside from recruiting more of them and using their "link" to their Pokémon to strengthen the Pokémon and make them evolve.

There's a lot of warlords, each with their own preferred Pokémon, and the art style for those characters is nice. In general the game gets presentation right, it just completely misfires in understanding that Nobunaga's Ambition is a franchise that stands for a strategic game, and this is anything but strategic. It's a bit like the misfire with calling Ninja Gaiden 3 a Ninja Gaiden game when in reality it is anything but.

The game is being renamed to "Pokémon Conquest" for the US market, and that's a pretty smart idea, because it's not a Nobunaga's Ambition game at all. Of course, it's also not much of a strategy game, so the people buying into this because of the "Conquest" are still going to be disappointed, but kids and strategy newbies are likely to get a kick out of it.

For everyone else: go get a real Nobunaga's Ambition game. I promise you they're awesome.

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