By Will Whitehurst / June 6th, 2016
|Developer||Bandai Namco Studios|
|Publisher||The Pokémon Company/Nintendo|
|Release Date||March 18, 2016 (Wii U)|
|Platform||Arcade, Wii U|
|Age Rating||ESRB: Everyone 10+ – Cartoon Violence|
Gaming has been full of interesting crossovers and new series installments between franchises, but this generation Nintendo has been on the ball. Hyrule Warriors and Pokémon Conquest graced fans of those series (Warriors and Nobunaga’s Ambition, respectively) with new ways to play. Project X Zone and its sequel, both codeveloped by Nintendo’s very own Monolith Soft, placed as many Capcom, Sega, Namco, and (in the sequel’s case) even Nintendo characters as humanly possible into a weird crossover world. This year’s upcoming Atlus-developed Tokyo Mirage Sessions: #FE puts a middle ground between Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. And of course, Smash Bros. needs no explanation I’m sure, yet even that game, which has a ton of Pokémon reps as is, might not satisfactorily scratch that Pokémon battle itch. Enter Pokkén Tournament.
The premise of Pokkén Tournament seems fairly straightforward: have a bunch of Pokémon duke it out in a series of fantastical battles that take the tournament-friendly nature of the Tekken series along with it. When compared with other fighting games, though, Pokkén Tournament is more than the sum of its parts. To put it simply, it seems to achieve a middle ground between the easy to learn, hard to master style of Smash and the more technical prowess of its forebear Tekken. Aside from some minor gripes, this is a very fun fighter that will most definitely appeal to the hardcore set with its customization, Pokémaniacs with its ridiculous amount of fan service, and people looking for a good time regardless.
There is a bit of a story in the campaign mode. In this Pokémon iteration you join the Ferrum League, where you move up the ranks with your Pokémon. As you rise up, you start having more periodic encounters with the fearsome Shadow Mewtwo, and things end up coming to a head when his psychic influence from a gem called the Synergy Stone puts the entire Ferrum League tournament on hold. Thus, you must stop Shadow Mewtwo from taking over. Pokkén Tournament does not have an especially compelling story, but even so, it does have some pretty interesting components to it.
At least Bandai Namco strove to make a polished experience with Pokkén Tournament. It’s seriously slick. Frame rate is extremely steady, the character models and effects really capture the series’ essence, and your trainer avatar can even be customized using coins you earn from your fights. While the environments in game are a little lacking in detail, they’re as vibrant as any Pokémon game you can think of. Neat little touches abound in each background, from the Zangoose and Teddiursa sitting on a bench in Tellur Town to Diggersby Land’s array of attractions themed around that wascally wabbit. The music is also great. Lead composer Hiroki Hashimoto has done compositions for Smash 4, but this time was joined by many composers from previous Pokémon and Tekken games. Now, if any game series are known for having plenty of compositions that get you pumped up for a battle, those should be on anyone’s list, and Pokkén has music that fits right into these respective series’ epic legacies.
At the time of this writing, there are 14 Pokémon to choose from in Pokkén Tournament at the beginning, with 2 more that get unlocked after special conditions are met. Sure, that’s a pretty small number for a fighting game on a system with, you know, that other crossover fighter with a roster over 4 times that size, but they really did go for quality over quantity here. Four different types are at your disposal. Standard Pokémon, which include Pikachu, Suicune, Blaziken, Lucario, and Braixen, are good all around fighters. Charizard, Garchomp, Machamp, and Chandelure are Power types, which use sheer strength. Gengar and Gardevoir are Technique types, which place most of their focus on special attacks. Finally, Speed types, including Weavile, Sceptile, and Pikachu Libre, are fast and furious. There’s something for everyone from just about every generation.
In addition, you choose two pairs of Support Pokémon, which serve different assistance functions in battle, and you unlock more of them as you go. Some, like Fennekin, help assist you in attacking while others, like Jirachi, increase your luck. My favorite in the bunch, Umbreon, will actually sap the Synergy Gauge of your opponent and prevent them from critical hits. It is important to note, though, that the pairs of Support Pokémon are set, so those wanting to have Cubone and Frogadier at the same time, for example, are out of luck.
Pokkén Tournament relies on a combat system that centers around a deceptively simple phase change mechanic. In Field Phase you move your Pokémon around in the arena freely – compare to the Dreamcast classic Power Stone. Conversely, when one of the dueling Pokémon lands a combo, a big hit, or a Synergy Burst (more on those later), the game changes to Duel Phase, which plays similarly to Tekken; the plane becomes 2D, the combat becomes close quarters, and it changes back to Field Phase afterward. The switch between phases really does keep you on your toes, and even though you might be able to simply mash buttons like a lunatic early on in the Tournament campaign, you will have to change up your strategy as necessary.
The controls are fairly straightforward, regardless of which controller you use – and there are no less than five: the GamePad, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wiimote and Nunchuk setup, the Wiimote and Classic Controller setup, and the Hori Pokkén Pro Controller. And if that is not enough, you can even map whatever controls you want to each button. But generally speaking, X is a strong attack, Y is a weak attack, A is a special move, B is jump, L summons your Support Pokémon when your Support Gauge is full, R is guard, Y+B is a grab attack, and X+A is a counter attack. When your Synergy Gauge is full, hit L+R to give your Pokémon the upper hand with a Synergy Burst (the effects differ for each one, but all of them are good), then hit L+R again to use your special Synergy Burst attack. Simple to learn seems to be the series’ mantra, of course.
Speaking of which, Pokkén Tournament adds one other neat intricacy to its combat system. While its parent series has the infamous “grass beats water, water beats fire, fire beats grass” type triangle, that does not apply here. Instead, the attack triangle in Pokkén Tournament is as follows: Normal attacks (that is, your X’s, Y’s and A’s) beat grab attacks (Y+B), grab attacks beat counter attacks, and counter attacks beat normal attacks. If a stronger attack type lands, you land a critical hit. Sure, all of this, as well as the controls and phase switching, might sound simple, but putting it in practice is so much fun.
The only nitpicks I have with Pokkén Tournament are fairly minor and don’t detract at all from my opinion of it as a fantastic breed of fighting game that has been sorely lacking on the Wii U. I don’t quite know if I can fully disagree with the “lack of content” claim, but I also have absolutely no qualms in saying that quality over quantity was the mantra spoken here. While the multiplayer interface where one player plays on the TV and the other plays on the GamePad to account for the third person viewpoint is a little wacky, the framerate dip on the GamePad is nowhere near as bad as expected; unlike other games with similar interfaces like Hyrule Warriors. Some of the arenas are a little small in size, especially if you use a big Pokémon like Machamp or Charizard. Your advisor Nia’s commentary gets annoying fast, but you can turn it off. And finally, the campaign’s length is fairly short, although it is on the long side for a fighting game. I managed to complete it in just under 12 hours.
What makes Pokkén Tournament so darned enjoyable, though, is how unique it really is, especially on a system that has what some might consider to be THE fighting game that bridges the gap between casual and hardcore. Pokkén Tournament does quite the same, with gameplay simple enough for casual fighting game fans to learn, yet deep enough to satisfy that Pokémon battle itch, and can be enjoyed by Pokémaniacs and Tekken fans alike. Fight on.
Review copy acquired by reviewer
Bandai NamcofightingNintendoPokémonpokkenPokken TournamentTekkenThe Pokémon CompanyWii U