Pokkén Tournament has got to be one of the strangest fighting games I’ve ever played. It stitches together many of the genre’s more traditional elements with a number of more modern design philosophies. It’s trying to please a lot of people at once, Pokémon and Tekken fans chief among them. It pulls from Bandai Namco’s ongoing Naruto and Dragonball Z fighting game franchises, and there aer blink-and-you’ll miss it nods to Street Fighter and even Marvel vs. Capcom and Guilty Gear. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a fighting game and somehow, miraculously, it works.
The first thing that’s going to raise eyebrows among fighting game fans in Pokkén Tournament is the ability to shift the battlefield. Each fight will move between what’s called the Field Phase — which is essentially a 3D-arena which requires careful positioning and enthusiastic projectile deployment –and the Duel Phase, which is much more traditional in style to regular fighting games. Landing an especially brutal hit in the Field Phase will see you switch to Duel Phase, and there you should be focused on landing damage in contained spurts. If you manage to carry a huge combo all the way through to the end, the game may then switch back to Field Phase allowing your fighters to sidestep and dance around their opponents. The idea is that this moving in an out of the fray gives you time to strategise, planning your next move and how you can successfully counter your opponent.
Pokémon appearing in the game have been pulled from just about every generation of the series. I spent a lot of time with the Gen 1 and Gen 2 Pokémon games and so seeing characters from those eras, like Machamp, included made me feel immediately welcome. While some of the newer monsters were unfamiliar to me, they’re all extremely interesting in the way they handle themselves in a fight. Given the immense number of Pokémon in the series now, it would be ridiculous to expect everyone’s favourite monsters to appear. The 16 monster-deep roster does provide a nice cross-section, however. Further, obvious care has been put into building these characters so that they perform and behave the way long-time fans would expect them to. Machamp wants to get up in your personal space, break your defense and deal big melee damage. Gengar is perfect for technical players looking for mix-up and fake-out opportunities.
In terms of presentation, everything feels very on brand for the Pokémon universe. Character models are beautifully constructed and very emotive and the animations are similarly enjoyable to watch play out. The music and sound effects add a great deal of vibrancy and heightened emotion for fans, blasting familiar tunes from the Pokémon soundtrack mixed in with new original tracks.
With this well-deserved praise squared away, lets talk for a second about how Pokkén Tournament‘s strongest suits also constitute some of its weakest. While it may not appear so on the surface, this is a technical fighter, surprisingly complex and it has pretty lofty expectations of you as a player. You are to internalise its many, many lessons quickly. Nowhere is this more apparent than going into the tutorial mode, which is one of the most severe information dumps I’ve seen in years. Much of it isn’t interactive, playing out more like a university lecture on advanced combat techniques than anything else and by the time it wrapped up, I didn’t feel like I’d really taken anything in. I’ve spent a lot of time with fighting games in my day and it took me a few hours to properly get my head around Pokkén Tournament and its many layers of operation.
In apparent preparation for this wave of utter player confusion, Pokkén Tournament has tried to make up for the info dump allowing its single-player modes to ease new players into the game. You can carve a swath through league after league of computer-controlled, would-be Pokémon masters and these will lead to promo matches against harder, craftier opponents. This is a far better way to bring players into the world of Pokkén Tournament than the attendent tutorial and it does a better job of introducing and explaining the game’s more technical aspects.
Despite how much more at ease I felt after working my way through hundreds of matches in the single player campaign, I still found there were times when Pokkén Tournament could still confuse the hell out of me. Even for those who like to meticulously min-max their characters for optimal output, there may be too much to work with here. I frequently found myself getting overwhelmed and rather stressed out by all the options available to me.
Once you’ve got a grasp of the basics and gotten your mind around whichever moves and debuffs are unique to your Pokémon, you can start jumping into the online modes. While I didn’t find there was too much lag during fight, and the matchmaking was relatively quick, there were the odd moments where the ping would spike dramatically and I would lose a round before I even knew what was happening. Netplay features two main modes — Friendly and Ranked — which should be immediately familiar to players of Street Fighter V.
The best word I can think of to describe Pokkén Tournament is “affinitive.” It borrows openly and widely from other fighters and combines its favourite elements into something feels legitimately unique. It is also working very, very hard to make sure you enjoy the time you spend with it. The learning curve is a little steep to begin with, but there is a deep and rewarding fighting game beneath it all if you’re willing to keep digging.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Deep, technical fighting; immense room for strategy Mexican Wrestler Pikachu
Lowlights: Steep learning curve
Developer: Bandai Namco
Released: March 19, 2016
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Reviewed on Nintendo Wii U