Review: Pokkén Tournament

Nintendo has little experience with complex, competitive fighting games. Bandai Namco, however, has decades of it, with multiple franchises under their belt. What do you get when you combine their powers? You get Pokémon’s first fighting game, Pokkén Tournament. Does this illustrious partnership pay off?

Title: Pokkén Tournament (Review Copy Purchased)
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: March 18, 2016
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $59.99

Pokkén Tournament excels in the graphics department. The Pokemon you control actually look like they could exist in some weird alternate dimension, and every model has extreme detail, from the fur on Lucario to the Luchador outfit on Pikachu-Libre. While some of the spectator models leave you unimpressed, most of the focus in a fighting game is kept on the fighters, so they largely aren’t noticeable in normal gameplay. Pokken Tournament runs at a smooth 60fps during Single-Player and most of the online multiplayer modes (internet lag can affect the frame rate). Local multiplayer runs at 30fps, but this is due to the necessity of the game having to be rendered differently for both the GamePad and TV to display both fighters. Either way, Pokken Tournament is one of the Wii U’s best looking games, and Nintendo succeeded in porting the arcade game to the lower-specification console.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

The gameplay is also a highlight. Instead of meticulously recreating the complex combo system most fighting games are known for, or the simpler, unified, control system of Super Smash Bros, Bandai Namco has decided to go with a middle of the road approach with Pokkén. While characters mostly control the same, they each have their own unique “Pokémon Moves”. For example, Braixen can pull off some moves that give her an enhanced attack, allowing the player to modify her combos for more damage, stunning the opponent, or juggling the other fighter, which allows for much more possibilities in combat. The oddest aspect of Pokkén Tournament is the fact that it is controlled mostly with the D-Pad, a rarity in 3D fighting games. To the developer’s credit, this setup works very well and with the Pokkén Tournament Pro Pad (which I bought for this review) the game controls amazingly well.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

Pokkén’s combat is split into two different phases: Field Phase and Duel Phase. In Field Phase, the fight is in a form similar to a regular 3D fighting game. However, pulling off certain moves will cause the game to switch into Duel Phase. Duel Phase is similar to most classic fighting games, taking place from a 2D perspective. The two phases add a great amount of variety and strategy to combat, keeping you on your toes. Certain moves can only be used in specific phases, which adds more variety to your Pokémon’s combos.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

Pokkén also includes a variation on Pokémon’s traditional rock-paper-scissors combat, to great effect. The Battle Triangle, as it’s referred to in-game, is a simplification of the RPG’s basic combat mechanics. However, instead of receiving damage boosts based on types, you receive damage boosts based on moves used, with the ones you use most of the match being the most basic. If you want to stun your enemy and do great damage, you can pull off a counter attack, which you can charge. However, the opponent may react with a grab, which causes the same effect to someone using a counter. However, if you cancel the charge and use a basic attack before the grab is finished, you can hit them with a basic attack and cancel the grab. This mechanic makes combat familiar to Pokémon fans, while not giving any character an advantage, and this can mastered for massive effect.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

Like most arcade fighting games, Pokkén’s plot is virtually non-existent. The game’s single-player mode is split into four leagues, Red, Blue, Green, and Chroma. All of the leagues play the same, with the only difference in higher leagues being the difficulty and number of trainers present. However, even on Chroma, Ferrum League is very easy and I was able to beat the campaign without a single loss. The campaign has a side story about Shadow Mewtwo but it was so uninteresting that I forgot about it days after finishing it.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

Pokkén’s biggest flaw is its voice acting. To be honest, the closest comparison that I can make is to the original Resident Evil. There’s absolutely no emotion to any of the performances and they frequently gave me flashbacks to Peter Dinklage’s turn as Ghost from Destiny. While you can switch over to Japanese voice over, even that can still get pretty grating. Your supporting character, Nia, in particular feels the need to incessantly talk during matches, pulling precious attention away from the enemy. The only true way to fix this is to turn off her advice, and all other voice acting for that matter.

Courtesy of Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Bandai Namco

Voice acting and story aside, Pokkén Tournament is a complete joy to experience. After spending about 200 matches playing, I can see myself coming back for an online match plenty of times in the future. While I’ve never played a competitive fighter before, Pokkén made me see what I was missing. This game is a must have for Pokémon fans, Tekken fans, fighting game fans, and Wii U owners as a whole.

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