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Gotta fight’em all

Whenever Nintendo develops a smash-hit franchise, it’s only a matter of time before spin-offs happen—and Pokémon is no exception to this rule. Whether it’s the Rouge-like Mystery Dungeon series, the safari-driven Pokémon Snap, or the arcade-inspired Pokémon Pinball, Pokémon has been a great resource for when it comes time to break away from its turn-based RPG roots. I think even those of us who have been playing Pokémon over the past 20 years were a little perplexed, though, when we heard of its latest mash-up: Pokkén Tournament, a mixing of Bandai Namco’s Tekken gameplay and Pokémon.

Set in the newest continent added to the Pokémon universe, Ferrum, players will choose from a roster of 14 Pokémon to fight by their side as they attempt to conquer the region’s different leagues and be crowned the Grand Master. Along the way, they’ll learn the history of the region, and come to understand why an old enemy has re-emerged and is threatening the sanctity of Ferrum’s battle tournaments.

What’s interesting about Pokkén Tournament is that it didn’t try to just throw a bunch of elements from both Tekken and Pokémon together, instead working to find the right aspects of each one to merge in hopeful harmony. And when that harmony was achieved, the basis for one of the more interesting fighters we’ve seen in some time was born.

Before the battles begin, you start by customizing your own personal trainer, choosing their gender and a handful of visual options such as shirts, hats, and more. As you fight, you’ll earn PokéGold, which can then be used to buy more lavish items including background lens flares, feather boas, or even a pirate costume. To personalize things further, you can unlock fight titles like in other games of the genre—my favorite of which is “Living Legend”, perfect for when I take on other players (or even the CPU) locally and online with my mighty Machamp. You can also earn up to five bonus items a day by placing Amiibo on the Wii U gamepad; they had to work the figurines in somehow, I suppose.

Those personal touches are always nice in any game, but the real mixing of elements comes in the core fighting gameplay of Pokkén Tournament. Taking a page out of the Pokémon games, the more you fight with a particular Pokémon, the more they level up. So even though you can switch between Pokémon on the starting roster between fights, sticking with a single character rewards you more, and makes it easier to progress through the game, as they’ll have higher stats that can then be carried over into battle. For example, by the time I finished the single player story, my Machamp was a level 95, with points distributed relatively evenly amongst four categories: attack, defense, synergy (the speed at which your synergy meter fills up; think an ultra meter in other fighting games), and strategy (the strength of your support Pokémon).

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Those just-mentioned support Pokémon are an idea that adds an extra wrinkle of planning to every battle, similar to the Assist characters from Marvel vs. Capcom. There are 15 pairs of Support Pokémon, but while you’ll choose a pair before each battle, you can actually only use one of the duo each round. Each support Pokémon has a different effect: some do offensive damage, while others buff you or debuff your opponent, similar to the powers these Pokemon would have in the mainline games. This flurry of decisions can be difficult (especially with only a 10-second timer) but could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Personally, I prefer Quagsire and Magneton, mostly because Quagsire’s Mud Bomb has a nice area of effect and can do massive damage.

Besides Support Pokémon, players also get a cheerleader—the girl who introduces you to the Ferrum region. Between each round, she’ll give you advice (akin to real-life trainers in boxing or MMA), and while said advice is never really helpful, it can give you boosts to different meters depending on how you want her to coach you pre-fight. To be honest, I ended up finding her kind of annoying after only a few fights—another casualty of atrocious voice acting across the board in Pokkén Tournament—but I won’t argue with a fully-charged ultra meter to start round two, and it’s another surprising layer of choice to how you approach each fight.

The most impressive part of Pokkén Tournament’s gameplay, though, is the actual fights themselves. This doesn’t feel like some cheap re-skin of Tekken, nor is it some poorly-balanced clone. While I don’t agree with every move made, the heart of this fighter is strong. If you play other fighting games like myself, there is a bit of a learning curve, especially with the limited button re-assignment options. Like Mortal Kombat, you have to press a button to block instead of holding backward, but more unnatural was another button-instead-of-dpad-direction decision: jumping with the B button rather than up.

Once I finally got my brain retrained, I found that Pokkén Tournament might actually be a great introductory game for players new to the fighting genre. Its controls are super-simple, with no special move requiring more than a combination of a single direction and button press. Throws, counters, and ultras, meanwhile, all only require two buttons. While the move inputs may be simple, the core of gameplay is the rock-paper-scissors system not only found in many fighting games—throws beat counters, counters beat normal attacks, normal attacks beat throws—but also the Pokémon RPGs themselves. Of course, here everything is themed to the series, with moves such as Rock Throw, Ice Punch, and Seismic Toss.

When you combine all of that with the speed of the action (courtesy of devices that give players psychic links to their Pokémon according to the story), this is the first time in video game form we actually get battles close to what we see in the cartoon. In the back of every Pokémon fan’s mind, mine included, we’ve always appreciated the strategy and RPG aspects of the games, but have longed for a more visceral experience like we see on the TV show. Pokémon Stadium got us closer to that than the handheld entries, but it still never reached that fever-pitch that most competition brings because of a lack of speed and intuitiveness. Pokémon is extremely enjoyable, but you can take your time with it, often requiring dozens of hours per playthrough. Pokkén Tournament requires faster thinking and action and lasts 80 seconds, and that leads to a special kind of frantic fun that fans of Pokémon have been waiting for whether they realized it or not, and I couldn’t get enough of it, particularly when playing with my friends.

With that said, not everything in Pokkén Tournament is in perfect harmony. One major flaw I found was the “Phase” system, which dictates how battles play out and from what perspective. Each match starts in Field Phase, which sees players fight in a 3D space like the Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm series. When you perform certain attacks on your opponents, however, everything shifts to a more traditional 2D plane called Duel Phase. The primary problem with this system, besides the jarring movement of the camera, is the moves of your Pokémon change along with the shift. It’s almost like you have to learn two different characters and be ready to alternate between them on the fly. While I’m sure the best players will be able to transition seamlessly between Phases in due time and string out massive combos, the rest of us would probably prefer learning a single set of moves and mastering those. It feels like that while trying to keep the controls simple—to perhaps draw in that Pokémon crowd that may not necessarily be fighting game fans—the developers still wanted a large moveset that could appeal to fighting game veterans. This shifting phases was the result of that odd compromise and in the end I don’t think either camp will be completely happy.

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Now, most people will likely jump into single player when they start up Pokkén Tournament for the first time, but to say that mode is a grind would be like saying Charizard likes to burn things. To finish off the loose story woven through each of the game’s five leagues, I battled my way through about 150 fights (with only a handful of losses) before I could be declared Grand Master. And with a glaring lack of personality from everyone you fight (including the league leaders), the story feels horribly shallow and devoid of any character whatsoever. Only by continuously winning can you quickly shoot up the leaderboards in each single player league, filled with an ever-increasing number of dozens of combatants. You don’t have to fight through each person, but considering you only move up 10-20 spots every five battles before taking part in an eight-person tournament and then getting to fight the league leader, you can see where the grind starts to creep in.

Pokkén Tournament also features online and local versus. I played several matches online, and found no issues whatsoever with the servers. Mind you, there were probably never more than a few hundred people online at any given time during my pre-release time with the game, so hopefully the servers will hold up come release.

Local versus is another matter, though. While there were no technical issues, I found one aspect particularly irritating—and it goes back to the camera I mentioned while speaking about Phases. Because the 3D arena camera has been positioned behind each Pokemon, each player ends up needing their own personal view of the action. To accommodate this, Pokkén Tournament forces player one to use the gamepad’s screen as their main display, while player two must use whatever TV the system is connected to. It is a means to try to simulate the fight feel you have with the Pokémon RPGs, hiding what main and support Pokémon each player is selecting. One person playing on a six-inch screen, and another on a 46-inch screen always feels like the player with the better screen has a slight edge, though, and when dealing with competitive fighting games, anything that tips the balance in another player’s favor that isn’t skill-based is just asking for trouble.

My final gripe with Pokkén Tournament might’ve been my most disappointing. There are over 720 Pokémon now, yet only 14 are playable in the game (16 if you count the two special unlocks) with another 30 appearing as Support. There are 20 pure-fighting types alone in Pokémon, and Machamp is the only one on the roster. No Primeape. No Hitmonlee, Hitmonchan, or Hitmontop. No Throh, Sawk, or Hariyama. And that’s not even including Pokémon with secondary fighting characteristics, of which there are only two others on the roster—Lucario and Blaziken—out of another 24. Not to mention all the other Pokémon who could’ve easily been worked into this game, like Greninja.

One saving grace that comes with such a small roster is that at least all the Pokémon are extremely well-balanced. Clearly some time was invested to make sure that no Pokémon, no matter its natural-type advantages in the RPGs, would be so outclassed here that it became frustrating to play with any of them. Whether it’s a power-type like Machamp who specializes in up close and personal melee attacks, a speed-type like Sceptile that can pummel you with a variety of high-counting combos in no time flat, a technical-type like Gengar that relies on its specials, or a standard-type like Lucario that is even across the board, all the Pokémon work nicely in combat and it shouldn’t be long before you find a main Pokémon to specialize in, again harking back to the relatively easy to learn controls.

When I started reviewing Pokkén Tournament, I had no idea how the gameplay of Tekken and the world of Pokémon were going to find a way to reconcile, yet amazingly, they did. In fact, when elements of both fit together, it arguably produced gameplay greater than the sum of its parts. But when those elements didn’t mesh, the train wreck it created was doubly worse, and the small roster is disappointing. There were enough successes amongst the failures in this odd marriage though, and because of that, Pokkén Tournament has created a solid core to build on for potential future continuations of this spin-off series—even if this game is not quite ready to be declared a champion quite yet.

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Developer: Bandai Namco Games • Publisher: Nintendo, Bandai Namco • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 03.18.16
7.0
Pokkén Tournament was a brave experiment, and it succeeds in many areas. However, it fails in some others—whether from lack of depth or outright poor design—that keeps it from reaching that upper-tier of the fighting game genre’s elite entries.
The Good Solid balancing of all the characters leads to fun and frantic fighting game action.
The Bad Small roster. Switching between phases. Single player is a grind. Having player one forced to play off the Wii U gamepad in local battles.
The Ugly “Luchachu” would’ve sounded so much better to me than “Pikachu Libre”.
Pokkén Tournament is a Wii U exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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