I’m not really the greatest Pokémon fan out there. That’s not to say I don’t find the games entertaining when I need to review them – Pokémon X and Y were shining examples in the series – but I always look for something more when it comes to the in-game combat. That may explain, then, why I’m so excited for something like Pokken Tournament.
This new brawler from Nintendo and Bandai Namco does away with the formalities with masters and jibber-jabber in a fictional world, and instead gets to truly what matters – the combat between two Pokémon characters. And they don’t even need to be evenly matched – a Pikachu, it seems, can hold its own against a Mewtwo if the situation calls for it.
But this could’ve easily been a Tekken game reskinned with Pokémon in mind. That’s not the case, as the development team added some sharp tactics to the game, making it one of the most interesting games to come down the pike in years. And considering the slight stumbles Street Fighter V has taken as of late, there’s no better time for it.
What makes Pokken so intriguing is its phases. You can shift from full-blown 3D combat to side-scrolling fisticuffs in one single move, provided you land it just right. You can rely on some far away attacks, as you could with the Naruto or Dragon Ball Z games, but it’s really about getting in close and finding the perfect time to strike.
It’s a bizarre concoction, taking elements from 3D and 2D games and somehow meshing them together, but it works brilliantly, mainly due to the distinctive personalities of the Pokémon characters and what they have to offer in the roster. Sure, it’s not the biggest fighting line-up out there – and damn it, there’s no sign of Koffing – but it’s very cool regardless, as that frees up the development team to focus more on the awesome fighting mechanics.
Balancing light, heavy and distance attacks is one thing, but it’s when you open up with new techniques, like the game-changing Focus technique and the Counter-Attacks, that you realize just how deep the game truly gets. And the thing is, you don’t even have to be a master at it – there are techniques here that young players can also master, making this a well-rounded game that everyone can appreciate. Not just something for the masters, mind you. (Although I can see why a game like this would be added to EVO 2016 – it’s just so damn addictive.)
Each character has something special to offer, and the support characters are cool, too, with their own techniques and moves that you can pull off with the press of a button. Think of it, in a way, like the support characters in the original Marvel vs. Capcom – they could make enough of a difference to turn the tide.
I absolutely love the presentation the game has. Sure, some of the fighting backdrops could be a little generic (here’s a village, and a small town!), but they still look fantastic on the Wii U. The character animations are stunning, especially the Synergy attacks, which basically charge up like Supers and leave a devastating effect that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to execute. The game runs at a fluid frame rate (around 60 most of the time, even online), and the in-game menus are simple to navigate. It really embraces the Pokémon theme.
The in-game music is alright, not award-winning but not annoying either, and the Pokémon voices are loyal to a fault. That said, probably the most annoying thing about the audio is that the announcer won’t – shut – up. Seriously. Be quiet, we get that we’re behind in a battle. We can see it in the power meter. Let us fight and give us suggestions AFTER the match, will you?
On top of a strong presentation and an awesome fighting engine, Pokken Tournament also has some of the best modes around, including a Ferrum League, where you can work your way to the ultimate championship. It can be a bit of a grind, but you’ll learn the ropes of combat quite handily this way, and start to unlock more awesome goods for your character. The customization angle here is staggering, and adds more distinctive personality to the game overall.
Finally, while the full online experience has yet to be revealed (the game hits retail this Friday), what we’ve played so far with online battles is seamless. We got right into both regular and ranked matches with ease, with nary a hint of lag. This could possibly change depending on fan demand, but if it’s anything like Smash Bros., Nintendo will be good and ready for the server challenge. I’m excited to see what competition comes down the line.
Pokken Tournament is a wonderful surprise. Its fighting tactics will catch masters off guard (in a good way) while entertaining newcomers, and its visuals really bring out the best in the Wii U hardware. The features are abundant, and the versus action is truly addictive, especially when you get a good match going. I do wish the announcer shut up at times, but other than that, what we have here is a Pokémon fighting game that’ll actually get – and keep – you in the mood to fight. All I wish for now is a roster boost that sees others join the picture. Looking at you, Psyduck.