One thing I’m not sure I ever expected to see in my lifetime was the crossover between Pokémon and a fighting game. While the Pokémon franchise has never failed to entertain its fans, one thing the series has never really offered is a fast-paced play style more akin to that of a fighter. And this is only natural– Pokémon doesn’t lend itself to that kind of gameplay. Or, at least, that’s what I thought, until I got my hands on Pokkén Tournament. Pokkén does a fantastic job of blending Pokémon’s natural fighting elements with the quickly moving matches of a standard fighting game, and while stripping the franchise of its deep and compelling story elements might not seem like the best idea, breaking the series down and focusing on its combat alone makes for an extremely unique, and actually rather fun, experience.
Despite its inclusion in this year’s EVO lineup, don’t expect a typical fighting game when you pick up Pokkén Tournament. While it shares many of its attributes with other popular franchises in its genre, such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and the titular Tekken series, it’s the arena style of combat that really sets it apart from the competition (no pun intended). Where traditional fighting games only allow movement on a 2D plane, Pokkén Tournament’s 19 stages are completely in the round, which gives the player access to a full 360 degree range of motion.
Additionally, each fighting space varies in its size and shape, constantly forcing the player to rethink their own tactics based solely on the arena they’re selected to fight in. If you’re anything like me, you’re not used to navigating characters in a 3D environment– at least, not from a fighting standpoint. This caused some frustration in the beginning, but it didn’t take long to adapt and before I knew it I found myself using the extra range of motion to my advantage.
Although experiencing new stages and environments can be fun, the real entertainment in any given fighting game comes in the form of its fighters, and Pokkén is no different. With 16 unique Pokémon available for play, the game boasts an interesting and extremely different set of moves and attributes for each one. On top of this, Pokkén really shines in its variety in comparison to other fighting games, with its playable fighters ranging in size, abilities and strategies. Pikachu and Weavile are small and fast, whereas Charizard hulks over them; Mewtwo and Suicune have the bragging rights of being Legendary Pokémon. And while this is a fighting game, it’s also inarguably a Pokémon game. And just like any other Pokémon game, it’s up to you, the trainer, to decide what’s best for you.
The battling system is wholly unique in Pokkén, which means figuring out exactly what’s right for you may take a bit of practice. Pokémon like Charizard and Machamp pack massive punches and have the potential to deal out some serious damage, but their size comes at the cost of speed and agility. Pikachu, on the other hand, will run circles around its larger counterparts and land hit after consistent hit, but all the while be significantly less powerful. And while Pokémon fans may be used to factoring in advantages versus disadvantages, they’ve surely never encountered it in a setting like this, making the experience entirely new.
However, you’ll be happy to know that, after spending a significant amount of time with each playable Pokémon, I found that there isn’t really a right or wrong choice when deciding on who you may want to main. Like any other competitive game, it’s not so much about the character you play as, but more about how you use them. By learning any of the fighters’ strengths and weaknesses, victories are inevitable. Just be prepared for a little bit of trial and error!
It’s no secret that through all of Pokkén’s originality comes a relatively small roster compared to some other, more established, fighter franchises. This could simply be because it’s the first of its kind, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Fortunately enough, though, Pokkén does a great job in making up for its lack of mains with an additional 30 Pokémon that act as supports during your battles. Through a special Support Meter that’s filled while you fight, Support Pokémon can be summoned to assist you in a variety of ways, from unleashing attacks, to offering positive status effects. These Pokémon are available in a predetermined set of two, with weaker options like Snivy, Lapras, Emolga and Fennekin available towards the beginning of the game, and stronger supports like Reshiram and Yveltal being unlocked later.
The Support Pokémon mechanic is, overall, an interesting addition to the game, and a nice deviation from the standard in fighting games, but I honestly didn’t find myself overly reliant on them throughout the entirety of my playthrough. Maybe that can be considered a good thing, but many of the weaker Pokémons’ support gauges charge quickly– and do virtually nothing to the opponent. The stronger Support Pokémon hit harder, but take so long to charge that the battle is as good as over before I even get the chance to use them.
In your standard Pokémon game, players assume the role of a trainer with a team of six (or less) Pokémon and set out to take other trainers in a turn-based world. The games use simple, easy to grasp mechanics that any player could essentially pick up and get started with. Don’t expect this for Pokkén Tournament.
Pokkén still manages to retain some user-friendliness, but the game does not pick up the same way your typical Pokémon game does. It requires a bit more strategy and tactical thinking, and pits you against other trainers in strictly one-on-one battles controlled through a device that works similarly to telekinesis, called Battle AR. Battle AR allows a trainer and a Pokémon to share a connection and battle without the need of audibly shouting commands, and not only does this make for much faster-paced battles, but more hectic ones to boot. The stronger the bond with a Pokémon a trainer has, the more powerful the connection is between the two, allowing for some really devastating, non-turn-based combos that are sure to throw your opponents for a loop.
As far as a story goes, Pokkén Tournament doesn’t have a lot working in its favor, though this isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Pokkén’s draw isn’t in its plot, but rather its mechanics and uniqueness, and the game is not dissimilar to other popular fighters, which often have limited story modes as well. Pokkén avoids focusing on an elaborate storyline to instead pay homage to its genre by highlighting its virtues. Though, of course, the game doesn’t leave us with nothing.
Much like any other Pokémon game, Pokkén Tournament puts you in the shoes of an up-and-coming Pokémon trainer; however, in this iteration you’ve come to battle in the Ferrum League, which you can read more about below. You’re introduced to a number of Pokémon trainers as you make your way higher into the ranks of the League, but one trainer in particular is of interest. Mysterious and confusing, this trainer is accompanied by a peculiar looking black Mewtwo that’s appropriately named– you guessed it– Shadow Mewtwo. The real question arises in that Shadow Mewtwo’s appearance is completely unexplained, and it’s up to you to solve the mystery and discover the secrets of its power and origins.
The Ferrum League
The Ferrum League consists of the Green, Blue, Red and Chroma leagues, which serve as its four main leagues, and the Iron League, which serves as the master league. The League also acts as the main story mode of Pokkén Tournament, in which you’ll need to fight consecutive battles with other hopeful trainers in order to improve your overall rank. In doing so, you’ll progress, and work your way up the League, until you reach a rank of 8 (at least). Once you do, you’ll be qualified to enter the official League Tournament: an eight player, winner-takes-all battle for the championship.
Unfortunately, reaching Rank 8 can end up becoming tedious, as battles have to be fought over and over again and become increasingly repetitive. And because the difficulty of these battles remained relatively consistent, there wasn’t much of a sense of accomplishment after reaching the very top– what was meant to be a victory ended up feeling more like a chore.
Admittedly, this process wouldn’t feel so arbitrary if it weren’t for the fact that it has to be repeated four more times for the Blue, Red, Chroma and Iron Leagues. With non-threatening AI and repetitive battle after unbearably repetitive battle, I became increasingly bored as I progressed into the later leagues (something that should instead excite me as I near the end of the game). Normally, the final chapter in any game should feel epic, but instead, I simply spammed the most powerful moves I could to get as many wins as I could in as short amount of time as possible.
Show me your moves
The story might fall short, but Pokkén makes up for it– and then some– with its complex fighting system. You won’t find the CPU fighters utilizing this system most of the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s there, and I strongly encourage you to explore it. In fact, it was the fighting system that really won me over. Every fighter in the game has a unique list of combos that range from easily accessible to expert level moves, and while you won’t really need to memorize most of these (especially for the Ferrum League), there’s something incredibly satisfying about pulling off some of the more advanced combinations. Especially when you spend so much time in Training Mode to learn them!
Burst Mode, in particular, was one aspect of the combat that really showed off Pokkén’s uniqueness. Available with all fighters, players will work towards filling a Burst Meter, which can be activated to temporarily increase a fighter’s stats. Additionally, if the Pokémon is capable of Mega Evolution, this is when they’ll transform into their Mega-selves. When Burst Mode is about to run dry, activating the Meter again will unleash your fighter’s most powerful move: the Synergy Burst.
Multiplayer & online play
Honestly, though, you can wrap as up as much fancy gameplay into one title as you want, but no fighting game is a real fighting game without another human player. The Ferrum League, while fun, proved to be underwhelming in terms of skill. But the minute I played with a friend or someone online, the challenge really picked up, and I could finally see why Pokkén was added to the EVO roster. Playing competitively with real people had me getting knocked down hard with combos I hadn’t seen even the most advanced CPU fighters use in the Ferrum League, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The game offers both Local and Online Multiplayer, and you’ll be spending a lot of time here if you want to get the most out of this game.
If you’re playing locally, expect to make great use of the GamePad; rather than forcing a split screen perspective, Pokkén opts for one player to use the TV screen, and the other to use the GamePad’s screen as a display. And while some may think that playing on the GamePad might detract from the experience, I found that neither was especially better than the other. Once you start playing, your focus goes solely to the fighting, and all other concerns fade away.
When you play online, you get the choice of two match types: Rank Match and Friendly Match. Ranked Match is, as you may have guessed, is a more competitive mode where every battle counts. Whether you win or lose, every result will contribute towards your online rank. Be prepared to fight for your rank, too, because some of the fiercest battles I’ve played in Pokkén have been in Rank Match. Any battles played in Friendly Match don’t count towards an online rank (much like Smash Bros.’ “For Fun” mode) and will offer a few more options than Rank Mode, such as playing only with friends or entering a VS code to play in a custom match or tournament.
Fighting against human players definitely gave Pokkén that “oomph” that it needed after playing through the Ferrum League, and compared to other modes, Person versus person matches were (naturally) much more unpredictable. Every victory felt like an actual accomplishment, and every loss felt like a learning experience where I found myself rethinking my strategy that would help come out on top the next match.
Visually, Pokkén Tournament is outright gorgeous. Every model in the game, both the 16 playable fighters and the 30 Support Pokémon, offers the most detailed look of any represented Pokémon that we’ve been given to date. Everything, from the fur on Pikachu’s body to the fire Charizard breathes, is rendered beautifully, and the character models have complex fighting animations that are downright impressive. And, endearingly enough, each model also has idle animations: ears and tails bob, hair and fur moves in the breeze, and Machamp’s smooth, oily skin reflects the sunlight. And it’s not just the character renders, either! Every stage maintains a crisp and vibrant look that I never got tired of looking at. From the streets of Neos City to the spooky decor of the Haunted House, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised by the variety of landscapes the game has to offer.
The arena backgrounds, however, are a bit of a different story. While the stages are stunning, each one utilizes a large variety of human and Pokémon spectators that watch the battle, and these watchers can off appear quite two dimensional. This shouldn’t garner too much complaint, as you won’t find yourself looking away from the foreground most of the time, it still seemed to be a bit on the distracting side. Faceless people staring at you through the screen, appearing to make noise but not actually making noise, will have that effect.
Music & sound
You’ll find yourself happily endeared by the familiar Pokémon voices heard throughout the game. Whether it’s Charizard’s ferocious roar, or Pikachu’s signature “Pikaaa!”, it’s a small detail that goes a long way. When considering what the game might sound like without these effects, or even what it would sound like with the standard cries from the main games, you’ll come to appreciate them quickly.
Pokkén’s soundtrack is wonderfully diverse, with every one of its 19 stages boasting unique music. Each song matches the themes represented in any given stage. You’ll find fast-paced techno beats in Neos City and eerie circus tracks in Mystery Carnival. I think it’s worth noting, though, that not a single song from the main Pokémon franchise makes an appearance here. I’ll admit, this was disappointing. Where there was so much potential for familiar and nostalgic songs to receive intense, fighting-themed remixes, it wasn’t taken advantage of once. The occasional tribute to some old school tunes, mixed with modern beats and updated music, would have definitely been fun.
I feel I need to warn you about one aspect of sound: Nia, the game’s adorable, yet unbelievably annoying, advisor. Nia has two main roles in the game, taking the form of your narrator and personal cheerleader. As a narrator, Nia was great. She helped familiarize me with the mechanics of the game and led me along my Pokkén journey between battles in an easy and understandable way. Her role as a cheerleader, however, is completely different. In every battle– and I do mean every battle– Nia will shout words of support and encouragement, and will constantly remind you to use your Support Pokémon. I can’t tell you how irritating this got after a very short period of time. Thankfully, there are Advisor Settings that allow you to limit the “helpful” advice or disable it altogether. I strongly encourage you to use this.
If you’re interested, a Japanese audio track is also available. For anyone who’s curious about the game’s original, arcade-cabinet audio, this is a welcome change of pace.
My Town is the main hub for any of your customization needs, and will allow you to swap out your main fighters, change your support sets, and deck out your trainer in flashy gear. You’ll find an Avatar Shop here as well, which is a menu that offers merchandise for your trainer. This can be purchased with money that’s earned during battles. The stock of items ranges from everyday wear, like neckerchiefs and business suits, to more specialized items. While the outfits won’t help you in battle, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain about being able to customize in-game, and that certainly rings true here.
As previously revealed through Nintendo’s website, Pokkén Tournament is unique in its support of every existing amiibo and amiibo accessory, but the functionality honestly felt a little lackluster. Amiibo simply unlock items similar to ones you’ll find in the Avatar Shop, though they’re classified as amiibo-exclusive.
The Shadow Mewtwo amiibo card, on the other hand, is included in the first run of physical editions of the game and serves a higher purpose. If you’re itching to play as Shadow Mewtwo, scanning his amiibo card will allow you to unlock him in-game. Unfortunately, the unlock isn’t permanent– if you restart the game, you’ll need to rescan the card to continue playing as him (until you unlock him through completing the Ferrum League.)
Though I had an absolute blast playing Pokkén Tournament, it’s not hard to see why the game fell short in Japan during its original run. As an arcade cabinet, this game was bound to suffer. Where Pokkén really excels is in its multiplayer, and the kind of multiplayer content that’s available on the Wii U version wouldn’t have been possible on an arcade machine.
However, as a Wii U title, the game is more than entertaining. While plenty of the game is focused on the single player content, which became increasingly repetitive and subsequently less difficult, I found myself more than enjoying my time spent playing with other people. I don’t see myself returning to the story mode any time soon to play through again, but I’ll happily come back to Pokkén’s fleshed out multiplayer system whenever a friend wants to battle it out with me.Leave a Comment
System: Wii U
Release date: Mar 18, 2016
Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment, Inc.