— A review copy of this title was provided by Nintendo for this critique —
It’s been 20 years since the Pokémon series was first introduced. For the past two decades, fans all over the world have spent hours upon hours battling and trading Pokémon of all sorts, getting lost in this fictional, yet amazing world. While features and mechanics gradually evolved as the series progressed, the core formula has remained intact throughout all of the main entries. As a result, veterans of the series have continued to enjoy each new entry just as much as the newcomers. With that said, get ready to experience a whole new world with a brand new attitude, because Pokkén Tournament is truly like no other Pokémon game.
You’ve spent years watching the epic battles between super-powered Pokémon unfold in the TV series and in the movies. While they are pretty flashy and action-packed when animated, the games have continued to stick to the turn-based formula with attacks playing out in short clips. This is what makes Pokkén Tournament so great—you can finally have high-octane battles that flow in real time.
A typical battle in Pokkén will last just a few short minutes, sometimes even less. That’s because this is a real fighting game, although with a twist. While the fast-paced action is all there, the classic strategy involved in a Pokémon battle is also still around. No, you don’t have to worry about how effective your Pokémon’s move is against your opponent, but you do need to watch their movements and anticipate their attacks if you expect to succeed.
Pokkén trades an expansive roster for a smaller set of characters, 16 in total. While this may seem like a small amount, it’s actually beneficial. This gives you an opportunity to learn each fighter, and you are going to need to—no two fighters in Pokkén are the same.
While they are separated into various types (Power, Speed, Technical and Standard) they all handle completely different from each other. Some may have a higher amount of HP, while others may have better defense, among so many other differences. Truly, you cannot use the same fighting style for each Pokémon, as they even attack differently. Some fighters, like Pikachu and Weavile, are incredibly quick and are all about chaining together attacks to increase damage. Then there are the heavy-weights, like Garchomp and Charizard, who move a bit slower but have very large and powerful attacks that take out large chunks of HP with just a few hits.
Knowing the ins and outs of each fighter is the key to winning a battle. For that reason, Pokkén pretty much goes against the classic “Gotta catch em’ all!” tag-line that the Pokémon series has stuck to. Instead of constantly switching between different fighters, you will wind up finding one or two whom you are the most comfortable with. This is even further enforced by the fact that the game features a level system for each fighter.
At the end of every battle you will be graded on your overall performance on a scale of 1-5 stars. The more stars you get equates to how much points you earn. When you fill the bar, your Pokémon will then level up and you will receive one skill point, which you can then add to one of your attributes. You can choose how you want to divide the points between the attributes however you please, but keeping it balanced is definitely the best way to go.
Another big factor in the overall battle system are the two S’s: Support Sets and Synergy Bursts. While there are 16 fighters, many other Pokémon make appearances as support characters. These come in sets of two, with one being selected for each round. The support character can be brought out to the field on command after filling up the Support Gauge. As you would expect, each of these characters has a special ability to assist you in battle; whether it be restoring some of your HP or attacking your opponent, a well-timed execution can definitely be the key to success.
An even bigger game-changer is none other than the aforementioned Synergy Burst. When activated, your fighter’s strength and speed will be temporarily pushed to their limits. This makes even basic attacks a lot more powerful. While it boosts regular attacks, activating Synergy Burst will also give you a chance to use to unleash a special Burst Attack—a powerful attack that is unique to each character which will inflict a monstrous amount of damage on your opponent. Many times I’ve been saved by using this once my HP got low, proving that timing really is everything in this game.
Aside from managing the stats of your fighter and learning the ins and outs of how to battle properly, there is also one other factor to consider: the battlefield. Pokkén further pushes the strategic side of things with the use of battle phases. There are two in total: the Field Phase and the Duel Phase. Each battle starts off in the Field phase, which has the two fighters on opposite ends of the battlefield. Here, ranged attacks are the most effective. You can choose to either go on the defensive or offensive as you close-in on your opponent.
Certain attacks will engage Duel phase, which is where you can pull of devastating combos. Each battle will meander between these two phases, which means you have to constantly adapt. Another part of this are the corners in each arena; it just so happens that all of them have a circular, or sometimes, oval shape. Added to this is the fact that some arenas are larger than others. Getting pushed into a corner will reduce your movement and make it harder to defend yourself. On the opposite side, it’s essential to push your opponent into a corner to rack up damage fairly quickly.
Progression in Pokkén Tournament is achieved by means of participating in the Ferrum League. This campaign-style mode will pit you against computer-controlled opponents, all of whom wield different Pokémon. There are 4 ranks in total (Green, Blue, Red, Chrome) — starting from the D-Rank which has you battling in the Green League, and ending in the Chrome League with the S-Ranks. As you would expect, the difficulty will increase as you move up the ranks.
The Green and Blue leagues proved to be surprisingly easy, giving you a chance to build up a connection with your Pokémon and learn the battle system. Things really heat up when you get to Red league, as that’s where I found the opponents fighting more like human players. Interestingly enough, this mode also acts as a Story Mode which involves you taking on a mysterious Dark Mewtwo and its troubled master. I won’t go into too many details about this, but I will say that while it was cool to fight him, the whole lore surrounding it just seemed more like forgettable filler than a necessary addition. However, I can definitely tell you that you should be prepared to have your butt handed to you on a silver platter.
Now while I praised the small cast of fighters earlier on, I can say that the problem with this really showed itself while going through the Ferrum League—repetition. Many times I found myself fighting the exact same Pokémon again and again. This isn’t just due to the small amount of characters though, it’s also due to the fact that some Pokémon just don’t appear very often at all. For instance, it was common for me to run into one of the Pikachu’s, and Blaziken also appeared a few times, but others like Sceptile and Braixen are incredibly rare.
While the repetition gave me a chance to study the fighters, it did get annoying to keep fighting the same opponents again and again. While we’re on the topic, I have to bring up the fact that both Mewtwo and Pikachu account for 4 character slots instead of 2. Pikachu Libre and Shadow Mewtwo are very cool, but I can’t help but think that their slots would have been better used to include new fighters.
While cool additions, they could have (and should have) been replaced with new fighters to add more variety to the limited roster.
On the multiplayer side of things, you have access to both local and online modes. While I didn’t get a chance to have an online battle, I wasn’t pleased to find out that the matchmaking system is rather flawed. Once the game begins searching for an opponent, you have 10 seconds to connect. If an opponent isn’t found in that time, you’ll immediately be sent into a CPU battle. That’s an absurdly small amount of time, and I hope they increase it in the near future. As for the local multiplayer, the game supports all of the Wii U’s control schemes (minus a solo Wii Remote), so you can go with whatever you’re comfortable with. The only issue with local multiplayer is that the game drops to 30FPS, which definitely makes the experience a bit more rough. Nevertheless, it still holds up decently.
Another interesting little feature is that your avatar is yours to customize. Aside from being able to select their gender, you can also buy clothes and accessories to completely personalize their look. You can also assign a name to them and a Battle Tag—a snappy title like “Undefeatable Trainer”, for example. At the end of every battle, you’ll receive a sum of coins, which will allow you to go ahead and buy new things to customize your avatar with. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t apply to your Pokémon as well. While alternate color schemes do exist in the game, they’re only activated when the same Pokémon are fighting against each other.
While Pokkén Tournament is a very fun and engaging fighter, the experience would not be nearly as enjoyable if it weren’t for the amazing presentation. As you would expect from a Pokémon game, there is a great use of color everywhere. The special effects that are generated from each attack makes the battles look exciting and flashy; this is especially true when you unleash a killer combo or a Synergy Burst Special. The arenas also boasts a lot of effects like changing seasons and times of day, all of which compliment the visual style. In addition to this, the models and animations for each Pokémon are incredibly smooth and detailed, making great use of the Wii U’s hardware. The high quality presentation adds an amazing layer of depth to the game, completing the whole package.
The only glaring issue that I have with this, is the that the game’s English voice-acting is near horrid. All of the voice actors sound like they’re forcing themselves to read the lines, so much so that it’s beyond obvious that they’re reading something in front of them. I had no choice but to switch the audio to the Japanese voices, and as expected, they play their parts very well.
In the end, it’s certainly true that the Wii U does not have a lot of fighting games in its library, but for the ones that are in its collection, they’ve all been very good. Even so, Pokkén Tournament is arguably the most fun.
While it may be based off of Tekken’s formula, Pokkén pretty much has an identity of its own as it stays true to the Pokémon theme. Super Smash Bros. is no doubt a great fighter as well, but Pokkén offers an experience that is a little tighter and more intimate. It’s hard to really compare the two seeing as they are relatively different, but I think I’ve been enjoying Pokkén a little more. Either way, the game is surely an amazing new venture for both Bandai Namco and The Pokémon Company. I find it amazing that everything turned out so right on the first try; true, there are a few issues, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pokkén Tournament is pretty much the Pokémon that we always wanted. Here’s hoping for a sequel in the near future!