Leading up to the release of Pokken Tournament, it felt like most people outside of the Pokemon community were ready to discredit it. I love Pokemon but thought that it would be a mediocre cash in. But the partnership between Bandai Namco and Nintendo has turned out great and has made a non-fighting game fan want to keep diving deeper.
I’m not going to pretend to be a fighting game expert. Counting frames, deep combos and zoning are not part of my expertise as a gamer. What I can say is that there is a rock paper scissors system for the core three actions in Pokken Tournament: counters beat normal attacks, normal attacks beat grabs and grabs beat counters. In addition to that core system are the Phase Shifts that change constantly in battle which are the Field Phase and the Duel Phase. Field Phase allows you to run around freely in all directions similar to the Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm games or the Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi games. Certain attacks or combos will transition into the Duel Phase which is a more traditional style 2D fighter. In each phase characters have different attacks allowing for further depth.
The roster rounds out at 16 which seems relatively standard for the launch of a fighting game and the variety of playstyles among them. You will find someone that you enjoy playing as. In addition to the playable characters, there are also a bevy of support Pokemon who can be used in battle from Eevee buffing your attack to Creselia to heal chip damage. These have various lengths of charge up times before they can be used. Your advisor Nia can affect the speed at which these charge along with the final part of combat, the Synergy Gauge.
This gauge fills up when you land hits or get hit and, once it’s full, you can enter Burst Mode which is either a Mega Evolution for the Pokemon that have them, or a powered up state for everyone else. In this limited time state, you deal more damage, can take more and execute a Burst Attack which is a cinematic super attack.
Stages are various sizes of either circular or oval designs with different timing and locations of bonus synergy energy to pick up. As a final note on gameplay, traditional Pokemon type advantages don’t matter here which is for the best.
Winning matches unlock money to buy a large amount of customization options for your avatar as well as unlocking titles to use as well. The depth to these features was surprising.
Story and Modes:
The story consists of you working your way up through the Ferrum League to eventually rise to the top and become the champion. There is a side story of a mysterious Shadow Mewtwo draining the Synergy energy from the land which is used to allow trainers to sync with their Pokemon to compete in these battles. The story is what it is and not a focus. However, working your way through the league will take you around 100 matches to complete which isn’t too bad considering how fast they fly by. Playing through this mode is how you unlock the additional characters.
Beyond this mode, there is a fantastic general tutorial along with combo and action character specific tutorials as well. These helped set me up for success right away in the Ferrum League. There are also basic single exhibition matches and local multiplayer. Note that in local multiplayer, one person will use the entire TV while the other will use the gamepad. Also, the big downside is that in local multiplayer, the frame rate drops from 60 frames per second to 30. In a fighting game that is about timing, this screws things up. If you have a friend with a Wii U and Pokken tournament, you can play over LAN which bumps the frame rate back up to 60.
Finally is what most people are here for, the online. It is pretty basic with ranked and friendly fights as well as having leaderboards. They work well and I have not had a single frame drop online. I’m impressed and satisfied with what the game has offered thus far.
Visuals and Sound:
The game looks fantastic. This is what all Pokemon fans have wanted a traditional Pokemon game on consoles to look like. Character models are large, colorful and expressive and move like you would expect them to. Machamp is slow and lumbering while Pikachu is . . . lightning fast . . . I’m so sorry. Anyway while the character models look stellar (including the supports) the backgrounds are hit or miss. They look fine but are not up to the same quality which isn’t a big drawback. The amount of Pokemon cameos that happen in them offset the poorer quality visuals.
From an audio perspective, the soundtrack sounds like a bombastic and cheery Pokemon game which is great. Pokemon sounds are also strong and draw you into the matches. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the English voice acting. It’s bad. Not just a little bad, but really bad with most of it coming from your advisor Nia. Luckily you can limit what she says during battle or turn her off completely. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that you could switch to the Japanese audio until I looked right now.
While Pokemon have been fighting for 20 years, they haven’t fought like this. When this was first announced this seemed like a dumb idea to me. But put the developers behind Tekken and the Naruto Ultimate Storm series on a Pokemon fighting game? It turned out to be a fantastic idea. While there isn’t necessarily any singular innovative feature of Pokken Tournament, it doesn’t need that to be a great game.
Playing through the main story took me about seven hours to complete. Once you do that, it unlocks one more difficult league to play through. You can also play additional matches in any of the leagues as much as you want if you’re trying to learn a new character. Obviously most of the value will come from multiplayer and how much time you do or do not want to put into it. While the frame rate drop in local multiplayer is a big bummer, the overall presentation, gameplay and systems in place overshadow that into a game that I can’t put down including playing online which I never do. Also, my Gardevoir is 16-6 online which I’m pretty proud of. Anyway if you love Pokemon, pick this game up. And if you don’t, it’s still a fun fighting game that anyone can jump into but has the depth to keep fighting fans coming back.