Platforms: Wii U (reviewed)
Pokémon fans love seeing pokemon in different genres. Pokémon Snap, Hey You Pikachu!, and Pokémon Art Academy are just a few examples of how the brand has reached beyond its RPG roots. Pokken Tournament is yet another example of the Pokémon craze now bleeding over into fighting games. It’s undeniably fun, but much like Pokémon Snap, Hey You Pikachu!, and Pokémonmon Art Academy before it, it’s more of a Pokédiversion than a solid game in its own right.
Mashing In a Mash-Up
Think of Pokken Tournament like two fighting games smashed together. One half, the field phase, plays a lot like Namco Bandai’s Dragonball Z series. The camera is set behind your character and emphasis is put on mobility and projectile attacks. The second half, the duel phase, plays like a more traditional 2D fighter. The camera shifts to a side view and emphasis is put on blocking, mix-ups, and combos.
Action shifts from phase to phase whenever a character performs a powerful attack or a sufficiently long combo. This acts as a sort of built in combo breaker, changing the game when someone is on the losing end of a beat down. If you are getting projectile spammed to death, the game will switch to the duel phase and force a keep-away addict to fight you down and dirty. If you are stuck in an infinite combo, the game will blow you across the map before entering field phase, giving you some time to breathe.
It’s a neat little way to force the game to stay in neutral. It’s a godsend for beginners who now get a chance to fight back when they would usually just get beaten within an inch of their life a few second. It’s like a boxing ref coming in and telling you to break it up.
But it’s also insanely frustrating for people who want to master Pokken’s mechanics. Two completely different game modes with two completely different styles of control and two completely different sets of moves is a lot for anyone to remember. The most damaging combos and techniques are all ways to trick the system into delaying the next phase shift. This A) makes it feel like the system is not doing its job and B) makes it feel like you are battling against mechanics rather than opponents.
There are no motions to pull off and no combo strings to remember. The most complex input you will have to remember is a direction and a button, much like Smash Brothers. It’s easy to button smash your your way to victory since some of the most damaging combos in the game are mapped to repeated presses of the weak attack button. One again this is great for newbies but really discouraging to anyone looking for a deep fighting experience.
Who’s That Pokémon!?
Characters are a mixed bag. You’ll see popular faces like Pikachu, Lucario, Charizard, and Mewtwo, as well as some strange decisions like Garchomp and Chandelure.
Character design is incredibly inconsistent. Gengar, for example, is a complex character with a huge move list filled with special dodges, projectiles, space-controlling moves, and status effects. He can mega evolve, further changing his move-set, and wins by combining his teleports and status changing moves to create hard-to-block 50/50 situations. Weavile, on the other hand, can slash. His weak attack slashes. His hard attack slashes. His special attacks slash, or do counter attacks that slash. His most unique move is an ice trap that freezes the opponent in place for more slashing. His design is bland and his combos re-use the same animations over and over again - and he’s one of the best characters in the game.
Game balance is non-existent. Infinites and loops have already been found and are being exploited online. The best characters can be played blindfolded, and the worst characters are easily pressured to death. You can level up your Pokémon in single player mode, increasing its stats to balance out its weaknesses, but there’s no easy way to bring your stat loadouts to a friend’s house and it’s unclear whether or not they even apply in online battles.
Speaking of playing with your friends, players can’t play on the same screen since duel and field phases use different camera perspectives. One player plays on the TV and another has to play on the gamepad. It works well enough, although it does cause the framerate to drop. It also causes no end to controller arguments, as the TV player will be able to use any number of custom made arcade controllers which will inevitably be better than the Wii U gamepad.
Just You and Pikachu
Pokken offers a single-player “league” mode where you face off against random trainers in the hopes of rising to the top of the “Ferum League.” You’ll fight these trainers in sets of five, over and over again, until you have enough points to take place in a top 8 tournament. Then, if you win the tournament, you can fight a gym leader. Beat the gym leader and you’ll proceed on to a new division, only to do the same thing all over again. It’s annoyingly repetitive.
Its saving grace is the story which is hidden behind these league fights. Every so often trainers will talk to you about a mysterious black Mewtwo and its trainer. (I thought Mewtwo was a one-of-a-kind legendary Pokémon but I guess we are just going to conveniently forget that here.) After some fights you’ll actually encounter this Mewtwo after being sucked into a strange parallel dimension. You’ll fight it, and in a genius move, you don’t have to win to continue. The Mewtwo has plans that are bigger than you! This makes you want to know more about what the Mewtwo is up to, and you’ll keep playing through the otherwise boring league matches just to see the next part of the story. In the end, it’s all very cookie cutter Pokémon. The villians motivations are over the top and the power of friendship saves the day. It’s simple, but it was enough to keep me playing.
The game also keeps you occupied with a truly absurd amount of unlockable content. After every battle you will earn Pokégold which can then be used in the avatar shop to customize your Pokemon trainer. You can also unlock new titles, new accessory sets for your Pokémon trainer, new support Pokémon that act as tag partners in battle, new “cheer” styles which allow your mentor to aid you in battle, new clothes for your mentor, and more. There are new characters to unlock, but there are only two and they are clones of each other. You get unlock notices after nearly every battle and its incredibly addicting.
This One’s for the Fans
I had much more fun with Pokken in single-player than multiplayer, which says a lot about who the game is for. This isn’t the type of fighting game where you pick apart its mechanics and master your favorite character. This is a franchise fighter, like the many Dragonball Z and Naruto games that came before it. It’s unbalanced, mashy, and all the focus is on watching Pokémon do cool things and dressing up your avatar. It’s made for the fan, not the pro. While that may be disappointing for the odd pro like me who is also a Pokémon nut, it does more than enough to keep casual fans playing. Heck, I’ve been playing for hours just trying to get my avatar a new pair of sunglasses and a pink feather boa.
Just know that Pokken will have a limited shelf life which will run out right around the time you unlock everything. Once your avatar looks exactly the way you want it, you’ll probably head back to Street Fighter V.