Pokkén is a concept I’ve always wanted to see in the Pokemon series. The games are famous for their turn based gameplay which has endured over 30 years since Red came out, but it’s always great to see different takes on a series. Zelda jumped into the beat ’em up genre with Hyrule Warriors recently and Sonic had Sonic the Fighters. While turn-based will always be the staple of Pokemon, I’m thrilled to see an installment with a more intense backdrop. For the first time we can see the Pokemon not subdued by trainer commands and battle it out like Digimon. Tournament takes the Tekken engine and puts a really unique spin on it. Like Super Smash Bros., this is a game that is simple enough for anyone to enjoy but is also very technical for those who enjoy competitive play.
Since Pokken is inspired by Tekken’s gameplay, it has more in common with Street Fighter than Smash Bros. On the onset the player can have fun just button mashing in local play. But once you play competitively with people that know what they’re doing, things get truly interesting. One can see that a lot of thought was put into the fighting mechanics and character movesets. Grabs negate shields and counterattacks goes through just about all others. Then there’s the excellent use of support Pokemon. The large amount of choices there from Fennekin to Eevee are impressive. “Synergy” has the ability to change the momentum of the match and secure a win. The split second strategies one has to come up with are never ending in this fantastic gameplay.
Let’s jump into the fighters. Pokken grabs characters from all throughout the generations. The game features 16 of them. Now this wouldn’t be a bad number if they were just the starters. But this is all the game features, which is disappointing. The only two unlockables are both Mewtwos. In a world where Smash Bros. can start with over 30 characters, we shouldn’t be seeing such a low amount from such a rich universe as Pokemon. (Since the game originally appeared in arcades is probably the reason for this, which in that case more characters could have been developed for the Wii U port.)
The actual roster ranges from fantastic to questionable. We know the greats (Charizard, Blaziken, and Pikachu for example) but one has to imagine how we got Chandelure and not say Blastoise. (When you look at the cast as a whole, there is a severe lack of water types and an overabundance of fire types.) Pikachu Libre at first was a bizarre inclusion. I was annoyed in the beginning because clones shouldn’t exist in a franchise where there’s hundreds of characters to choose from. Libre however has a completely different moveset than Pikachu, so I must give props to Bandai Namco for not taking the easy way out. Libre in this case is welcome, although I think it would have been better if she had been Raichu instead. (That way we get a new character and representation for the criminally underrated Pikachu third form.) Each of the movesets are diverse and you’ll have fun trying each one out whether it be for fun or seeking to find your main for competitive play.
Another annoyance with having so few characters is that in the game’s single player mode one is going to be battling the same Pokemon multiple times. This is one of the reasons that makes Ferrum League sometimes boring to get through. The League, while nothing outstanding, at least gives something for the single player to do offline. The opening tournaments are incredibly easy, and the difficulty goes up during the third one. This mode is often not that exciting sadly and one definitely doesn’t feel motivated to get through it all in one sitting. (Considering also if you lose at some point in a tournament, you have to start over from it.) The game does give this mode a much needed boost of excitement after the first tournament with an incredible CGI cutscene. This is also a tease since we could have been getting excitement like that instead of the ongoing formulaic tournament.
The game features what one would expect: local 2-player, online, single player, and practice. As a whole it can be lacking. There’s no survival mode and not much to unlock outside of achievement titles and attire for your avatar. After one completes Ferrum League, there isn’t much to do besides online play. So, let’s discuss that part. Nintendo only recently jumped into the online format, and Pokken could be the best yet with it. Unlike Smash Bros., there’s an actual leaderboard system. You can see your worldwide and regional ranks. Hopefully future competitive games from the company utilize this. Also unlike Smash about 95% of the time the matches play smoothly. There is lag sometimes unfortunately, but it doesn’t render matches unplayable and isn’t too much of a factor.
The soundtrack blends into the fights very well. While it would have been nice to have some remixes of the classic themes, these are some really great ones for during battles. (Perhaps the best is Dragon’s Nest.) Like Street Fighter and Tekken, the stages aren’t really a factor. To put it bluntly, the stages in those games are virtually all the same, just recolored backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with this: this kind of gameplay doesn’t really allow for stage hazards. Pokken’s has some nice, bright backgrounds such as Magikarp Festival to the darker ones such as Haunted House. Apparently some have bigger rings, but it’s hard to tell in-battle.
Overall, Pokken Tournament is a dream come to life for many. Pokemon in frantic, high quality fighting gameplay is a fantastic concept this game makes great use of. Each of the characters have a diverse moveset and the actual battling always provides a blast as the opponent seeks to overpower & outwit the other. The Wii U now has two great 1st party fighting games: Super Smash Bros. and this one. As an arcade title it deserves a 9, maybe even a 10. But as a $60 Wii U port it feels a little bare-bones. The lack of modes and short character roster are the reasons for that. The enthusiastic narrator Nia is always nice to have around (even if she can become annoying talking every second in Ferrum League) but even she can’t bring the excitement once one completes the League and sees there isn’t much to do afterward outside of online ranking. (For many however, online ranking is all one needs.) These drawbacks don’t take away from the fact that Pokken is one of the finest fighting games out there. It takes the close intensity of a Street Fighter battle and adds a Poke-touch. It’s a must have for fighting game and Pokemon fans.