REVIEW: Pokken Tournament

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For years, Pokemon fans have clamored for the chance to actually take control of a Pokemon during a Pokemon battle.  Other than the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, which allows fans to play as Pokemon in a dungeon crawler setting, the closest we’ve gotten to actually playing as Pokemon is the critically panned Poke Park 2.  That all changed last year when Nintendo and Bandai Namco released Pokken Tournament, a fighting arcade game in the style of Tekken featuring Pokemon fighters.  While the game was originally released in Japanese arcades, Nintendo’s Wii U port of Pokken Tournament came out last Friday, allowing fans around the world to finally get the chance to directly battle against each other as Pokemon. 

Pokken Tournament, like most secondary Pokemon games, is set up with the casual gamer in mind. The controls are surprisingly simple, with a focus on action and timing over memorizing complicated button combos.  Pokken Tournament is set up similarly to Super Smash Bros., with all fighters sharing the same set of controls, but with wildly different attacks. Although combos play an important role in Pokken Tournament, each character has a relatively modest amount of combo sets, all of which are triggered automatically by landing two or three attacks in a row. 

The fighting itself is split into two phases, a field phase that allows for ranged attacks and a duel phase that pits fighters in close range combat. Switching between phases is as simple as hitting the right kind of attack or dishing out enough damage to push your opponent away.  Each successful attack also fills a “Synergy Meter”, which can be used to trigger a temporary Mega Evolution or superpowered mode.  Although the phase system sounds a bit confusing, most players will be able to master the gameplay after a few short rounds of sparring.  Honestly, the ease of play is Pokken Tournament‘s biggest strength.  Anyone should be able to jump into the game with only the briefest of introductions.

Although Pokken Tournament is a fighting game at heart, the game hasn’t totally abandoned core Pokemon concepts.  There are “super effective” attacks that allow players to quickly turn the tide of battle and players can level up their Pokemon to add some customization to their fighters.  The various arenas are also littered with Pokemon lurking in the background, casually interacting with one another or simply watching the fight.  Whether its watching a Pinsir play with a pile of leaves or seeing a Magnemite hovering above the battlefield with a camera to catch the action, there are dozens of little details that make the game a blast for Pokemon fans. 

Pokken Tournament’s gameplay graphics are undeniably gorgeous.  This is probably the best Pokemon have ever looked in a video game, with detailed skin textures, facial tics and movements.  While the actual battle gameplay is great, the HUD display showing remaining time, synergy and support meters and other key stats are a bit unintuitive.  For instance, I totally missed that the game had an actual clock countdown until about two hours into gameplay, largely because it was so tucked away from the actual battle sequences.  I was also disappointed by the lack of arena variety in Pokken Tournament.  While there’s several different arenas with Pokemon easter eggs to choose from, the only variation between any of them (besides the backgrounds) are the boundary length and width.  When choosing an arena, players are basically deciding between different sized circles and ovals.  Pokken Tournament also lacks any real variation in battle modes.  There’s no “tag battles” or handicap matches, which is a shame given the variations of Pokemon battles we’ve seen in the main line of Pokemon games.

While the roster is limited to only 16 Pokemon, each character’s fighting style is different enough to keep gameplay from becoming too repetitive.  Fighters are divided into one of four categories: standard, speed, power, technique.  Another interesting aspect is that each fighter has a different level of HP, meaning that some characters (like Garchomp) are built to sustain damage, while other fighters (like Gardevoir) require a more defensive strategy.  A diverse cast of Support Pokemon add an additional wrinkle to gameplay, as they can disrupt, enhance or attack at key moments to turn the tide of battle in a split second.  The roster is strong enough for multiplayer action, but Pokken Tournament might have trouble holding the attention of players primarily interested in the single player mode.  Hopefully, there will be some characters added via DLC (the arcade version of Pokken Tournament originally had only six playable characters) to help bolster the roster in future months.

Perhaps the most grating part of Pokken Tournament is the awful human voice acting.  The Pokemon sound like Pokemon (although I noticed that each fighter only made a handful of different noises when not attacking), but the tutorial and occasional human voiceover might be the worst voice acting I’ve seen in a high profile mainstream game in ages.  I recommend turning off the hints as soon as possible, for your own enjoyment and sanity.  Another major weakness about Pokken Tournament is the “special” controller marketed by Nintendo specifically for the game.  While Nintendo only distributed a VERY limited number to stores, don’t bother tracking one of the Pokken Tournament Pro Controllers unless you’re planning on playing on a competitive lever.  The Pokken Tournament Pro Controller only works for Pokken Tournament and can only be used as a second player device in local multiplayer mode.  The controller’s only advantage is that it’s a corded controller, which eliminates possible timing delays from using a wireless controller.  Chances are, you won’t be able to find or need a Pokken Tournament pro controller, so don’t worry about tracking one down.

Pokken Tournament is not a revolutionary fighting game, but it is fun to play especially against other players.  Pokemon fans and fighting game enthusiasts will want to get on the ground floor of Pokken Tournament, but other gamers can probably afford waiting for the game to come down in price. The light roster and lack of alternate fighting modes really hurt Pokken Tournament‘s ability to draw in casual fans, but it’s still a solid secondary Pokemon game and should be a solid cornerstone for future Pokken fighting games.

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