Pokken Tournament review

An overly-intricate combat system and lack of options will keep new players from becoming the very best.

I think every Pokémon fan and armchair game designer has had a fighting game based on the series kicking around in their heads at some point. My version was a lot like Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, except it featured full teams of six Pokémon from a roster of the original 151 Pokémon fighting it out. It was too complicated for the masses and was promptly canceled before ever being committed to writing.

Nintendo and Bandai Namco’s version, Pokkén Tournament, is an amalgamation of a bunch of different fighting game concepts that I’m not yet convinced fit together. It understands what makes fighting games tick, and could actually work as an introduction to the genre, but it’s lacking in ways that may intimidate newcomers and leave genre veterans looking for something more substantial.

Pokkén is both a one-on-one 2D and 3D fighting game, which is as complicated as it sounds. You begin every match in the 3D “Field Phase,” which resembles Namco Bandai’s recent Naruto Shippuden games: you move around in a 3D space through a distant over-the-shoulder perspective. In this phase you have access to light, heavy, and special ranged attacks, each mapped to a button. Whenever you hit your opponent with a strong enough move or inflict enough damage, the match switches over to “Duel Phase,” which shifts the perspective and movement to that of a 2D fighting game (though the camera is still angled behind your Pokémon’s back).

I’m not sold on the Field Phase. During most of the matches I played, Duel Phase felt like the part both players wanted to get to, since that’s where every Pokémon deals most of their damage. The Field Phase does have consequences; depending on where you land the hit that shifts phases, you can start Duel Phase with your opponent in the corner, giving you a big advantage. But having to move around in order to set those kinds of situations up feels clumsy, as both fighters make their way towards each other to land a blow.

When you get into Duel Phase, Pokkén is the game most Pokémon fans want it to be; you can see your favorite Pokémon beat the snot out of each other, use super moves to become even stronger Pokémon, and have a lot fun. But having two different combat modes makes Pokkén more intricate than it needs to be. If you want to introduce the game to a friend, you’ll have to sit them down at the tutorial before they can really understand what’s going on, which makes it hard to recommend the game to more casual Pokémon fans.

Which is a shame, because Pokkén goes out of its way guide new players into fighting games. Its tutorial is among the most extensive in the genre, going over the basics while layering in its specific flavors (like the assist Pokémon you can temporarily send into battle) and giving you a primer on every character, their moves, and some simple combos to take into your first few matches. It also teaches you what it calls the “Attack Triangle,” where attacks beat throws, throws beat counter attacks (similar to Street Fighter IV’s Focus Attacks), and counter attacks beat attacks. Substitute “counter attacks” for “blocking” and you have a solid base for understanding almost any fighting game.

Not only does Pokkén teach you how to implement these moves, it also color-codes them; you’ll see color flashes indicating which kind of move both players went for, and which came out on top. When an attack beats a throw, for example, the attacker flashes red, the thrower green. This makes it easy to see how you won or lost an exchange, giving you a hint for what to next time.

This is the exact kind of teaching tool I’d like to see in more fighting games -- a clear visual cue ingrained in the fighting itself that nudges players towards critical thinking. Attacks are also slightly slower than in other fighting games, which lets new players react to their opponent more easily.

But for newcomers, a lot of the progress they make will be thrown away when they enter the game’s main single-player mode. The Ferrum League has you working through match after match against computer AI opponents in order to rank up and face stronger AI opponents. The story is even slimmer than Street Fighter V’s, with the occasional cutscene breaking up the litany of AI opponents.

It’s paper-thin story that provides no motivation to play other than unlocking fighters and assist options. The atrocious voice acting (especially guide character Nia’s) doesn’t do the game any favors, either. Even worse, fighting this many AI opponents in a row is going to teach new players bad habits, since the bots will fall for the same tricks over and over. If you try to fight against real opponents online after beating the Ferrum League, you’ll likely have to unlearn these habits and pick up more sound ones.

Like any fighting game, Pokkén truly shines when you play it against other people. The online netcode (pre-release, anyway) has been superb, and I’ve been fighting people from around the world without a single disconnect or instance of lag. Even against opponents who were much stronger than me, I was learning how to play better just from looking at the simple cues the game gave me.

Pokkén is a solid enough fighting game that I’m curious about watching high-level play, but I’m not sure what the game’s competitive life will be like. The online suite, while great from a connectivity standpoint, doesn’t have the same hooks for dedicated players to see themselves get better. There’s a ranking system and leaderboard, but you can’t spectate or review any matches, which is vital to seeing what you did wrong or seeing what others do right. You can’t configure any online settings or filter opponents by connection, either, so the netcode is going to have to stay consistent if it’s going to work at all.

I also have to imagine the game is going to be a hassle for anyone who wants to get a Pokkén party going. Because the over-the-shoulder perspective doesn’t give both players the same view, you need at least one person playing on the Wii U gamepad in order to play local multiplayer, and the other person must play on a Wii remote/nunchuck, Pro or Classic controller, or a special controller made just for the game. The Wii remote/nunchuck configuration (probably the one you’re most likely to have lying around) maps attack to A, jump to B, moving to the analog stick, and block to the 1 button, and no one should have to play that way. I’m not even sure there’s a way to play with two of the same controller, which is going to make playing in a competitive environment a real issue.

Honestly, I kind of want to play more Pokkén Tournament after this review. It’s as fun as any fighting game out there when it clicks, but it takes too much work to get to the good stuff. It has features that could make it the perfect game for fighting game newbies and has the technical chops to give veterans something to sink their teeth into. But I don’t think I can recommend it to either crowd. It doesn’t have enough things for Pokémon fans to do, and not enough hooks in place for fighting game fans to want to stick with it.

The appeal of fulfilling a childhood fantasy of every Pokémon fan might mean it finds a dedicated group of players, but my guess is both of the crowds it’s trying to service will eventually find something else to play. And for a game at its best when playing with other people, that’s a death knell.

Verdict: No