Join the button-bashing fun and unleash your battle trainer spirit in an all-new Pokémon fighting game, Pokkén Tournament. It doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot with some lazy design mechanics and a barebones, indolent storyline but it’s still fun and accessible for casual and experienced players alike.
Based on one of the best-selling fighting games of all time and developed by Bandai Namco, Pokkén Tournament is the love child between Tekken and Pokémon. Released for Japanese arcades last year, Pokkén is built on the standard 3-stage match, with the winner having to KO the opponent twice before securing victory.
With 14 available fighters to hand, players can strive for ultimate glory with standard type Pokémon such as Blaziken, Pikachu and Lucario, technical partners like Gardevoir or Gengar and power Pokémon such as the household favourites Charizard and Garchomp. But if you’re looking for the Flash rather than a hard-hitting partner, picking Weavile, Pikachu Libre and Sceptile is where speed is of the essence. Of course, owning the Wii U version means you can also add Mewtwo and his shady counterpart Shadow Mewtwo to your arsenal through story completion and an amiibo card for the latter.
While fellow fighters can jump straight into the action within the Ferrum League, beginners can take a stroll down to the Practice Dojo and Single Battle arena to work up a sweat against the CPU. These areas are greatly accessible for new players, where you can hone the basics and begin to take down your opponents with action combo skills. If it’s been years since you’ve stepped foot into the Tekken fighting ring, much like my 1997 button-mashing self, you’ll want to tickle those taste buds here.
For the most part, the game’s combat hits Tekken nostalgia territory. Low slide kicks and sweet one-hit punches coupled with stronger upper-cut, jab attacks and your standard block mechanic is what Pokkén is built upon. But in zany Pokémon style, there’s also monstrous attacks such as Seismic Toss for Charizard and the long-range but deadly Psychic or Magical Leaf attacks for Gardevoir. Not only does every fighter have different styles in the arena, but they also have their Pokémon attacks, leaving the battle very fluid, interchangeable and much more frenetic.
Players will also have the chance to bring in support Pokémon during the 80-second fights, of which there are 15 to unlock. These smaller critters aid you by dishing out additional HP, attacks or defence strategies when fully powered up. You can unleash them once, twice possibly even three times per battle, depending on what cheer set – which are assigned buffs from advisor Nia to your support or synergy gauge – you have assigned at the time. All Pokémon and their trainers also have the ability to achieve synergy during battle by picking up glowing orbs and attacking the opponent. Once your synergy gauge is full, your Pokémon will mega transform and allow you to let loose a dastardly and visually spectacular move on your opponent. We’re pulling out all the punches and in full on Arnie terrain here; hasta la vista, baby.
Pokkén Tournament’s single-player campaign is laid bare in the Ferrum League. Using your Pokémon partner, you can level up in traditional RPG style here and assign points to them in attack, defence, synergy and strategy areas. With my trusty and technical partner Gardevoir at my side, I worked my way through each of the five leagues on offer. All players begin at D rank in the Green League and must battle in league matches, working their way up the ranks to the top 8 before fighting in a tournament. But the more competitors in each league, the harder it is to move up through the ranks. And though it starts out as an enjoyable, interesting single-player campaign when you can unlock battle stages, support sets and achievements, it quickly unravels into a lengthy, monotonous process.
It’s a tedious affair having to battle against at least two ranked players that you’ve already beaten, perhaps even with the same Pokémon, and having to win at least four out of five matches in order to climb the ranks. Soon enough, you’ll learn which fighters to keep your distance from, which ones you can lock in and combo on, and which ones you’ll definitely need to block attacks from. Those 14 fighters you thought were difficult to master at first, feel all too familiar after hundreds of battles with them. My Gardevoir is pushing level 60 after 10 hours of gameplay and my hands can already reach out and touch that rocky wall. The Ferrum league is nothing but a repetitive, mindless drone.
But there was at least some hope when starting the single-player’s campaign storyline. There are some strange disturbances taking place at the Ferrum League surrounding the use of synergy stones. These mysterious stones that bind humans and Pokémon together have started to weaken, causing battles to become unpredictable and harder to gauge. Players will face off with Shadow Mewtwo after each league win, with the third league taking the story to the next level.
You’ll get to travel to different parts of the map, frustratingly less exciting than it sounds, and will begin a fight with the now demonic Shadow Mewtwo. If you’re worried about spoiler territory, it’s worth skipping merrily to the next paragraph. Not only does he begin each fight with 3000 HP, compared to your measly 540, he is also able to use powerful synergy when you cannot. Though it’s challenging and possible, the battle is also strictly unjust. Couple the irregularities in battle with a storyline that screams for more excitement, Pokkén’s Ferrum League is a suitable wash-out. Now where’s that paint? I want to watch it dry.
The money you earn through playing matches in the Ferrum League can be spent in My Town – a section dedicated to the customisation of your avatar, the choosing of support sets and dressing up your advisor Nia. A welcome addition to Pokkén Tournament, there are many hair styles, costumes and interesting background quirks to choose and purchase with money earned in-game. You can also set your advisor Nia’s settings to normal, low or none – with the final option the most attractive. Love her or hate her, you’re going to want to mute Nia eventually.
Visually, Pokkén Tournament is gorgeous to watch and play. Sharp, clear-cut designs for Pokémon lead into eye-catching, responsive movesets which are fantastic to see in action. There are, however, some lazy designs on offer from Bandai Namco in terms of battle grounds. With 19 to unlock, from a haunted mansion to a seasonal Old Ferrum Town, they melt into the background and hold little attention when in battle. Perhaps it’s due to the frantic nature of Pokkén, but players can soon forget the settings as they fold and blend into one.
The main competitive draw for Pokkén, though, is in its online and local co-operative modes. If looking to play one-on-one battles with a friend is more your style, the GamePad must be used with another controller of choice. When playing in off-TV mode, during local co-op and very occasionally during matches online, framerate drops are noticeable and can often cause the difference between a win or lose. Luckily, the online mode is pure bliss to play with rank and friendly matches on offer. Though I’ve only played a few matches in the online mode, it’s certainly one that will provide the game with longevity.
A guilty pleasure to many, Pokkén Tournament is a proverbial button-basher, though features just enough depth and strategy to be fun for both casual and experienced players. While there are overpowered characters and combo-locking seems to be oddly askew, the game is fluid, responsive and can be quite addictive. Apathetic storyline aside, Pokkén Tournament might not be the home console game Pokémon fans wanted, but it’s certainly a contender.