It’s quite unusual for Nintendo to hand the keys to one of their prized gaming franchises to a third party, and a sign of trust when they do, but they’ve turned to one of the best when looking to create a Pokémon-based fighting game. Developed by Bandai Namco, Pokkén Tournament foregoes the tactical battling of the mainline entries, opting instead for one on one 3D arena combat, with players taking wholesale control of their Pokémon partners via Synergy.
I’m sure that somewhere there’s an overwrought essay being drafted about displacing the personalities of those within our sphere of influence or drawing comparisons to real world animal blood sports, but the majority of Pokkén’s players will be having too much fun with Game Freak’s inimitable stars to notice.
The game offers a varied roster of combatants, from well-known Pokémon such as Pikachu and Charizard, to less obvious ones like Chandelure, Garchomp and the wrestling-flavoured Pikachu Libre. You unlock Mewtwo through the course of the narrative, taking the number of creatures to 16, though the game seems perfectly angled to accept future characters via DLC. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the roster expand in the coming months, and if they’re as well implemented as those already here it would be a welcome addition.
The gameplay centres around two different phases, the 3D Field Phase, and the 2D Duel Phase, each of which feature different attacks for your chosen Pokémon. The controls are relatively simple, with three attack buttons and jump mapped to the face buttons, grabs and counters achieved by pressing two of the buttons together, and guarding and support on the shoulder buttons. Giving the combat a twist is the Attack Triangle, which sees normal attacks, grabs and counter attacks operate like Rock, Paper, Scissors, with different coloured auras indicating what type of move your opponent is using. It definitely adds an extra layer of depth to proceedings, and you have to plan for what may be coming your way.
When your Burst Gauge is full pressing the two shoulder buttons together enters Burst Mode, which not only amps up your attack and defense for a period of time, but also grants you one burst attack, a hugely powerful and visually spectacular move that can devastate an opponent’s health bar.
On top of this, you can also choose from a team of support Pokémon, one of whom can join you each round to be called on when the support gauge has been filled. They can offer a powerful attack, or a helpful buff, though sometimes these come with an additional negative effect. Your final tactical choice comes from your assistant Nell, whose cheer effect between rounds can grant you a number of boosts such as a full support or burst gauge.
Overall, there’s a good level of customisation, and you can find what suits your play-style best. Each bout also earns currency to customise your avatar as well as Pokémon XP, which as you level up allows you to improve that character’s stats. What this means though is that largely you end up not experimenting with other Pokémon, sticking through the single-player content with the same one throughout in order to level them up as much as possible.
Pokkén Tournament’s difficulty level is probably the biggest problem it has, and in the course of the single-player game I went 68 games before my first loss, beyond the occasional over-powered appearances of boss character Shadow Mewtwo. In the scheme of things it wasn’t until I reached the fourth league that there was anything remotely like a challenge, and I finally had to think tactically, using my abilities and attacks at the right moments.
The game’s ease was even more apparent when my four-year-old son merrily played single battles, and generally came out on top, despite not once blocking or using a Synergy Attack as his hands are too small to reach the shoulder buttons. However, he absolutely loved it, and if anything it’s perhaps best to view the single-player game as being aimed squarely at children, or as an overly long tutorial to prepare you for fighting online or in local multiplayer.
There is at least one caveat to saying the single-player game is aimed squarely at children mind you, and that is the difficulty spikes of Shadow Mewtwo and your opponents present in the final two leagues. In classic fighting-game boss style, Shadow Mewtwo has a huge health bar, screen-filling attacks, and can wipe you out in a couple of combos, and at points you have to beat him to progress.
It took me a number of attempts to get through these sections, utilising every aspect of my character’s arsenal, and younger gamers in particular may find these portions excruciatingly difficult, especially compared with the majority of the single-player content. It does take a while to work your way up the league ranking, which could be a positive in terms of longevity, but by the time you reach the final league it can become a bit of a grind, and a lost match here or there can render a five match set more or less pointless.
Online is definitely where the game comes alive, with the different tactical approaches of a human player making for a far more engrossing experience. It’s early days of course, and some characters – Mewtwo, Gengar and Gardevoir in particular – feel like they might offer more opportunity for frustrating other players than the rest of the roster do, but there’s a lot to like in the frenetic and exciting action.
In general the netcode seems solid, with only one battle against an opponent in Spain devolving into a horrendous lagfest that saw the bout timing out. Pokkén Tournament is a completely different beast online, so much so that it’s almost worth considering its two aspects separately.
Pokkén Tournament certainly looks the part, and while the visuals aren’t quite of the calibre of a Nintendo first-party title, they’re still the best looking 3D renditions of Pokémon we’ve ever had. The arenas meanwhile are solid, though some of the variety is lost by day/night shifts and the same sites in different seasons. Part of the fun can be spotting other Pokémon skulking in the background, but largely you’ll be concentrating too much on the action to scrutinise your surroundings too closely.
There are other niggles here and there, beyond the variable difficulty level, including your ever so helpful companion Nell who will hyperactively natter away – incessantly – with pep-talks and hints if you don’t turn her off. Thankfully the option is there to do that. At least the game makes some use of the Wii U’s features, with off-screen play present and correct, Amiibo integration grants you new avatar items and titles daily, and local multiplayer allows one player to use the gamepad screen while the other looks at the television.
Pokkén Tournament doesn’t quite know where to hang its hat – accessible fighter for kids, or serious online brawler – but somehow it manages to pull both off. Spectacular combat, beloved characters, and fun gameplay make for a fighter that anyone can enjoy, but as with all of the best genre entries, and indeed the Pokémon series as a whole, it truly comes into its own against a real-life opponent.