I’ve just punched Pikachu in his silly grinning little yellow face. Well, I personally haven’t, but Croagunk has, and since Pokkén Tournament is all about humans synergising with Pokémon, it’s hard to say where the line is drawn. The Pokémon games have traditionally been about capturing sentient creatures in tiny spherical traps before forcing them to engage in modern day cock fights. Pokkén, which comes the same team behind fighting game giant Tekken, takes this further and sees you take direct control over the cute/scary/fluffy/leafy/watery/fire-y denizens of Pokémon World for these battles.
When Pokkén Tournament first appeared on the arcade scene in 2015, it’s unique fighting system and vibrant roster allowed it to overcome many of the perceptions that it was simply a kids game. Like Smash Brothers before it, it was able to entice fighting game fans into taking it seriously. The Wii U port did a fantastic job of bringing the experience home, but with the console’s support winding down, it was left to fend for itself, missing out on the expected DLC and any ongoing support. The DX version’s arrival on the Nintendo Switch looks as though Pokkén could finally complete its jump into the big leagues.
One of the reasons that fighting game enthuisasts took to the game is that while its mechanics were welcoming enough for newcomers, there was more than enough depth to sink your teeth into. The key is in the two different phases – Field and Duel – which shift the game from being a 3D arena brawler to a 2D plane and back again, while a well thought out range of attacks, grabs, counters and supers underpin the attractive action. Bandai Namco have doubled down on the support for high level players as well, with the ability to watch replays and check on your controller inputs allowing you to look for holes in your game and shore them up.
The original Pokkén was a good looking game, and Pokkén DX looks virtually identical, with the same filtering and scaling in obvious effect as it zooms, spins and pans out from the battle arenas. There’s a hint that some of the visual effects for the combatant’s special attacks have been toned down ever so slightly, but everything seems just a tiny bit sharper overall, so perhaps that’s been the trade off. It does look fantastic on the Switch’s small screen though, with no obvious drops in performance at all, and it’s a pleasure to take on the go with you to indulge in some ad hoc multiplayer.
The key additions that earn that DX tag are the return of the four missing combatants from the arcade original that skipped the Wii U edition, with Darkrai, Croagunk, Empoleon, Scizor and Switch exclusive Decidueye taking the roster count to twenty one. All of the Pokémon are now available from the off, including the previously unlockable Mewtwo and Dark Mewtwo. While it’s nice having access to them all straight away, the inclusion of the two Mewtwos does render the loose story mode pretty redundant, even if it’s all about the action rather than what frames it.
The new fighters are mostly very cool, with Croagunk’s barmy arsenal providing some comedy gold – he sometimes rubs his bum when he wins for some extra trolling – while Decidueye just feels great to play as. Darkrai is likely the least appealing of the fresh intake, with a moveset that doesn’t set him apart from the other Pokémon, and wrapped up with a bland visual design that gives no real indication of the creature’s character beside the fact that he’s dark and ghostly.
Your main single player option remains the Ferrum League, with its series of ever tougher challengers. As with the first game, your fight through these opponents can feel like a bit of a grind given how easy they are. You should be completely familiar with the battle system, and your favourite characters, by the time the difficulty ramps up.
However, they have managed to make things a little more enticing by giving you missions to complete, such as landing a counter attack a certain number of times or successfully grabbing your opponent, with rafts of rewards available for successful completion. It’s particularly successful at making you think a little differently about what you’re going to do in any one match, and gives you something to focus on when your opponents are too easy. Completionists will even want to return to earlier leagues in order to mop up their rewards, which I can safely say wouldn’t have happened before.
This being a fighting game, it’s all about the multiplayer options, and Pokkén DX has expanded on the offerings of the original. There’s now a three on three Team Battle which lends the game some interesting extra tactics to think about, as you try and plough through your opponents choices, as well as the previous Basic and Extra Battles as well. Whichever mode you choose you can now play it locally – in handheld or TV mode – wirelessly, or online, meaning you should be able to find real-life opponents more or less anywhere.
Alongside the previous range of modes, Pokken Tournament DX now boasts a Daily Challenge option, where you can win various rewards by competing in battles with that days set Pokémon. It’s a good way of forcing you out of your comfort zone, although Pokkén’s AI difficulty for this mode is so forgiving you probably won’t struggle too much no matter who you have to play with.
One of the things I’d forgotten about since my playthrough of the original Pokken was just how annoying your relentlessly perky battle trainer Nia is. Fortunately you can switch her language to Japanese, which I found much more agreeable, or alternatively just turn off her advice altogether.
You can also dress her in whatever manner suits you, which is almost certainly overstepping some kind of boundary, but this being Nintendo, I’m sure it’s just to make sure she’s warm or cool enough depending on the weather. She does provide a useful function in battle too, offering a range of Cheer Skills that can really alter the outcome of a fight if you choose wisely, boosting the recharge rate on your synergy gauge or instantly allowing you to call in a support character.
Besides Nia, you can customise your avatar and your battle card, with a ridiculous amount of customisable elements to unlock as you go. The problem is that there’s still not fundamentally enough difference in the key facial features of your avatar that they come out looking all that different from anyone else’s, even if they’re dressed as a chef or a clown. Then again, it’s hardly the most important part of a fighting game, and when the action is as good as it is then you should hardly notice.
With an expanded roster that only improves on an already great lineup, fantastic gameplay, and an increased range of challenges and modes, Pokkén Tournament DX is true fighting game gold.