Nintendo has been more willing to let third-party developers handle some of their most important properties as of late. Some have been surprising successes for the Japanese publisher such as the Omega Force developed Hyrule Warriors. Other titles, like Metroid: Other M by Team Ninja, haven’t been received as well by fans. While results have been mixed so far, it’s been an interesting move, and it’s fun to see Nintendo go outside its comfort zone.
The latest example of this trend is Bandai Namco’s Pokkén Tournament. As the name suggests, this fighting game combines the spirit of Tekken with the characters from Pokémon. While sadly no pocket monsters are getting tossed into volcanoes (maybe they’re waiting to use that plot device for the sequel), you do get to see some of the most famous Pokémon battling it out mano-a-mano. It’s a fun idea at its core, and a brand new twist on a series that has received dozens of spinoffs at this point.
While you would expect the Katsuhiro Harada produced game to play like Tekken, it actually has more similarities with the Dead or Alive series. Like Team Ninja’s fighting series, Pokkén Tournament uses an Attack Triangle fighting system that is reminiscent to rock-paper-scissors. Counters are effective against normal attacks, while grabs are super effective against counters, and then normal attacks beat grabs to round out the triangle. It may seem complicated at first, but there’s a great in-game tutorial that goes over every mechanic in an easy to learn way.
There’s more depth to the action than those core concepts, though, as there are two unique phases to each battle. In the field phase, Pokkén is a fully 3D fighter. You’ve got a circular stage that you can run around, and can attack from range. Certain attacks will trigger the battle to change phases though, and the duel phase of battle is completely different. Now playing like a 2D fighter, your moves will now be adapted to work on a much more linear playing field. Your attacks will also do more damage in the duel phase, so this is a chance to deal some major carnage.
It sounds more complicated than it really is, and you’ll end up jumping between phases constantly. Considering how most of your major attacks will cause a switch it comes naturally during battle, the mechanic definitely gives Pokkén a unique feel. Even though the controls stay the same once the game shifts, there’s definitely reasons to fight differently in each phase. A lot of the depth can be found in mastering these two phases with each character.
That won’t be an easy task, though, as Bandai Namco has packed in 16 different pocket monsters to choose from. The roster is filled with a nice variety, and there’s a nice mixture of popular characters and surprising inclusions such as Chandelure.
The one character that really sticks out from the roster is Pikachu Libre, a luchador version of the Pokémon‘s mascot. Not only have Pikachu Libre’s moves have been altered to be pro wrestling related, but his ultimate attack is an amazingly acrobatic flying frog splash that would make Eddie Guerrero blush. It’s an awesome, wacky inclusion, but sadly the only really unique one (besides the unlockable Shadow Mewtwo).
While only 16 Pokémon are playable, there are plenty more in the game. Many can be seen inhabiting the 19 gorgeous stages included on the disc. Pokkén is fantastic at showing off what it’s like to live in a world filled with fantastical creatures, and it’s just cool to see all of the different locations, which range from dojos to a haunted house. Bandai Namco has done a great job of including a lot of different locations to battle in here, which isn’t often the case in fighting games.
Additional pocket monsters can also join the battle in a support role. Before each match, the player chooses a pair (out of 15 sets) of support Pokémon that can be called upon in battle. These come in three types: attack, disrupt, and enhance. Depending on the type, these support characters will either attack your opponent, cast negative status ailments against your opponent, or boost your own skills. Using these characters effectively is another area where Pokkén shines. There’s a nice amount of depth here and that’s something that’s very welcome.
If there’s one major disappointment with Pokkén, it’s the lack of modes. It’s not Street Fighter V bad, but it’s also not packed to the brim with content. The main single-player mode will have you battling in the Ferrum League, trying to go up the ranks as you learn the story of the mysterious Shadow Mewtwo. It’s a decent mode, but it’s ultimately fighting random A.I. battles over and over until a story event happens. It eventually ends with a horrific boss fight against an overpowered enemy that has about 6-times your health, and can take out half your health in about 10 seconds.
The story isn’t particularly strong either, and the voice acting is almost cringe worthy. However, even if you don’t care about the story, there’s still a good reason to play through this mode. That’s because it’s how you unlock two of the playable characters, and you’ll earn plenty of in-game currency that you can spend on customizing your avatar. Sadly, there are not many options, and it’s a shame that you can’t customize your Pokémon instead. Tekken allows for players to customize their characters, and it would’ve added more incentive here if you could do the same thing.
The other modes are pretty typical offerings. You can play against other players both locally and online, train your skills in a practice mode, or fight against the computer. Some additional modes, or at least some reason to spend all of the currency you earn, would’ve gone a long way in making the game last longer. That said, the online play works well, and while it doesn’t have many trappings, it’s still fun to play against other players.
Once again Katsuhiro Harada has released a solid fighting game. Pokkén Tournament is surprising in how much it feels like its own entity, and not a Tekken knockoff. The action looks great, plays well, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with each of the 16 characters. More modes would’ve been appreciated, sure, but there’s still plenty to keep you busy here.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which we were provided with.
It's no surprise that Pokkén Tournament is good, but it is surprising that it feels so unique. It's a refreshing face in the fighting genre, and offers up a ton of fun.