Like many others I’m sure, I’ve wanted a game like Pokkén Tournament for a long time, and I’m surprised it’s taken this long for it to happen. A fighting game where you take the role of the Pokemon instead of the trainers? It just seems so painfully obvious, and I’m happy to say that it mostly lives up to expectations. The story is a bit hokey, and I would have liked for some more narrative focus, and a bit more effort put into the single player experience, but these aren’t deal breakers. The game at its core is still enjoyable, making for some excellent couch gaming when you’ve got some friends around, and the online matching isn’t the worst thing ever. Besides, who could pass up the chance to finally beat the crap out of Pikachu so thoroughly?
You’ve had it coming for years you weird little rat ba–OOO, HE’S WEARING A LITTLE LUCHADOR SUIT NOW! SQUEEEEEE!.
Pokkén Tournament’s story is… Unusual, to say the least, and never really explains itself all that well. In that sense, I guess it works fairly well since fighting games aren’t frequently known for their expansive or detailed narratives, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions I want to be answered. For starters, I wasn’t aware that there was more than one Mewtwo and, for various canonical reasons, I’m convinced that this isn’t the same Mewtwo seen in previous movies/shows/etc. Also, I’m not completely clear on this, but I think the synergy stones and headsets allow trainers and Pokemon to fuse spirits. At least on some level, these stones appear to let trainers embody and control their Pokemon though, again, this isn’t explained a whole bunch. Or, like, at all. I get the feeling that Pokkén Tournament’s story is just an elaborate setup for a new mechanic that’ll be fully explained in the new Sun and Moon versions.
The main character is also a generic, voiceless so-n-so of the players’ creation, and doesn’t bring a whole lot to the story or gameplay. I went with my usual in-game name of Harlequin and made her a black, teenage schoolgirl. Naturally. I would have liked for her to have something of a personality and more than just a Deus Ex sit-in for whatever the game’s story needed at the time but here we are. Since even voiced characters emote with all the charisma of a wet rock, your own character is relegated to whatever emotion is plastered on their face during creation. It meant that whether I was pounding my opponent into a fine paste or watching my fighter’s bones get systematically snapped, Harlequin was perpetually ecstatic.
“Haha, remember Machamp – no victory means no dinner *winky face*!”
The hokey narrative aside, Pokkén Tournament is a solid fighting game and my biggest qualms with its design are more like personal irritants than outright flaws of the game. Battles are made up of two “phases:” The field phase, which allows for more long-ranged attacks and free movement, and the duel phase, which has Pokemon get up, close, and brutally violent. In addition to the difference in the range of movement, switching between them changes your move-set and, depending on who you’ve chosen, this can dramatically alter the course of the fight. Complementing this design, the rostered Pokemon’s strength’s lie more in how they take advantage of these changes in battle style as opposed to the classic “type X mercilessly beats type Y.”
There’s something of a rock-paper-scissors style of governing how attacks work against one another, which can feel a bit overwhelming at first but it doesn’t take long to adjust. Move-lists and special attacks are still present as standard fighting game tropes and the design doesn’t mess with that too much beyond changing them up for the different phases. Something that is rather novel, however, is the ability to “synergise” with your Pokemon, either forcing them to Mega-evolve or just become a vastly stronger version of themselves. While I don’t feel like there are any major balance issues, there are definitely fighters that seem to have more than a small advantage during certain phases. Like Chandelure, for instance; that projectile-happy bastard can eat it.
Seriously, if you pick Chandelure I will hate you forever.
The single player mode is an odd creature; aside from a narrative that sounds like something out of my very own “Dark Side Of” series, the difficulty curve is more like a difficulty switch. For the first two-thirds of the game, I thought I’d unwittingly set it to easy mode, until one particular fight that saw a Weavile absolutely mop the floor with my Machamp’s face. From that point on the campaign mode felt like a bit of a slog-fest through ridiculous AI though it never reached controller-snapping levels of difficulty or frustration. The local VS is just that, with an extra mode that throws mid-battle items into the mix, and isn’t remarkably different from the other available modes. It does force local co-op to be split between the Wii U pad and the TV, however, which I’m personally not a fan of and may annoy you if you’re of a similar mind.
The online mode is actually one of the more stable online experiences I’ve had with a Wii U game but as far as enjoying it is concerned? Well, I don’t want to stereotype here, but if you go up against a player from the Japanese gaming community, they’re gonna mess up your Pokemon’s purdy face. Aside from that, it’s hard to fault. My only real criticism is that the roster is somewhat limited and void of some Pokemon I’d have expected to be the most obvious choices for a game like this. That Hitmonlee and Hitmonchan aren’t playable is a mini-travesty I suspect will be corrected with future DLC updates.
I try to imagine them as being adults with far too much spare time instead of the much more likely scenario of twelve year old Japanese players handing me my ass.
For fans of the Pokemon franchise, there’s a lot to love about Pokkén Tournament’s presentation. Given the recent core-Pokemon games and the direction they’ve taken with fully 3D models, this isn’t exactly surprising; it’s clear that a lot of love and effort went into making this game feel decidedly Pokemon-like. One area where the game has a real issue, however, is that there’s often a particle effect overload and special attack cinematics that go on far too long. I feel like these had a detrimental impact on gameplay, as the particle effects can be fairly distracting from the fight itself and dragged out cinematics mid-fight are just annoying to sit through. Having the snot beaten out of you is frustrating enough without being forced to watch it happen for what feels like an eternity without intervention.
The only other thing worth mentioning is Nia, your adviser and “cheerleader” throughout the game. Aside from some questionable ethics surrounding her use of Pokemon abilities to “support” fighters between battles, sweet fancy Moses is she irritating as hell to listen to. In the beginning, it was a cute kind of way for tutorials to be communicated to the player but she just never stops talking. There’s an option to turn off her tutorial speech, but even then she will continue to blather on before, during and after every bout. Did you just lose a fight? Win one? Did your Pokemon sneeze? Is the weather nice? Nia will be sure to let you know about it all, in a voice that I’ve now come to regard as being one of the most annoying in all of gaming history.
“Yep, that’s.. I know, Nia, I…. JESUS CHRIST, YOU’RE WORSE THAN NAVI – SHUT THE HELL UP!”
I’m glad that Pokkén Tournament made the transition from arcade units to console. The combat isn’t over-simplified but still hasn’t hit the kind of difficulty that requires an academic understanding of a single fighter just to be able to use them. Changing up the move sets based on proximity is also a neat idea, adding the kind of depth that fighting titles need to prevent the action from getting too stale over time. And battles feel like Pokemon battles should. The action is so full-on, and the damage animations so convincing (by Pokemon standards), that it’s almost like they’re straight out of Pokemon Origins. Aside from a limited roster, a bizarre and listless story-mode, some minor issues with the visuals, and Nia, there’s not a lot to criticize about Pokkén Tournament and most of what’s here are more like personal annoyances over actual problems. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to beat seven shades of s*** out of Chandelure.