Honestly, going into Pokken Tournament, I had no idea what to expect. I had seen a few videos of the game’s Japanese version, but unlike a few others who write for the site, until actually playing the game over these last few days, I didn’t research even the tiniest aspect of this game, and in hindsight, I wish I would have, because after actually playing it, I think it deserves more hype than I gave it.
Outside of the Super Smash Bros. series, I’ve never been big into fighting games until Pokken Tournament. Something about them just never appealed to me all that much. I think it had something to do with not wanting to dedicate a gigantic amount of time to the game, learning how to zigzag a joystick at light speed while also mashing every other button eight times, when I could be spending that time playing something else, something that I could actually eventually get to the point of being relevant in while still having time for other things.
Pokken Tournament seems to actively go out of its way to alleviate my (and a number of other people’s) problems with fighting games, while still remaining mechanically deep and interesting.
The combat system in Pokken Tournament is obviously, the most important point of discussion. Individual attacks function far more like Smash Bros. attacks than fighting game inputs. B lets you jump, and every other button does a unique attack when used in conjunction with a directional stick or D-pad press. There are no inputs that require rotation or Z-shaped inputs, it’s all based on the direction and button pressed. This makes the game incredibly easy for a beginner to pick up and play, but the complexities of this game, the deeper mechanics, are certainly present, although instead of being solely move-execution based, they lie elsewhere.
The game’s battles feature two “modes”, which multiple moves and combos allow you to manipulate and switch between. The Field Mode, which plays akin to an anime fighter along the lines of the Naruto or Dragon Ball games is where you start, allowing full 3D movement and a variety of ranged and rushdown style attacks, focused around knocking your opponent into Duel Mode, which acts as a 2D fighter, not unlike Street Fighter, and other classics of the genre. Once in Duel Mode, the game shifts into battles more akin to the genre standards, with fast-flying combos and high-energy, intense gameplay. On paper, Duel Mode seems to be the main mode you’ll be spending your time in, but some of the cast benefits greatly from trying to keep the battles in Field Mode, and for every move that shifts from Field to Duel, there’s a move or grab that disengages and sends it back to Field Mode. It’s an interesting and deep mechanic that allows a lot of gameplay variety.
The biggest thing I feel that Pokken does right though, is make every character completely, truly unique. You won’t see any clones here, and the moveset variety is staggering. Some Pokemon (calling out Chandelure here specifically) have attacks that inflict status effects on others, which then means you can use another different attack to deal absurd damage because it has a special interaction with status effects that makes it do so. Other Pokemon, like my main man Sceptile, revolve around throwing out seed traps that can steal the enemy’s health or knock them up, which he can then chain into a powerful grab attack. Then there’s Machamp, who plays like a Pokemon Zangief. You can probably see how this goes by now. Every Pokemon does its own thing, and has its own style of gameplay and its own counters, meaning the game is also one of the most BALANCED fighters out there currently too.
Now, Pokken Tournament is not a flawless game. The single player mode is garbage, even compared to other fighters. Pokken takes a quantity over quality stance, and crams an absolute ton of banal garbage into the campaign mode, giving a sense of intense tedium. The game’s single player mode attempts to combine the arcade modes present in other fighters, and oddly, Pokemon Stadium’s progression style. You start at the bottom, and have to work your way through the ranks, taking down enemy Pokemon (and trainer) after enemy Pokemon, unlocking various trainer avatar customization options along the way.
This seems alright on paper, and the customization is neat, because your trainer portrait represents you in the online battle mode, but it is absolutely brutal to grind through just because of the sheer amount of trash battles combined with the small roster size. You’ll find yourself fighting the same Pokemon multiple times in a row, and the AI for about half the battles in the game is atrocious. The arcade mode in other fighting games featured a large variety of difficulty settings, and a slow difficulty curve to help you adjust and learn. Pokken’s “arcade mode” has the AI unable to do anything but stand there for a good deal of the early fights, then suddenly ramps up the difficulty with absolutely no warning or curve to prepare yourself.
The only things left to mention are the online play and graphics, the former of which is serviceable enough. My wifi is absolute garbage half the time, but even then, whatever lag was there was negligible for the most part, as I was able to win a good deal of online matches with Sceptile, who requires fast inputs and good opponent reads. It’s nowhere near as lag-ridden as Super Smash Bros., which is borderline unplayable on a less than stellar connection. The latter of which looks amazing for the most part, with beautiful animations, effects, and player models. There’s some mild jank on a few background objects, and some iffy texturing at times, but the main focus of the game, the Pokemon, look gorgeous, to the point where even watching Pokken Tournament is enough to make your eyes pop with wonder most of time.
Oh. The music is sweet too. High energy, and fits every stage perfectly. Not much to say on the matter but I love it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go spam the online mode a little more before I sleep. Good game. Would recommend.