It seems that Nintendo fans have been clamoring for two types of Pokemon games forever now: a Pokemon-themed MMORPG, and a fighting game. While we may have yet to get a Pokemon MMO, we do finally have a Pokemon fighter in the form of Pokken Tournament, which comes from the makers of Tekken.
On face value, Pokken Tournament is exactly what it sounds like, a traditional fighting game featuring Pokemon characters (including the iconic Pikachu, Mewtwo, Suicune, Gengar, and one of my personal favorites, Machamp, among others). But Pokken Tournament has a few original tricks up its sleeve that prevent it from simply being a basic fighter with a Pokemon makeover.
Perhaps most notable of these tricks are the game’s “Phase Shifts.” To put it simply, the two Phase Shifts are two different perspectives of battle, with “Field Phase” working more like a 3D fighter and “Duel Shift” working like a 2D one. Certain moves and mechanics are only available in a particular Phase Shift, and the shifts only change when one of the fighters hits a particularly powerful move on their opponent (this can admittedly lead to some battles feeling fragmented when they switch too frequently, but improvising between two play styles is a unique touch).
Pokken Tournament also employs a simple but fun rock-paper-scissors-like concept in the characters’ moves. The moves are divided into three primary categories: normal, grab and counter. All three move types have their uses, and each one is effective in outperforming another. Normal moves work well against grabs, counters work against normal, and grabs work against counters. It’s a simple and accessible setup, but it helps give the gameplay some depth.
Players can also use a set of support Pokemon during battle. The support Pokemon all come in default pairs of two, so don’t expect to customize your teams of support Pokemon to your liking. But the support sets come with a wide variety of uses, with some supporters granting additional offense, while others can heal hit points and grant other such bonuses.
Additionally, players slowly build up a special “Synergy Gauge” as they battle. Once built up completely, the Synergy Gauge allows players to become temporarily supercharged, giving them more powerful attacks and the opportunity to hit a devastating special move.
Players can progress through tournaments in the single player mode, with subsequent level ranks providing a noticeable increase in difficulty. Pokken Tournament also allows for local and online multiplayer, where players will probably spend most of their time.
It should be noted that the online gameplay is some of the smoothest to come from any Nintendo game. As of this writing, I’ve only experienced one match with any notable lag problems so far, and even then it was pretty brief. Pokken Tournament nearly rivals Mario Kart 8 with how smooth the online matches are, and how quickly it finds opponents.
The game is given additional replay value outside of the core gameplay by means of leveling up and unlockables. By competing in matches, whether single-player, local or online, your Pokemon gain experience points and level up, allowing you to boost one of their four stats with every level (power, defense, synergy and support).
The unlockables include not only new fighters and support Pokemon, but also cosmetic changes for your character’s avatar, as well as that for your manager/cheerleader, Nia. They’re not substantial rewards by any means, but at least it gives you a reason to care ever so slightly about Nia, considering she otherwise falls under the category of annoying Nintendo sidekicks like Skyward Sword’s Fi, who constantly blab and point out the obvious (mercifully, you can make Nia’s commentary less frequent, or turn it off entirely).
In terms of aesthetics, Pokken Tournament looks great. The jump to HD on the Wii U means that the Pokemon themselves have never looked better. The soundtrack, while certainly not one of Nintendo’s most memorable, is nonetheless fun and appropriately tense.
In the end, how much you’ll love Pokken Tournament may depend on how much you love Pokemon itself. The roster of playable characters is surprisingly small, considering just how many Pokemon there are to work with (the fact that there are two alternate versions of both Pikachu and Mewtwo also feels like a missed opportunity for more original Pokemon), and there’s not a whole lot of variety in the different modes (especially when one remembers what Nintendo managed to cram into Super Smash Bros. for Wii U). But as a whole, Pokken Tournament is certainly one of the better Pokemon spinoffs to be released in a long time.
It may not be the dream come true we may have wanted from a Pokemon fighting game, but Pokken Tournament does serve as a fun and engaging game that hints at what the greater Pokemon franchise is capable of. Perhaps, I don’t know, an MMO, for instance.