Ever since playing Pokémon Blue all those many moons ago, I have always hoped one day we would get a proper fighting game spin off. Sure, the likes of Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Colosseum gave you Pokémon battling in 3D, but they’re basically prettied up versions of the main series’ turn based battles without the sprawling RPG surrounding it.
For years I’d dreamed of playing a game where I had direct control over my Charizard, and where I could finish off Pikachu by drop-kicking the annoying little rat square in the chops. It seems that my dreams have finally come true with Pokkén Tournament on Wii U.
Pokkén Tournament is a one-on-one brawler by the guys behind Tekken. Though the name makes it sound like a straight up crossover, it doesn’t have much in common gameplay-wise with either the King of Iron Fist or mainline Pokémon games, save for the fact that both are fighting games, and a certain group of pocket monsters are doing the fighting. In truth there’s not really anything quite like Pokkén.
After creating your trainer and choosing a Pokémon to play as (don’t worry, you can change your Pokémon in between matches if you don’t get on with it or fancy a change), you’re introduced to Ferrum, the new island region where Pokkén takes place. Presented as a map of the island, your advisor then introduces you to the different locales on the island that represent the game’s different modes. There’s the town hub where you can adjust the look of your avatar and switch out your Pokémon, a practice gym, a stadium for online battles, another for single battles, and finally the grand stadium in the middle representing the Ferrum League, Pokkén’s lengthy campaign mode.
Though it’s tempting to dive right into the league, I’d recommended giving practice mode a whirl first. Pokkén is a very unique and surprisingly complex fighter and getting the basics down will help you a lot in the fights to come. It’s also a great way of testing out the different Pokémon available and finding one you really click with, as the best way to attack the campaign is by picking a character and sticking with it.
Each Pokémon has their own sets of weak, strong, and special attacks that replicate famous moves from the series like Fireblast and Leech Seed. During each round, you’ll also have access to a support Pokémon, which can by sent into the fray once the support gauge is full to cause all kinds of mayhem – from applying buffs to your Pokémon, status effects to your opponent, or just outright attacking them (usually setting them up for a nice bit of juggling). Initially, you start out with three pairs of support Pokémon to choose from, with more powerful beasts unlocked as you progress through the Ferrum League.
Along with being able to call in support, as you dish out and are dealt damage, your synergy (read: special) gauge fills up. Once it’s full, you can activate a synergy burst which increases your attack power for a limited time, and transforms your Pokémon into it’s mega form (if it has one). It also allows you to perform a Burst Attack, which is your usual super attack that deals a butload of damage so long as it connects. You can also pick up some items on the ground during the battle to increase the synergy and unlike most fighting games, firing off your Burst Attack won’t instantly deplete your synergy meter. You can only use it once per transformation, stopping you from spamming opponents with it. Although, chances are if you’ve managed to land one of them, your opponent is going to be pretty much toast.
Like in the mainline series, each victory is rewarded with PokéGold (cash) and experience points. While cash can be spent in My Town on new threads for your avatar, experience levels up your Pokémon in a similar way to the core games. However, each time your Pokémon gains an extra level, rather than just getting stronger, you’re gifted with a skill point which can be used to increase your attack, defense, or the effectiveness of your gauges. This adds a nice element of customization to your Pokémon and adds an extra level of variation to fights, as each Pokémon you face is potentially different, even if they’re the same type. You can also reallocate points in My Town, letting you experiment with different setups. Like the main games though, each Pokémon levels up separately, so if you want to plow through the Ferrum League, you’ll have a much better chance if you find a Pokémon you like and stick with it.
The fights themselves are dynamic and a lot of fun, shifting between two phases: Field and Duel. Each battle begins in Field Phase, which has both Pokémon roaming the 3D Space like an arena battle game, tossing long range attacks at each other while also attempting to get close enough to land a powerful strike. Successfully completing a combo or landing a heavy attack shifts the bout into Duel Phase, which changes the action up to a more traditional 3D fighter, allowing you to do a lot more damage. After a few successful hits, the action will shift back to Field Phase and so on. You can switch phases multiple times per round, with certain moves only available during each phase, meaning you need to change up your tactics with the flow of the battle. Though it might seem a bit odd, this hybrid style works wonderfully and gives battles a dynamic feel that keeps things fresh, exciting, and unlike any other fighter you’ve played, so much more than merely a standard fighter with a Pokémon skin.
The bulk of your time will be spent climbing up the Ferrum League, Pokkén’s lengthy single player campaign. Starting at the very bottom of the D rank Green League, you’re tasked with working your way up the listings by taking part in league matches until you’re ranked 8th. Then you need to win a tournament to become the top-seeded trainer in the league before finally facing the League Master. Beat him and you’ll be promoted to the next rank and associated league, at which point you have do it all over again with the size of the league and the strength of your opponents increasing exponentially with each new rank. Rinse and repeat until you are the king of Pokémon on Ferrum Island. In theory, it’s not a terrible idea; having you rise through the ranks to become grand champion is a classic fighting game trope and one that fits in perfectly with Pokémon. However in practice, having to repeat the same steps over and over again, especially when you’re forced to play through an indeterminate amount of league matches to up your rank to the point you can attempt the tournament and test to rank up, feels like so much padding, making the single player mode feel somewhat slow, tedious, and repetitive at times.
As you progress up the league, each time you rank up, you’ll also have to face off against a girl and her pet black Mewtwo. Initially, there is no way to beat the thing; it is simply too powerful. I get the whole idea of giving you a rival and someone to hate, but being forced to fight Shadow Mewtwo after every promotion just feels like routine humiliation. If he’d shown up after your first promotion, and then for a final confrontation once you’ve mastered the entire league, that would have given the story a nice Rocky (II –V) vibe and made me a little more invested in the narrative that is woven throughout your rise up the league.
After your initial encounter, you’ll start to hear stories in between battles from other trainers about “Shadow Mewtwo”; this could have created a lot of intrigue in the story and given you something to look out for. That’s if fighting Mewtwo were completely random, or if he didn’t turn up until the end and all you had were snippets of information about this powerful Pokémon and it’s mysterious trainer that were randomly turning up at league matches and opening a can of whoop ass before teleporting off mysteriously. Unfortunately, instead we get some odd tale about experiments, synergy stones, and a routine boss fight you simply can’t win. It’s a shame really, because if it were handled effectively, the single-player narrative could have mitigated much of the Ferrum League’s repetitive nature, but instead it reinforces it by adding another predictable battle to proceedings.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Pokkén’s online multiplayer. You can fight in either ranked or friendly match types, and the game does an admirable job of finding you an opponent as quickly as it can and if it can’t find you one in ten seconds, it’ll have you fighting the computer until it has success.
Once you get into an online battle, the net code is rock solid and I had absolutely no problems with lag or anything else. From end to end it was a pretty flawless experience. It also does a fairly good job of punishing rage quitters. If you disconnect before the end of a match, you get an automatic loss, your Pokémon gains no experience, and you are fined PokéGold for doing so.
Though you gain experience for fighting online, it doesn’t actually affect your Pokémon’s performance. Some might gripe about this but in my mind, this is a great move as it keeps fights balanced and the outcome based on skill rather than how long each player has been grinding away at the game for, while also making it a great way to level up your various Pokémon for the single player.
Like many, when Pokkén Tournament was first announced I thought it would pretty much be a re-skinned Tekken. Though that would have been fun, we’re instead presented with a fighting game that has its own unique personality and that feels like a natural extension of the Pokémon family.
Each playable character feels unique with each requiring a different set of tactics in order to succeed (even the two varieties of Pikachu play very differently). With only 14 playable characters, it does make me wonder why they needed two Pikachus when they had 721 Pokémon to choose from and other fan favourites such as Squirtle and Psyduck are conspicuously absent. In short, I really wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo announced more characters coming via DLC in the future.
If you’re a fan of Pokémon and fighting games, you’ll find plenty to love about Pokkén Tournament. It’s simple enough for complete beginners to have some fun with, but has a surprising amount of depth beneath its colorful veneer to satisfy hardcore fight fans and, despite the name, a strong identity all of its own with a robust practice mode that is a great way of sharpening your skills and finding a Pokémon that fits your preferred playstyle and a lengthy campaign mode, which, admittedly, could do with being a little shorter (something I don’t think I’ve ever said about single player modes in a fighter before). Pokkén Tournament also benefits from solid online services and the ability to play the game on a normal gamepad if you want, while also making good use of the gamepad screen in local multiplayer. Pokkén Tournament is a well-rounded package for fight fans, and a worthy spin off for Pokémon fans.
It may have taken almost twenty years, but Pokkén Tournament is, for the best part, well worth the wait.
Pokkén Tournament was reviewed on Wii U with a copy provided by the publisher
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Bandai Namco/Nintendo | Genre: Fighting Game | Platforms: Wii U | PEGI/ESRB: 7+, E | Release Date: March 18, 2016 | Controls: WiiU Gamepad, Gamepad Pro