NS Review – Pokkén Tournament
A fighting game based on Game Freak’s famous series has been on the wishlist of many fans for years. With the turn-based combat featured in the core series, it’s a logical concept to have a Pokémon game where the combat takes place in a more free-flowing setting, showcasing the Pokémon’s moves in a real time duel.
With Pokkén Tournament this concept has finally come to fruition, and development has been handed to Bandai Namco. They have a reputable pedigree in the genre, with their flagship franchise Tekken being the best-selling fighting games series in history. They also co-developed Super Smash Bros 4, making a superb effort on one of the best multiplayer games the Wii U has to offer. With so many ideas for what would make a great Pokémon fighting game, creative decisions must have been tough for the development team. After several months in arcades Pokkén has finally arrived on the Wii U, and there’s a lot to like in the brand new Ferrum region.
Pokkén uses a fairly unique fighting system that goes between two phases. The ‘Field Phase’ is a free-roaming stage where the Pokémon can move in any direction, while the camera focuses on the opponent. Players can either keep their distance and hit with ranged attacks, or approach for some close combat. When a player takes a significant hit the action shifts to the ‘Duel Phase’, which plays like a more standard fighter. This is the phase where most combos are possible, but Pokkén is careful not to allow endless combos. This is due to the action returning to the Field Phase after a certain amount of damage has been done, with the hurt Pokémon usually being able to recover when the phase restarts.
When the fighters are up close, it’s all about countering. The game describes its system as an ‘Attack Triangle’, which has a rock-paper-scissors style setup between Attacks, Grabs, and Counter Attacks. It’s immensely satisfying when you’re able to predict their next move and counter it effectively. Each attack type is colour-coded, so it is clear to the player what the opponent is doing.
Pokkén’s system also offers a few flourishes to spice up the gameplay. First up is the Synergy Gauge, which fills up as the battle goes on. Once full, the player’s Pokémon can mega-evolve or transform to get stronger until the bar deplete. During this Synergy Burst, they can attempt a Burst Attack on the opponent. Burst Attack is the Pokémon’s ultimate move, and each one has an extravagant cutscene showing the dramatic attack. It’s an interesting mechanic that adds a layer of depth to the battle without being ‘game-breaking’.
The other main addition is Support Pokémon, which come in sets of two. The player can choose one of fifteen sets, selecting one of the two Support Pokémon before each round. There are 30 Support Pokémon in total, aiding the player in various ways; some will attack the opponent, others will increase the player’s stats or health. There’s a diverse roster of Support Pokémon as well. Legendary Pokémon like Latios and Reshiram made the list, as well as – of all choices – Magikarp.
Despite the complexity added by the Synergy Gauge and Support Pokémon, Pokkén is easy to dive into for beginners. Complex commands and combos exist for advanced users, but the core gameplay is simple. Each Pokémon can Counter Attack, Grab, and carry out a number of standard Attacks. Along with standard ‘Attack Triangle’ moves, each fighter has their own unique Pokémon Attacks, which are moves taken directly from the core series such as Aura Sphere, Fire Blast, and Seismic Toss. These special moves do a terrific job of representing each Pokémon accurately, and the Pokémon Attacks reflect their fighting styles in the handheld games. Machamp’s special moves are based on hand-to-hand combat, Gengar’s involve trickery and confusion, and Gardevoir’s take advantage of ranged Psychic-type moves.
The fighting system in Pokkén is simple on the surface but holds plenty of depth, and generally speaking the fighters feel balanced. There are a few peculiar stat differences; some Pokémon begin the match with more health than others with a downside elsewhere to compensate, and certain ranged attacks become very difficult to avoid and counter. It’s too early to comment on the competitive viability of Pokkén Tournament but it will be a point of interest for many players, not least because it has received plenty of support already from The Pokémon Company. Above all else, Pokkén is a joy to play regardless of skill level.
Each Pokémon has its own unique moveset. Some have more options in ranged attacks while others may have more than one Counter Attack or Grab. It makes for a diverse selection of fighters, and this is one reason why the roster’s size makes sense. With over 700 Pokémon to choose from, the line-up has been narrowed down to just eighteen. While only a handful of Pokémon are fighting, they feel unique and look wonderful on the Wii U. Each fighter has been given a personality and animations that play into their character. Gardevoir is a noticeable example; portrayed as a graceful Psychic-type, several ranged moves are animated like she is shooting an arrow from a bow. Chandelure and Gengar play a mischievous Ghost-type role, while Braixen and Weavile are more playful and juvenile. Special mention goes to Pikachu Libre, whose Burst Attack is marvelous. The developers have made a commendable effort to include Pokémon across all generations with a broad spectrum of elemental types.
Two of the roster are locked at the beginning of the game unless you’re packing the Shadow Mewtwo Amiibo card. These can be unlocked by playing through the main single-player mode: Ferrum League. In this mode, the player must rise up the ranks through four leagues that contain progressively tougher opponents. The plot surrounding Shadow Mewtwo unravels as the player progresses. There isn’t much variation between battles, but it’s to be expected in the genre. Players can swap out their Partner Pokémon and support sets whenever they like, so using different fighters throughout the Ferrum League may prevent tedious battling.
Almost all of the NPC characters appear in Ferrum League, and the most prominent personality in the game is Nia. Nia will guide you through your whole experience, both in battles and outside of them. All other characters are only seen in Ferrum League. Sadly, the English voice acting and direction leaves a lot to be desired. All of the characters speak with very little emotion, and Nia talks with a consistently unnatural tone. This is a subjective aspect, and others may enjoy the chat and advice that Nia gives. Thankfully, there are a broad range of options for the voices; Japanese can be used instead, or the vocals and advice can be turned off altogether.
Nia introduces the player to the Pokkén world, and the first task is to create an avatar. The game boasts an abundance of customisation options for your avatar with plenty of clothes, hairstyles, facial features, and backgrounds. You can also scan any Amiibo on the Gamepad for a bonus item. This can be done with up to five different Amiibo per day. It’s a shame the Pokémon don’t get any custom options themselves but it’s an understandable omission. Should a mirror match occur, a randomly-chosen fighter will be given an alternate design.
The avatar represents the player in online modes as well, and in my personal experience online matches have been smooth and free of lag aside from the very occasional match. If the player doesn’t find an opponent, they will be put against a CPU player until a challenger is found. Players can play Friendly mode – where they also have the option to fight friends – or more competitive Ranked matches. I was never left waiting for long periods of time to find an opponent, and the matchmaking system will attempt to find an evenly-ranked player.
Multiplayer mode exists offline too, with one player using the Gamepad screen and another using the TV screen with a controller. The only downside to this mode is the frame rate drop to 30fps, but it is a smooth and playable experience for casual matches with friends.
The Ferrum region has its own locations for battles rather than taking from the core series. It would be a nice touch to see some beloved core venues like Lumiose City, Mt. Silver and Saffron City, but the game has a wide variety of themes for its original stages. The fighters battle in a pre-determined ring, and the venues are purely aesthetic backdrops. The environments have several Pokémon in the background, and many that didn’t make the Support or Partner roster can be seen here. The haunted mansion unsurprisingly holds many Ghost types in its corridors, and several Fighting-type Pokémon can be seen working out at the Ferrum gym. A notable highlight is Electrode rolling on a treadmill in the gym corner.
The only downside is that the models are of a lesser quality, and some of the animations look incredibly stiff whether they be humans or Pokémon. It’s a minor setback as they’re not the main focus of the game. The soundtrack doesn’t stand out but settles in well with the game.
As one of the most high-profile console releases of the Pokémon series, Pokkén Tournament is a spin-off that is highly recommendable for Wii U owners. It wonderfully showcases its fighters, each of them bringing their own style and personality to the ring. While the roster may appear small considering how many Pokémon exist out there, it’s tough to get bored with a system that is welcoming but offers deeper mechanics for advanced players. The English voice acting and background quality could have been better, but Pokkén isn’t about that. It’s a celebration of a series that began twenty years ago, with satisfying combat mechanics and a diverse roster that explores all six generations. A visit to the Ferrum region is well worth taking.