Since Pokémon hit the big time, one thing people have been clamouring for are dramatic battles closer to those seen in the anime where you can control Pokémon in realtime. While some spin-off titles have tried to do this, Pokkén Tournament is a game that is completely built upon that premise, and, to top it off, it is created by the masterminds behind both Tekken and Soul Calibur.
So, it’s a Pokémon fighting game right? Well yes, but it’s differentiated experience to that which Tekken and Street Fighter have now provided for decades. Rather than being solely an arena or 2D fighter, Pokkén Tournament successfully manages to merge both styles in a very enticing and unique package.
These are referred to as a Ferrum Battle, where the trainer and their Pokémon gain synergy through Synergy Stones. Each match starts in a 3D arena style with the camera behind your character, and you then energetically launch in for the attack. When you set off a devastating combo or just even a lone powerful hit, gameplay shifts from this opening Field Phase to the Duel Phase, locking the camera and turning the brawl into a 2D fighting game for a short time. This changes the Pokémon’s moves slightly, so quickly adapting is key. You need to be prepared for both phases, with quick, reactive thinking rewarding you in victory.
There’s also Synergy Mode to consider, which temporarily boosts your power whenever you fill the relevant gauge. This can let you trigger attacks with stupendous animations, similar to a Final Smash in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. As with most fighting games, battles operate a best of three round system so you will have ways to recover from an unexpected loss.
So, what kind of Pokémon are there? This is a bit where Pokkén Tournament falters slightly. There are only 16 playable Pokémon in the game, all of which were revealed before launch. It must be remembered that this is a brand new fighting game series and the roster is a solid starting point. But, as you battle through the single player mode, repetition soon sets in as you face the same opponents over and over.
That being said, each character has been well realised and are all unique from one another. Even the characters that have been preemptively dismissed as clones – such as Pikachu, Pikachu Libre, Mewtwo and Shadow Mewtwo – are massively different to one another. In addition to that, there are 30 Support Pokémon that can help you in battle. Most of these must be unlocked, coming in pairs with the player choosing their set before battle. From Diglett to Yveltal, it allows more Pokémon to make an appearance which can only be a good thing.
Pokkén Tournament has plenty of content for you to battle it out in. Ferrum League is the most notable, a single player mode in which you compete in multiple leagues to try to become the Champion in each. You first have to enter numerous matches in order to rank up, which is done in groups of five before the player increases in rank – regardless of whether you win or lose. When you reach the highest eight ranks you can enter the Top 8 Knock-Out tournament, and, once you score a victory in that, you can face the Champion to rank up. As you play through, a storyline will bleed through and even interrupt the Ferrum League, seeing you take on the mysterious Shadow Mewtwo in momentous, and often challenging, boss battles.
Away from this there’s a Single Battle mode that lets you face off against the CPU, with the expected chance to tweak difficulty and round length. Whereas an Extra Battle mode adds power-ups when you are in the Field Phase that can shake things up in comparison to regular battles.
Given that the game shifts between phases and that the camera is behind your player, this does pose some issues in approaching local multiplayer. For this, there are two options. The first is just one console, where one player wields the Wii U GamePad and the other has the TV and another controller. This allows each player to have their own viewpoint, and the game runs well in it. However, it necessitates a sacrifice in performance where the frame rate drops from 60fps down to 30fps. For most players it will still run smoothly with little bother, and be completely sufficient for casual play. For the more competitive scene where every frame counts, there is a way around this. You can connect two Wii U consoles together using LAN adapters and an ethernet cable in order to utilise the LAN mode set up. This keeps the frame rate at the solid 60fps, meaning that the game will run exactly how it does in single player and online. It’s not the most ideal solution, but at least it is an option.
An online multiplayer mode accompanies this, in which I encountered no issues although I am always wary to pass a definite verdict until launch. Players can once again busy themselves by ranking up, which will determine who matchmaking will pit you against. Your rank starts at E5 and steadily increases, while those wanting less competitive pressure can play a Friendly Match – against registered friends, or those that aren’t registered by using a VS Code.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s Skill Level to consider as well. As you progress through the Ferrum League, your Pokémon will gain experience which, when you level up, will let you increase their Attack, Defense, Synergy and Strategy stats. This can help you strengthen your favourite fighter in single player, but does not carry over to the game’s online component. Still, it’s fairly easy to level a Pokémon as I went over Level 80 just by playing through Ferrum League alone.
Customisation is also key in Pokkén Tournament, with players unlocking outfits as they progress that they can personalise their trainer with. As this requires in-game currency, it may be a while before you get your character looking exactly how you want, and, alongside this, there are titles to earn that work in the same way as achievements – such as your Pikachu reaching Skill Level 25.
From a graphical standpoint, my feelings are mixed. Up close, the playable Pokémon are wondrously detailed and it’s clear that a lot of effort has been made in perfecting their animation. The chosen art style is fantastic in that regard, and it runs incredibly well. But, when the action zooms in on the stages for a close up it’s noticeable that some shortcuts have been made in the characters and Pokémon that populate them. This is understandably done in order for the game to run as smoothly as it does, but it can feel jarring. In addition, sometimes the opponent Pokémon may look blurred, which was disappointing even if sacrifices may have needed to be made.
As for the soundtrack and audio, there are no complaints. The Pokémon appear to use their Japanese anime related cries and grunts, but don’t read that and suddenly fear that it’s a problem. The accompanying battle music is well orchestrated, with each stage having its own theme that perfectly captures the chosen style.
Pokkén Tournament is an absolute blast to play, being simple to learn but tricky to master. There’s a risk that longevity won’t be found in the single player content beyond the Ferrum League, but it is in multiplayer that the Wii U exclusive has definite potential. And I can say that after having spent hours in it, even with my lowly mortal friend being at the receiving end of one too many defeats. That we have both continued to sink in more time speaks volumes, and, as we celebrate it being 20 years since Pokémon first launched, this new experience is one that I hope The Pokémon Company continue to build on.
Whether or not it will be a fighting game that will dominate the competitive scene for the next few years is impossible to say. But, whether you are a genre enthusiast, a Pokémon fan or just a gamer in general, Pokkén Tournament is an incredibly fun game with solid mechanics that can certainly hold their own.