When you look at it, the world of Pokémon is actually bizarrely terrifying. An entire civilisation of humans that have created a culture that centers entirely around matching exotic creatures that can disrupt weather patterns, bend minds and warp reality in gladiatorial combat and handing such power over to children who have barely reached puberty.
This is a society wherein everything is devoted to this act and includes hurling children out into a lighter version of the Hunger Games as a rite of passage. Terrifying stuff, until you start commanding these wild creatures , keeping their very beings encased in a special ball that converts them into pure energy. Pokken Tournament is the essence of Pokémon, and then some.
It’s not just about commanding your favourite pocket monsters with a handful of commands like some sort of World War one general who is obsessed with moving his brandy cabinet a few feet closer to the front lines, but taking direct control of them and waging a new kind of interactive cockfight. And sweet Arceus, it’s good. Damn good. Hell, Pokken Tournament can give established franchise such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat a run for their money, thanks to a beautiful pedigree from the Tekken studio over at Bandai Namco.
With that kind of fighting game DNA behind it, you’d expect Pokken Tournament to play out like a traditional version of Tekken. You’d be wrong. Dead wrong, as Pokken Tournament is an amalgamation of many ideas and genres, wonderfully realised. There’s a heavy Tekken influence, make no mistake, but there’s also some Dead or Alive, Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm and Mortal Kombat thrown in for good measure.
It all comes down to a core gameplay experience that has you juggling between 3D and 2D styles of play; the Field Phase and the Duel Phase. That idea knocks around switching the battle up at any time when certain attacks are landed and causing an entirely new shift in strategy. Think you’re hot Slugma when you’ve got a three-dimensional battlefield that gives you ample opportunities to lay some traps and hop out of danger? Then the 2D shift might see heavy damage handed to your ghostly behind as your opponent capitalises on more linear attacks and heavy combos.
Learning how to cope with that setup is only a small part of Pokken Tournament. Closing gaps, defending and utilising spacial awareness with each Pokémon is going to take weeks to master, thanks to a varied toolset of attacks that each critter has access to. Weavile for instance, is a quick and agile little bugger who can snap around you with ease, Garchomp is a powerhouse dragon who can corner you with combos in seconds and Pikachu Libre feels like the bastard child of the WWE Attitude Era and an ECW TLC match.
Matches can easily shift in the favour of either player, and there’s even a traditional power triangle to consider. Unlike the core RPG games which focus on type advantages and disadvantages, Pokken Tournament goes for a more balanced approach that frames throws, counters and normal attacks in a rock-paper-scissors setup where one beats the other and so on in a circle of life.
On top of that, you still have overhead attacks being effective against low attacks, low attacks trumping anti-air efforts and coming back full circle by having aerial assaults being effectively devastating when timed correctly against the overhead assaults. And that’s the spirit of Pokémon, perfectly captured like a master ball was thrown at it. Combined with a varied roster of power, speed and technical Pokemon, and the basic tools at your disposal can become frightening advantages when tag-teamed with the unique properties of your favourite pocket monster.
It is so surprisingly complex, with counters, long combos, cancels and heavy attacks that Pokken Tournament provides a welcome and robust training dojo for. Any high-level fighting game that features strings of attacks which require a hundred inputs is going to find some wonderfully colourful competition in the form of Pokken Tournament.
And there’s even more added to the system, as support Pokémon can also tilt a battle in your favour. There’re various duos of them to choose from, such as Cubone and Diglett team which can draw your enemy in for combos or set them up for juggles. Maybe you’d prefer to get some quick buffs and healing from a Togekiss or set up an anti-air system with a Rotom that zaps any high-flyers away from you. More are unlocked as you progress, to the point where a fiery dragon god can drop a napalm strike on an enemy once you charge his meter up enough.
But where Pokken’s strength comes from being a massively-competent arcade brawler, so too does its greatest weakness. There’s an absolutely piffling amount of content here for anyone who plans to remain offline. The rubbish storyline of Mewtwo having gone berserk after exposure to bad homeopathy and crystals is only minutes long, and stretched over several tedious hours of working your way through the Farrum League ranking brackets, earning rank and facing a high-level opponent at the top spot.
You’ll put in a minimum of a hundred fights alone just to be recognised as the champ, while the occasional story chapter will pop up, populated by a handful of characters who. All sound. Like they. WERE. Trained at the…Christopher Walken school. Of ACTING! The story mode itself almost non-existent, a mere appetiser for a much heavier focus on multiplayer. There’re plenty of customisation options, if you like dressing a generic avatar in PNG clothing items and assigning a vague title to his or her name, but you won’t see much more than that.
While servers weren’t yet online, local play was enough of a breeze as I swapped between GamePad and pro controller with a friend of mine, enjoying some good ol’ couch brawling. There’re various other options as well, including an alternative that allows you to connect two Wii Us using a LAN cable to maintain a 60fps experience.
That’s the kind of game that Pokken Tournament is, a heavily-focused arcade fighter that is going to draw in a cult audience, and ostracise others who’re expecting at least some narrative meat on the adamantium skeleton of this brawler. Make no mistake, it’s a gorgeous game with fluid visuals, top-notch sound and sily-smooth action which never dips for a second.
It’s deep, complex and it’ll take many, many matches to master any one single Pokémon in battle. Just make double-sure that you’ve got a Pokemaniac friend who is more than happy to join you online, otherwise you might be watching the Tangela roll by.
Last Updated: March 15, 2016