Review: 'Pokkén Tournament' for the Wii U
The Pokémon franchise has been around for a long time. After two decades of tackling many genres, the concept of Pokémon battling arrives, for the first time, in one to which it seems particularly well-suited: the fighter.
Pokkén Tournament allows you to take full control of 16 different Pokémon in live action combat against your opponent. The game was developed by those experienced in the development of fighter games, and are known for the creation of Tekken. But even with this expertise behind the scenes, can the game rise to the challenge and leave a mark within the niche fighter market?
A different type of Pokémon game
Traditional Pokémon fans may wish to approach this game with a cautious eye. While Pokémon has had a bunch of spin-off games in the past, most of them had a pre-planning, cerebral element to them. Going from a competitive RPG to a Mysterious Dungeon RPG format isn't too far a stretch for most. Going from a game where you collect monsters and form a team isn't too far a stretch from a deck building trading card game. However, this is a fighting game through and through and so requires a different skill set than most Pokémon games.
If, however, you found the traditional Pokémon game time-prohibitive to play, but always wanted to battle Pokémon, Pokkén Tournament is a game well worth looking into. There's no team planning, leveling up, IVs or EVs. It's just you, the Pokémon you pick, and your ability to react to your opponent in the moment. Matches will probably not last more than five minutes, making it a way to fight Pokémon without having to worry about all the time invested pre-game.
In short, those who are not into fighting games are of course going to want to steer clear of this game. The name is a mix of Pokémon and Tekken for a reason; while there is strategy to the game, it's more an in-the-moment, head game type of strategy. You're not going to be doing a lot of pre-game strategizing unless you are at the level where you know your opponent on a name basis and know their play style.
This means, of course, if you really like fighting games and you so happen to like Pokémon, then you probably already have a copy of this game. So you're probably reading the review to see if you agree or disagree with my assessments more than if you want to purchase it.
Solid mechanics with fast-paced gameplay
The mechanic that sets this game apart from most fighters is what is called "phase shifting". The battle will change between two phases: A 2-D fighter style called Dual Phase and a 3-D fighter style, Field Phase. Certain attacks will shift the fight from one phase to the other. It seems to occur most when one side is taking a wallop, and the shifting typically gives the one on the receiving end a chance to recover. It is a great mechanic in that it resolves a traditional problem in fighters where a player may feel like they are getting cornered. Moving from phase to phase will help shift the fighter back to a more neutral standing on the board.
But don't think that will resolve your younger siblings from calling you cheap anyway. This is still very much a game that revolves around skill - so much so that the game encourages even matches to last longer, while one-sided fights will get resolved quickly. This is because the one who causes a phase shift will recover a small bit of their hit points, while the one being the victim of the shift loses some of their ability to recover hit points. Therefore, if both opponents are getting solid combos in and cause phase shifting at an even rate, both opponents can take more hits than if the match is one sided.
Another mechanic is what is called the Synergy Burst. This is done in such a way it introduces an element of intensity after the initial stages of the first round. In essence, this skill typically comes into play after both players are warmed up to their opponent and it's time to turn up the difficulty by increasing the reward and punishment of landed and missed hits. This type of mechanic isn't too new, as I've seen such things in other fighters.
Of course, you can land a Synergy Attack while in burst mode which is a more cinematic, over-the-top attack that can cause devastating damage if landed on an opponent. The amount done can vary heavily, and seems to be based upon how long it takes a Pokémon to fill their synergy gauge. Those that can fill it quickly tend to do less damage, while those who take longer to get there will do far more harm.
On top of those moves, you have a pair of Partner Pokémon, selected before each round, to provide a variety of support. You get three pairs, and choose one of them before each fight (a total of six, get it?).
This mechanic could have added an interesting pre-battle planning element to the game. Perhaps against Machamp you'd want a more defensive support set, while against Gengar you may go more offense heavy. However, this kind of planned support set strategizing is undone by the fact that in online fighting you have to pick your support set before you see what Pokémon you'll be fighting against. This makes selecting support sets in the online game more luck based than strategy based. In single player league matches you get to see what your opponent is running with prior to selecting a support set.
The tutorials for this game are a mixed bag for me. The tutorial explaining the mechanics was a bit text-heavy and didn't convey as much as just playing the game did. The tools I appreciated the most were the Action Dojo and Combo Dojo. The Action Dojo will go over the different moves the Pokémon you select can do and gives you a chance to perform each action to see it for yourself. The Combo Dojo will give you some combo lists to try and perform against an opponent.
The animations are solid and it really looks like two Pokémon are fighting in a fluid and anime like style of combat, as opposed to standing on opposite sides of a field and performing pre-animated attacks with minimal interaction. Pokémon battling really comes to life here. While some of the additional special effects on-screen seem grating at first, they have a utilitarian purpose: explaining to the player how the opponent countered their actions so that they can learn not to become so predictable in the future.
The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. I could have probably done better voice-overs in some of these circumstances. I know many who turn on Japanese voices because the English ones were grating on the ears.
In fighting games, it is essential to have solid control over your characters. The game does offer you to customize each controller type to your own style. I have played with three controllers and will give a brief review of each:
Wii U Gamepad
I was pleasantly surprised by the ability of the gamepad to handle this game. While I was waiting for the HORI controller to get to my home in the mail, I spent about a week playing on the gamepad and as I played through the single player game I found that the control was quite fluid. I was able to get to the Iron League without the HORI, and could play on level with my opponents online. Being able to see the action on screen also makes the game more mobile, and frees up the television if someone else needs it for something.
You may have to play with this controller from time to time, as in local multiplayer games, as one player has to use the Gamepad even if others are playing with alternative control types.
Wii Controller and Nunchuck
No, just no. Unless you are trying to severely handicap yourself then you should never use this. You can try to configure the controller in any possible way, but you will always be sacrificing access to a necessary button. You would literally need be a Machamp with a third hand in order to effectively utilize this controller in a manner that would make the game playable, let alone competitive.
HORI Pokkén Battle Pad
This gamepad was designed for the game, so of course of the three controllers I used, this one was the easiest to manage. Some of Sceptile's harder combos in the Combo Dojo seemed a bit easier to pull off with it. However, this was not without struggle, as Sceptile's combos are pretty tough no matter which controller you're using.
Is it worth putting down extra money for? That depends. The Wii U gamepad will most certainly be effective for those wanting to play the game who suspect they'll always be the solo player on the same Wii U device. But if you ever do plan on playing locally, the HORI pad is a must-buy. Only one gamepad can be used per Wii U device, and you certainly don't want to be stuck with the chuck.
If you're going to be playing competitively, then of course you'd want to consider using this over the gamepad. For most gamers, though, I wouldn't bother unless you are sure you want to take your Pokkén relationship to that next level. Give the default pad a try for a few weeks, and if you really like what you're playing, go ahead and put in the investment for a HORI.
Pokken Tournament gives a solid take on the fighter formula, presenting a simple-but-deep game that can provide hours of entertainment. I think furries who want to gather around a fighting game to enjoy with their friends could find a lot in Pokken Tournament… when they are not hammering away at Super Smash Bros., of course.
However, for local competitions I feel the controller limitation could be devastating. If two players want to use a HORI and there is only one Wii U device it seems like one would be forced to use the gamepad. So in essence they would have to basically have two Wii Us and each player would use their controller of preference on each device and play it over the Internet.
For those who want to play a well-made fighter featuring Pokémon, it's well worth investing in. It has depth to take away hours of your time, despite the matches being over so quick. It feels better to be beaten and one-upped when you realize you didn't spend hours making the team that eventually lost. Every match is self-contained, without hours of buildup and planning.
Those who really like that pre-battle setup and plotting would be well advised to await the more-traditional Pokémon trainer experience that awaits you in the Sun and Moon pocket games coming out later this year.