Pokémon has always been about the battle. Pitting one monster against another has been the staple of nearly every single Pokémon game for the last twenty years, so it only makes sense that the franchise would eventually receive its own, fast-paced fighting game. In fact, a quick, non-turn based Pokémon title is something that fans have sought after for years. So is Pokkén Tournament worth the wait?
The new Pokémon brawler went on sale earlier this month, and it alone more than doubled recent Wii U hardware sales, so things seemed to be looking on the up and up for Nintendo’s platform. Given these promising early signs, I picked up the new Pokémon fighting game with excitement. But after slogging my way through a long-winded tutorial that lasted at least forty-five minutes, I began to see signs of trouble.
The animated woman that provides the voiceover for the tutorial session, and indeed also narrates the entire game including mid-fight comments and encouragement, is irritating at best, and grating at worst. I really wanted her to stop talking and let me fight, but that just didn’t happen. She constantly shouts out things in regards to your Pokémon’s status, HP, and special meter, all of which are plain to see for anyone who has ever played any fighting game, ever. Her belligerent comments are a minor annoyance, but prove to be the first real frustration in a game filled with plenty of other issues.
Another disappointing facet of the game is the extreme lack of playable characters. There are a total of sixteen playable Pokémon to choose from, one of which is only available as an unlockable character, and another can only be unlocked temporarily via Amiibo card. To make matters worse, two of the sixteen Pokémon are different versions of Pikachu, and two of them are varied versions Mewtwo, which essentially makes the number of unique playable Pokémon fourteen rather than sixteen.
The game features some fan favorite Pokémon as playable fighters, including the aforementioned Pikachu and Mewtwo, as well as Charizard, Gengar, Gardevoir, and Lucario. However, a handful of the other fighters are obscure choices, including Chandelure, Weavile, and Braixen. In fact, I’m fairly confident that while most people know who Charizard and the other more famous Pokémon are, only serious Pokémon fans will know who the majority of the other playable characters are.
Pokkén Tournament tries to get around the small cast of fighters by allowing you to use support Pokémon once your support meter fills all the way up. These Pokémon are thrust into battle to perform a single attack, and then leave the arena immediately. More favourite characters appear as supports, like Eevee and Lapras. There are fifteen pairs of support Pokémon, but with the franchise now containing over 700 Pokémon in all, the list of fighters and supporters still seems rather small.
Moving on to the gameplay, the actual fights are fast and don’t last very long at all. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, as it keeps the pace of the game going smoothly. You begin each match fighting in a 3D circle or oval shaped area, but the perspective changes from the 3D arena mode to a more classic 2D side view very often. You can trigger the perspective changes with various attacks, and the moves that each Pokémon can perform changes depending on which perspective you are currently in. This is a good idea on paper as it provides varied gameplay and a unique challenge, but it isn’t executed very well in-game. I found the perspective changing so often that it was difficult just to keep track of what was on screen, and what my current moveset was.
Pokkén Tournament’s combat system is based on a conceptually simple triangle model: Grab moves beat counterattacks, counterattacks beat regular attacks, and regular attacks beat grab moves. Therefore, the game is essentially a fancy version of rock, paper, scissors. The irritating narrator even describes the game as such, saying that you need a fair bit of luck to win a battle. This is unfortunate as every fight turns into a giant button mash in order to see who can manage to randomly pick the right kind of attack to thwart their opponent. I found this every frustrating, especially when playing online against other people. Due to the chance-based combat, it is difficult to execute a real strategy or mount an effective counter strike. I was hoping for a more well-rounded experience from Pokkén Tournament.
I also found basic movement controls to be hard to manage as well. Control schemes felt very finicky, and I felt that my Pokémon was either way too fast (in the case of using a character like Pikachu) or exasperatingly slow (using a fighter like Charizard).
Despite the gameplay flaws, Pokkén Tournament is a pretty game. It is a lot of fun to see some of my favourite characters from childhood rendered as high definition, 3D models. Another entertaining aspect of Pokkén is each character’s respective finishing move. Like all fighting games, your special meter charges as you land attacks and as you are hit. Once full, each Pokémon can unleash a devastating finisher. For the Pokémon in the game who are capable of Mega Evolution, their finishing moves involve mega evolving to wipe out the competition, which is a lot of fun to watch, and more fun to control.
Fans have been asking for a game like Pokkén for years, but now that it’s finally here, it feels like what we’ve been given is a shallow experience. I can’t shake the feeling that the time and money spent making the game would have been better spent on a different Pokémon spin-off, like a new Pokémon Snap or Pokémon Stadium game. But it’s rare for Pokémon to appear on home consoles, so fans of the franchise will likely take what they can get.
Pokkén Tournament has a few good things going for it. It’s cool to see some of the franchise’s most memorable characters battle it out in a lightning-fast arena battle. But for those of us who just want an easy to pick up, fun to play Pokémon title, I can’t help feeling that Pokkén Tournament is a definite missed opportunity.
Good for fighting enthusiasts, less so for the average Pokémaniac.
Pokkén Tournament's few good moments aren't enough to make up for the sparse number of playable Pokémon and an oversimplified, luck-based combat system.