Beating Up Pokemon Has Never Been So Exhilarating
For years, perhaps decades at this point, children and adults alike have been crying out for Nintendo to make a Pokemon MMO or fighting game. Now 2016 has come, and Nintendo has finally graced us with what many have been begging for with Pokken Tournament, giving Bandai Namco the opportunity to reach fan’s high expectations. Fortunately, Bandai Namco has a great reputation for creating fighting games, what with the Tekken series and numerous other popular brawlers under their belt, and it clearly shows in Pokken. After having a bit of time in the Japanese arcades, Bandai and Nintendo ported the battling experience to the Nintendo’s Wii U.
Pokken Battles are extremely fast paced, where matches can be decided in mere moments. Each of the sixteen playable Pokemon move and play almost entirely uniquely, with some Pokemon focusing on quick slashes and dodging blows, such as Sceptile and Weavile, while others focus on massive but slow punches and throws, like Machamp and Chandelure. Choosing a set playstyle can be both fun and difficult, and in Pokken there seems to be no bad Pokemon in the roster. Every single combatant can hold their own, provided that the player focuses on what’s best. Every Pokemon also has a different ratio of Hit Points, so life can deplete differently depending on the opponent. It takes more blows to down a Garchomp than a Gardevoir, after all. Once the battle has heated up, each Pokemon can go into Synergy mode, which makes them immune to flinching from weak attacks and able to shoot off an extremely powerful move that can turn the tide in an instant. If you choose a Pokemon that can Mega Evolve in the main line games, you’re in luck, as that is the form they take once Synergy mode is unleashed – a nice touch for longtime fans.
One of the cooler things about Pokken is that you can be wailing on your opponent’s Charizard, knock them through the air, and the battle goes from a 3D perspective into a 2D fighting game. The mixture of the two styles forces players to switch up their battle play, and makes the game feel a bit more dynamic. Each Pokemon have different moves depending on what field the game is currently in as well. For example: Weavile can only use its devastating Ice Punch dual attack when the game is in the traditional side by side mechanic. The 3D to 2D shift may take some players a little bit of time to get used to if they primarily play only one set style, but Pokken mixes it up to where it feels necessary to use both, rather than one playing better than the other.
Another bit of strategy in Pokken Tournament comes from Support Pokemon. Every round you select from a duo of Pokemon that you can summon to help assist in various ways. A couple, like Cresselia and Espeon can heal some Hit Points, while others either raise attack and speed or outright attempt to damage the opponent. Before you begin a brawl with another combatant, the game allows you to select a duo from a group of three sets, making the choice before battle all the more appealing to fans. Every one of the myriad of Support Pokemon have a limit on when they can be used, like how Diglett can pop out of the ground at a much quicker rate than Reshiram shooting out a wave of flames.
Pokken Tournament shares being Nintendo’s finest work in terms of online play with Splatoon. Provided that you have relatively decent internet connection, battles in Pokken suffer hardly any lag, and play pretty seamlessly. Its pretty surprising, considering that many of Nintendo’s online games have abysmal lag, to the point of being unplayable. Only two of my ninety or so online matches had lag, and that was due to my living area hitting a brick wall on internet caps, and not the game’s fault at all. I lost track of time as I kept challenging different people to see just how good or bad I was at beating various Pokemon senseless.
Pokken Tournament has a pretty robust single player experience for those who want to test out their best moves before hopping online. After designing a basic and generic avatar, players are introduced to their advisor, Nia (more on her later), and can jump into a very in depth Training session, or jump into the game’s “Story”mode. Story in quotes, as Pokken Tournament’s is extremely barebones. Its pretty much an excuse to use the word “Tournament” in the title, as you beat a set of tournaments to become the very best. After you become number one in each league, a dark Mewtwo comes down to challenge the player to a tough match. After beating all the leagues, and felling Mewtwo multiple times, you unlock Mewtwo and Shadow Mewtwo and the story is done. All in all, the story is mostly there only so the player can take a small break in between matches and so you can unlock all of the stages and Support Pokemon sets.
Bandai Namco went all out when it comes to the music and stage design in Pokken Tournament. Each of Pokken stages has some battle intensive music, and not a single bad, or even mediocre song in the game to be seen. A few stages use remixes from the main games, and cranks them up to eleven. Some of the new songs are amazing to listen to, even after you put the game down. The track from the Magikarp’s Festival stage may be the best piece of music that I have heard in a game all year. As well, stages are vibrant, with many background Pokemon watching the battle, and living their lives, making each stage seem more alive than the actuality of the flat ovals that they are.
Now for the few gripes that Pokken Tournament has to show. Easily the most annoying thing in Pokken Tournament is the aforementioned Nia, who never shuts the hell up in battle. Every couple of seconds, she offers “helpful advice” such as “I usually just go with my gut” or “Your health is low!” and the like, none of which is actually helpful. She does have a use, in that in between rounds she will grant you a bonus, such as raising your synergy level or support Pokemon’s summoning gauge, but be sure to turn her to the lowest level of speaking, as her bored sounding voice actor will never quit speaking. Customizing your trainer is also a bit disappointing, as to win various outfits you either have to earn a truckful of money by battling, or hope to get lucky by using various amiibo to unlock them for free.
Probably one of Pokken Tournament’s biggest gripes, especially for fighting game buffs, is its local multiplayer. Unlike online play, due to the character’s portrait view during gameplay, Pokken Tournament goes from 60fps to 30, while the second player has to use the Wii U Gamepad as their own screen, while the other player has to use either the Wii U Pro Controller, or Pokken’s unique controller, both bought separately. As well, Pokken can only be played with its higher framerate in local battles by hooking up two Wii U’s and two televisions together, along with LAN cables and a router. I was unable to test this however, as it was convoluted and no one I knew had the time or effort to test this out. Pokken can certainly be enjoyed single player, or with another friend, though people who want to get in the competitive scene may have some trouble practicing for tournaments.
All in all, Pokken Tournament is a blast, and is one of the best games the Wii U has to offer. Fighting game fanatics, as well as mainline Pokemon fans alike should go out and purchase the game to see what all the fuss is about. It doesn’t hurt that Nintendo is trying to push Pokken Tournament into the competitive scene as well, with Pokken being one of the games showcased in EVO, probably the biggest fighting game tournament around, as well as allowing Pokken to join in the yearly Pokemon World Championships. If anime and video game conventions can handle the wonky hookup for the best frame rate, Pokken Tournament is sure to be a feature in those as well.
2016 is starting off to be a great year for Pokemon fans, and Pokken Tournament is a great way to celebrate the twenty years the series has been running.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Wii U (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Bandai Namco; Players: 1-2; Released: March 18, 2016; Genre: Fighting; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Pokken Tournament.