"Pokkén Tournament" Review (Wii U)
Nintendo in HD
I'm not the first person to sing the praises of Nintendo's HD era, and I won't be the last. The Wii U has proven time and again that Nintendo and (Namco by extension) that Nintendo looks great in HD. Pokkén looks fantastic and runs at a constant 60 frames per second, which is pretty much standard for any fighting game. The Pokémon designs are clearly done by Bandai-Namco, but the slight alterations made here and there are all well done. There's a bit more realism to these Pokémon, such as Suicune's fur being more clearly defined and Garchomp's muscle definition standing out more.
Stages and backgrounds are much less detailed—but no less nice to look at. The numerous stages all have tons going on the background and are even shaped differently which affects the way battles play out. Aesthetically Pokkén looks more like a fighting game than the typical RPG, which feels like it should go without saying, but this game still has its own style.
Pokkén looks great, and the Pokémon sound great, but where Pokkén fails aesthetically is its voice-acting. The game's main source of voice work is Nia, your adviser. She serves as your guide, and during story moments she's also the character surrogate, since you play a very silent protagonist. The problem here isn't necessarily Nia's frequent advice during battle, since you can set her to a lower setting, or turn her advice off altogether. The problem is the voice acting itself. Nia's inflections and line-reading are extremely stilted and wooden most of the time, and the obtusely written dialogue doesn't help. It's mostly inoffensive, but in the extensive single-player campaign, it gets annoying pretty quickly. Nia aside, the voice acting from other characters is also very hit or miss. There's some absolutely awful voice work from Travis, the first boss trainer you face in the story mode. His lines are all either slurred or rushed and it sounds terrible. Aside from that however the rest of the cast does a serviceable job and it doesn't hurt the game in the end.
A New Type of Fighter
Pokkén takes a little bit from each of Namco's other fighters, but it doesn't simply transplant any of those mechanics. Both Field mode and Duel mode draw inspiration from the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja games, Soul Calibur and of course, Tekken. The game's core fighting system and rock-paper-scissors style attack tree are different than those games almost entirely. Somehow, Pokkén still feels familiar though, the flow of combat, Hitstun, combos, and movement all recall those games at different times. Of course, the game was developed by Namco so this isn't surprising.
So what exactly makes Pokkén so different as a fighting game? Simply put, combat takes place in two different modes. Field mode is a free-roaming 3D arena mode similar to the Ultimate Ninja games but with more of an emphasis on landing a combo to change the mode from Field to Duel, depending on the character. Duel mode is more like a traditional 2D fighter, and your character's moveset changes to reflect that. Because the game requires you to learn two different movesets, executing your moves is fairly simple. You have a weak, heavy and special attack button in addition to a jump button, so combos are easy to input, but mastering your Pokémon's particular moveset and how to use those combos is the hard part.
As mentioned before, the game functions on a rock-paper-scissors battle system. What that boils down to is Counter Attacks (think focus attacks from Street Fighter 4) beat Normal Attacks, Normal Attacks beat grabs (command grabs as well) and grabs beat Counter Attacks. This might seem limited but having a dedicated counter attack to any of your opponent's moves makes fights a lot less one-sided. If your opponent likes using grabs, hit them with any attack to counter it and turn the tide in your favor. This is further helped by support Pokémon, which can attack your opponent, give them de-buffs or help out your Pokémon.
Another thing Pokkén adds is a leveling system. Every time you complete a match outside of training mode you'll gain experience points, and when you level up you gain a skill point. You can invest that point into one of four stats: Attack, Defense, Synergy and Strategy. Attack increases the damage you do, Defense increases how much damage you can take, Synergy increases how fast your Synergy gauge charges and Strategy decreases charge time for your support Pokémon. You can level up to 100 and if you invest all 100 points in one stat it gives you a 10% increase in that stat. This increase is active in every part of the game, even online matches. While this has drawn some controversy, it has yet to be proven whether or not this increase changes the game in any drastic way.
In this regard, you never feel like you're losing because your character is at a disadvantage. You always have an option against whatever your opponent brings. You'll have to be quick with your timing, though, since fights last anywhere from three to five minutes, on average.
The Thick of It
Once you learn the basics in the game's fairly lengthy tutorials, it's best to jump into Pokkén's single-player campaign, the Ferrum League. This mode has you facing off against AI trainers in sets of 5 battles to climb the ladder in each rank. Once you reach rank 8 or higher in your tier you'll enter an 8-person tournament and upon winning you'll face off against the League Leader, who you need to beat to advance to the next league. Every time you beat a leader you'll face off against Shadow Mewtwo but until you face him the third time you really don't stand a chance at beating him.
There are four leagues in the game: Green, Blue, Red, and Chroma. Once you beat the Red League leader you're forced to beat Shadow Mewtwo before progressing. Once you do you can take on the Chroma League, which the game bills as the best of the best trainers. If you beat this league you'll actually unlock a whole new league called the Iron League. This League features the game's toughest AI and is much longer than the previous leagues. Beating this only gets you a few clothing items to customize your character with, so there's no real reason to do it. Altogether, the Ferrum League will take you about 150-160 games to complete. Usually, a lengthy single-player mode is good for a fighting game, but Pokkén's roster of 16 characters (14 if you don't count both forms of Mewtwo) makes it feel repetitive after a few dozen matches. Once you get into the Iron League the AI becomes frustratingly difficult at times as well. Ferrum League is where you'll find the bulk of Pokkén's content if you're not interested in playing online, but it gets stale very quickly.
If the single player content isn't your thing, then you'll have just as good of a time playing online. Pokkén's online play is seamless. Whether Nintendo learned from the Smash Bros. online play or Namco is handling the netcode this time, Pokkén has some of, if not the best online play in a fighting game today. Even with a wireless connection I never experienced lag in any match out of dozens of matches.
This bodes well for the game's blossoming community. While it has no actual bearing on the quality of Pokkén as a game, the fighting game community has taken to this game quite well. The game's deep mechanics bolstering the simplistic surface-level play are balanced well enough for competitive play and if the first week after launch is any indication, there's a crowd gathering around this game that is excited to see it grow. Pokkén's appearance at EVO, the nation's largest fighting game tournament, later this year will more or less determine its fate as a competitive game. All signs point to it being successful, however, despite its simplicity and small roster. While the game does require some grinding, and the single-player is repetitive, there's no doubt that there's a great fighting game underneath it all. If you love Pokémon or want an entirely new fighting game experience, Pokkén is deserving of your time and dedication.