Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Dark Souls III - Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

From the opening title screen of Dark Souls III this is a game that makes it abundantly clear that it's the last in a series. The (incredible) booming orchestral track by Yuka Kitamura is a stark contrast to the gentle melody that's played at the beginning of the previous games.

And despite having nary a true cut-scene, the game manages to make itself feel like the last of its kind, a culmination of the entire series of 'Souls games dating back to 2009.

For veterans of the series up until this point, you're in familiar territory. After an opening cinematic detailing the game's major bosses, your character is dredged up from a coffin and left to begin their epic quest.

In terms of minute to minute gameplay, things remain generally the same. The somewhat wayward design choices from the previous instalment have been jettisoned; gone are the horrible life gems and other non-Estus healing items that otherwise spoiled the simple design of the original Dark Souls. Likewise, the abstract, and poorly explained adaptibility stat has been completely removed, meaning all characters now have the same quality of roll that's only altered by equipment load.

By far the biggest alteration this time is the change to the magic system. Rather than opt for the charges that the other two Dark Souls games have used, Dark Souls III goes further back, bringing back the magic bar familiar to Demon's Souls players and meshing it with the Estus system.

Magic has always been a somewhat tricky element for the series to balance. Long range magic attacks have typically been able to abuse enemies' artificial intelligence and pathfinding abilities, chipping away at them from afar so that you rarely have to engage in close combat. It's a cowardly way to play perhaps, but it's arguably testament to the series' incredible depth that so many different build options are genuinely viable.

With Dark Souls III, FromSoftware attempt to rectify this imbalance with the adjustments to the magic system. Characters need to invest more heavily into their magic bar to regularly rely on their spell-casting (it's all governed by the Attunement stat) and restoring your MP relies on taking a swig from an Ashen Estus flask.

The Ashen Estus is such an ingenious and simple addition that it's baffling that it wasn't introduced sooner. Simply put, characters have a number of Estus Flasks that can be divvied up between regular Estus to heal you, and Ashen Estus for restoring MP. It creates a unique level of strategic decision making as a spell-caster, weighing up how much of each that you require. Each extra Ashen Estus means one less healing charge you'll have access to, adding an interesting risk versus reward mechanic.

Non-magic fighters aren't left out in the cold either. The new weapon arts that each weapon possesses also drain your magic bar, meaning that some characters that never wield a catalyst or talisman will still find themselves dropping a few points into Attunement.

It all makes for a game that seems keen to broaden even further the variety of builds available for both the core game and player-versus-player encounters. Each weapon art can vary from regular swords having a shield breaking attack, through to axes that typically grant a temporary attack buff.

The core combat has been tweaked to gently encourage these new strategies. Enemies on the whole are simultaneously far more aggressive and much more defensive than in previous instalments. Knights will typically hold up their guard and wait for you to make the first move, or throw out a canny sidewards shield-bash to stop players from simply kiting around for a back-stab.
Likewise, Bloodborne's influence can be felt in many of the larger monsters, with lunging attacks, aggressive attack strings and even grabs to stop players from remaining completely passive.

The bosses have undergone a similar transformation. Dark Souls II suffered from far too many “big dude with hand weapon” types, devolving many encounters into simply utilizing the same rote strategy. Dark Souls III upends this with more variety, from boss spell-casters, through to several that play out more like puzzles. If there's one niggle it's that the Bloodborne “every boss is essentially a dog” problem hasn't quite been fixed, many of the later encounters feel remarkably similar to one another, with several being a large four-legged enemy wielding a hand weapon or two and armed with a similar move set.

The guiding principle of many of the combat encounters seems to be to reduce the importance of shields as much as possible, again,  reducing the reliance on passive and reactive play. During many boss encounters I found myself simply lugging the hunk of metal onto my characters back and taking them on whilst two-handing my weapon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment from Dark Souls III is the shocking level of familiarity. Castle level with dragon, swamp, skeleton crypt, prison. Many of the game's locations have been seen and its hard to shake the sense that you've played whole thing before, albeit with a few design tweaks.

That's not altogether surprising, this is the fifth instalment in the series in the space of around seven years and you can't help but get the sense that the creative potential of the series is running dry. It's perhaps a little churlish to complain, after all it's still very good, but there's no denying that this is a game that sometimes struggles to come up with new ideas and instead dregs up the same concepts all over again.

Familiarity is almost anathema to the whole theme of Dark Souls, a series that at its heart is about making the player both immersed and oppressed in its atmosphere. So when the game reintroduces NPCs and environments that we've seen before, albeit slightly differently, there's a level of disappointment. It gets worse when the game drops little fan service moments into the game, almost banking on series nostalgia to carry it somewhat. That was perhaps understandable for Dark Souls II which lacked Miyazaki's direction, but here it seems completely unnecessary.

It's a game that constantly feels as if its building up to catch you unawares but that moment never comes.

Exploration is much more linear this time around, too. Gone is the Metroidvania of Dark Souls or the wheel-and-spoke level design of Demon's Souls. In its place is a game that has you going from point A to point B with a number of diversions and optional areas. Each individual zone has plenty to explore and loops around on itself, but the game world as a whole lacks the intricate structure that earlier instalments did.

Dark Souls III is a fascinating game and a suitable conclusion to the series. Its depth is still absurd and its core gameplay loop is so incredibly fun and well designed that it'll still likely be one of the best releases of the year. Yet, you can't help escape the sense that this is a series that's buckling under the weight of its own success. Rather than create something new, it doubles down on what worked last time, invoking fan service and “Praise the Sun!” memes to hide the cracks in its armour.

It's a safe sequel in other words, which is not something you'd expect from a 'Souls title. It's great in its own right, certainly, but it's hard to shake a slight air of disappointment. All fires eventually fade, that's what this series has taught us; better for it to end on a relative high note than be butchered by more unnecessary sequels.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Dark Souls - Retrospective Review [Part 1]

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: PS3, 360, PC 

Dark Souls is arguably the most important 'Souls game (and I'm including Bloodborne here) primarily because it was most players first experience with the series. It's widely regarded as being the “best” in the series as a whole, primarily because of its mechanical changes/improvements on Demon's Souls. It took its predecessors formula, tweaked it and then built upon it.

Just as Demon's Souls was a successor to the King's Field series, Dark Souls is part successor and part sequel. Dark Souls begins with an almost identical start to Demon's Souls, with the player locked away in a grim castle or dungeon that they must explore. Both beginning levels give you the same rudimentary tutorial and do so through almost identical game mechanics, rather than stopping the player and doling out instructions equivalent to bland exposition. Moreover, both beginning levels end with a very similar boss encounter; a large monster with a club that's intimidating, but, once you've got to grasp with the core combat system, is actually not all that difficult.

And that's arguably the best way to look at Dark Souls as both successor and sequel. It improves upon the mechanics of Demon's Souls, but it also wants to experiment and do its own thing. Miyazaki and his team didn't create a straightforward follow-up to their previous success but rather a game that simultaneously stands on its own and comments on the previous title.

This idea extends to the game's story and tone. The portentous opening is, in story terms, completely separate from the events of Demon's Souls, but still possesses the same unique blend of dark, somewhat Gothic style of fantasy that melds both Eastern and Western sensibilities. It's only when you finish the tutorial section of game that you realize what's so different this time around.

The level design of Dark Souls is perhaps the biggest diversion from the previous game in the series. Gone are the isolated levels and in their place is an intricately designed world that operates like a gigantic puzzle. There's no longer a wheel-and-spoke structure to follow – progress through one level open up a new level – but a coherent world that the player must navigate.

The “Metroidvania” design of Dark Souls is easily one of its most compelling features. This is seen in the game's first real area, Undead Burg, a dilapidated town that's seemingly filled with nothing but animated corpses. As you navigate through the burg you realize just how interconnected the whole level is. Get so far and you'll knock down a ladder, opening up another path to the bonfire, which operates as a respawn point. Find a key later on and a locked door from earlier (which you'll have passed countless times) will open up a different part of the level.

It's a very “layered” game space. Areas don't just open up in a “go down the left path, now down the right path” but in a much more organic fashion. It gives the sense of a real place as opposed to a generic level.

The entire world of Dark Souls operates in much the same way. For a seasoned player, there's numerous different routes through the game's challenges. At the beginning of the game you're asked to select a starting gift, and by far the most useful is the Master Key, which allows the player to unlock a number of doors right from the get go.

It might be the best gift technically, but it's a credit to the depth of Dark Souls that it's also the worst possible choice a new player could make. The Master Key will make your blind experience of Dark Souls utterly miserable, as you wander around locations getting mauled by things you have no skill or equipment to overcome. Yet, this is what makes it so fascinating, FromSoftware were brave allowing players to wander into areas they weren't (necessarily) ready for yet and it's an aspect of the 'Souls experience that's utterly unique to Dark Souls. Demon's Souls doesn't quite possess this aspect given its structure, and neither does Dark Souls II.

I'd argue it's the game's layout that makes it unbelievably addictive to speed run. Watching speed runs of various games can be fun, but with Dark Souls each run is like an entirely different game. Each build of a character alters both the play style (what your character is equipped with) and what order you have to navigate the game's areas (in order to get the equipment your build requires for the run), meaning each playthrough can be radically different from one another.

Dark Souls & Survival Horror

I wrote an article a few years back pointing out that Dark Souls, and the entire series, has a surprising amount of mechanical and thematic similarity to traditional survival horror games.

Along with the Metroidvania level design, Dark Souls effectively resurrects a collection of older game mechanics that have long since been put by the wayside. The series as a whole does this. In my Demon's Souls retrospective I talked about how the combat of the 'Souls games is akin to a fighting game. I won't repeat what I wrote there but suffice to say it has a distinct rhythm and pacing similar to those types of games. Something happens; a monster launches a certain attack for example, and the player responds. Respond correctly and you create yourself an opening to counter-attack, fail to respond with the correct action, be it blocking or dodging, and you take damage.

With the introduction of the bonfire system Dark Souls also sets out to co-opt mechanics from traditional survival horror games. Throughout Dark Souls your minute to minute goal is finding bonfires. Granted, the real objective might be to defeat a particular boss, or get through an area, but on the whole your entire progress is dictated on:

A). Where's the bonfire that you're spawning from?

B). Where's the next bonfire (or shortcut) that I'll be getting access to?

Bonfires in Dark Souls are where everything happens. Not only are they thematically intrinsic to the story that's being told, they're also important to you as a game device. Primarily, they are there to level up your character, with each trip out netting you a bunch of souls that you'll only usually be able to cash in when you reach another bonfire and start levelling up.

Secondly, they restore your Estus Flasks. The Estus Flask system is by far one of the best twist that Dark Souls provides on its predecessors gameplay. In Dark Souls, your only source of healing is how many Estus charges you have left. While you've got plenty you can trek along. Start running low and you have to begin thinking more cautiously.

It allows the player to plan out their resources from point to point and dovetails perfectly with the game's emphasis on navigation and exploration. Journeying forth from a bonfire means taking stock of your supplies, and the Estus Flask sums this concept up perfectly. Demon's Souls had various healing resources, and your supplies would dwindle and restock as you played through the game. There's a lack of consistency however, with this approach, with players capable of grinding for additional items to artificially deflate the difficulty of various sections, reducing the game's internal consistency. With the Estus Flasks however, every journey from a bonfire through a particular route will give you the exact same amount of healing resources.

What's funny is that, when you dig deep into this “stock up, find next bonfire” loop of gameplay, you find that's it's not all that different from what the early Resident Evil games did.

In Resident Evil your primary challenge isn't the zombies. Granted, they're a threat; an obstacle that you have to work your way around. Yet, your main goal is learning to navigate the mansion, or, in the case of the sequel, the police station. Just like with Dark Souls you're rewarded for your ability to internalise your surroundings and learn how to get from A to B more efficiently. And, just like Dark Souls, your point-to-point treks around the area are dictated by how soon you can reach the next item box.

Both games place limitations on how much healing (in other words, mistakes), the player can incur. In Dark Souls this is done through the Estus Flask, in Resident Evil it's achieved through limiting the number of healing items you can carry at one time. Throughout Resident Evil, you'll have more herbs and first-aid sprays than you do inventory slots, but that doesn't make the game much easier when there's still a limit to the number that you can take with you.

In short the way that the Estus Flask mechanic works with the game's exploration is one of Dark Souls crowning achievements. None of the 'Souls games, including Demon's Souls, does this as well. In fact, if there's one thing that should have been changed in Dark Souls II it was the way that life gems and the changes to the Estus Flask were implemented. But that's all for another time...

I should stress that I'm not saying that Dark Souls is technically a survival horror game in that way that Resident Evil and Silent Hill are, but rather that it utilizes some of the mechanics of the genre and weaves them into its overall game design. I'd go as far to say that what has made the 'Souls series so popular for many video game fans is that it has resurrected, tweaked and implemented many classic gameplay aspects that so many modern games seem unable or unwilling to experiment with.

Continued in Part 2

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Quantum Break - Review

Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One (version played), PC

On the surface, Quantum Break is exactly what you expect from the studio that also worked on the first two Max Payne games, along with Alan Wake. In short, it's a third-person shooter, but one that attempts to place equal emphasis on its narrative and writing.

It's clear that Remedy Entertainment have effectively become Microsoft's attempt at an answer to Naughty Dog. There's no shortage of ideas in Quantum Break, just as Max Payne and Alan Wake took typical genre conceits, crime noir and horror respectively, and tied them to story-driven gameplay, so too does Quantum Break with its time-hopping science fiction plot.

Remedy leverage time travel as both the core focus of the story and the gameplay. You play as Jack Joyce, who, along with his brother and best friend, find themselves facing the end of the world (or the end of time, to be precise) following a time travel experiment gone horribly wrong.

In gameplay terms this means that Jack gets endowed with time travel powers. Well...I say time travel powers but it's more along the lines of “Generic Superhero Kit”. Quantum Break might be about time, but in gameplay terms these powers could be lifted from just about any game in recent years. There's the “time bubble” that operates like a grenade, a super fast dash with a touch of bullet-time, and a shield that stops incoming projectiles.

Straight from the get go it creates the impression that this was a game where the story was created first and the gameplay second. Gameplay segments in Quantum Break feel like filler before the next chunk of cut-scenes than they do the meat of the game. Blasting enemies is fun and all, but, when the same variety of grunts are still attacking you five hours later the enjoyment begins to quickly fade.

Power-ups dot the five chapter's levels and allow you to upgrade each of Jack's powers, yet, even they manage to be placed practically straight in front of your face, with minimal exploration required. This is a game that's shuttling you along on such a narrow track that it doesn't have the time to even disguise its linear “ghost-train” structure.

Of course, the answer to this complaint is that Quantum Break is about its story, and, in a sense it is. Once again, Remedy aren't ones to simply do what's already been done.

The gimmick here is that four TV show episodes are interspersed between the game's chapters, each around thirty minutes long. Moreover, your decisions in game result in changes to the show that you watch. It's an interesting concept for sure, and Remedy have always had a bizarre connection to TV in their games (remember the Twilight Zone-style episodes in Alan Wake?) yet the overall execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The cast certainly have an impressive collection of resumes; Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan and Aiden Gillen are all good actors with solid “geek cred” appeal. Yet, they're wasted on a plot that goes nowhere and is filled with bland exposition at the expense of crafting likeable characters.

Worse still, the TV show suffers from a strained budget, with glossy shots of people walking down corridors comprising most of each episode's run time. In theory it provides a side story that dovetails with the game's plot, but in practise its a boring piece of filler that only has a semblance of coherency when experienced alongside the actual game. There's no sense in watching the show if you haven't played the game.

This then makes you ask why the game needed live action episodes in the first place. In the mid-90s, when cheesy, FMV-driven adventure games were in their prime, they were primarily used as necessary evil for the limited visuals of the time. Now, in 2016 many game's arguably look better than many films/TV shows, sometimes for a considerably lower budget. Simply put, the live action sequences are not only poorly written and poorly acted, worse, they're redundant.

Even the game's choices are handled in a clunky manner. Each episode will cut to Aiden Gillen's character, ostensibly the game's primary villain, who'll then have to make a choice about how he handles events. Given his time-travel powers however, he has full knowledge of how each binary choice will pan out, removing any tension that would otherwise be put on the player.

Other moments suffer from rushed or sloppy execution. A choice I made early on lead to a character surviving (the other choice having been to kill her). This resulted in the woman turning up throughout several other levels only to stand awkwardly outside of rooms, with a glassy-eyed stare and barely a line of dialogue to spout.

Likewise, one episode has Jack making his way along a drawbridge whilst time begins to stop and start around him. Visually, it's rather impressive, and the section has Jack trying to avoid chunks of debris that are only intermittently obeying the laws of gravity. During the episode's climax he goes crashing into the water as time re-asserts itself...only to hard-cut to several hours later where he's suddenly fine and in a completely different location.

Numerous moments throughout the game are like this, with various story beats feeling rushed or missing entirely. Characters are barely introduced, thinly sketched and given barely any emotional connection, but great effort is spent spewing forth reams of exposition and boring techno-babble that, without proper context and pacing, struggles to make much sense or give you a big enough reason to care.

Quantum Break is in many respects frustrating because it's a creative misfire rather than an outright bad game. There's oodles of ambition here. With a bit more love and attention the game's combat could have made for a fun superhero game, with the bullet time dashing being a natural evolution of the studio's previous work on Max Payne.

Just like the mad scientists that are at the heart of the game's story, Quantum Break is a collection of faulty designs and overreaching ambition. None of the game's three core elements, the third-person shooting, the TV show, or the overarching story are enough to get excited about, and, when isolated from one another, all three begin to look anaemic and woefully underdeveloped.

Ironically, with more time, and a bit more focus, this could have been a fun story driven successor to Alan Wake. As it stands however, it's clunky, banal and, quite frankly, a bore to play through.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Evil Within - Review

Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One (version played), PC, 360, PS3

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

Credit where credit's due, The Evil Within doesn't mess around. After a ten minute opening, you're hung up in an what appears to be a slaughterhouse, chased by what might as well be Leatherface, and then dunked in a vat of blood and guts as if you're in some kind of twisted game show. It ensures that the game's Japanese title, Psycho Break, makes a lot more sense.

At its core The Evil Within is a blend of classic Resident Evil 4 shooting, with a more modern stealth twist that's come about since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Bullets are relatively scarce, and you'll not always have enough ammunition to take down every last enemy, instead having to rely on nearby traps and stealth kills to take out foes.

When it hits the right mark, these two seemingly contradictory game systems; the stealth and the third-person shooting, help reinforce one another. Hiding under a bed might help you get the drop on an enemy, saving bullets for a more tricky encounter later on. The trap system too, is a welcome addition. Bombs and tripwire dot many locations, forcing you to slow down and take each area at a more languid pace. Of course, those same traps can be turned on the game's monsters, encouraging players to utilise the entire environment. Some zombies won't even be awake when you first encounter them, enabling you to set them on fire with a match before they even become a threat.

The game's plot allows it to get away with plenty of environmental shifts, and it's rare for any two levels to be the same. You play as Sebastian Costellanos, a police detective who's called to investigate a local mental asylum only to end up in a twisted, surreal nightmare. As a story it's a shlocky, pulpy mess, but remains enjoyable enough to begin with, thanks to the surreal imagery and general "what the hell is happening" tone.

The opening chapters heavily reference the start of Resident Evil 4, with an entire village segment being very familiar. It's not the only influence that Shinji Mikami and his team draw on though. The game's general weirdness calls to mind Silent Hill; one boss, a hulking safe-headed creature wielding a hatchet, is a huge nod to Pyramid Head, whilst saving requires you enter mirrors and emerge in a rundown mental ward, where a mysterious nurse lets you save your game, dipping slightly into Deadly Premonition territory.

When The Evil Within just goes off the rails and does its own thing, it's at its best. Whilst the imagery and story are simply weird, it's all held in check by a surprisingly robust set of combat mechanics that let you play the way you want.  The introduction of the Agony Crossbow early on gives you plenty more ways to handle foes, with different bolts providing various effects. There's the standard harpoon bolt for dealing heavy damage, along with a flash bolt, that, whilst harmless, will stun enemies for short time, making them vulnerable to close-combat kills, along with several others that are drip-fed to you across the course of the game, and more can be crafted with parts you scrounge up.

Unfortunately, despite a strong opening, things do begin to sag somewhat around the halfway mark. The Evil Within is a lengthy game, clocking in at around 15 hours in total, especially if you take your time to root around areas, and there's the impression that ideas began to run dry, with the latter segments begin to feel like weak reruns of Resident Evil 4.

There's a section where you're stuck in a cart, forced to shoot enemies on either side, there's a section where you're required to provide cover with a sniper rifle, and so on. Whilst the opening five hours or so feel more like Resi 2.0; indebted to that game, but building on its core design, the latter parts appear stuck in that games shadow, repeating its standout moments but to lesser effect.

The stealth also peters out later on, being replaced with straight-up shootouts, only to be rapidly shoved back in with the introduction of insta-kill enemies. It's a clunky way to enforce your mechanics and makes for some frustrating progression. In fact, it's almost as if the last seven or so hours were made by a completely different team. Whereas the first half goes for a creepy atmosphere and Saw-style splatterpunk, the latter half seems happy with drab, post-apocalyptic city environments which play out more like a dull version of The Last of Us.

It's a shame too because occasionally that blast of fun will creep back into the game when you're least expecting it. Just as the game seems to have run out of ideas, it'll stick you in a room with a weird carnival death trap, forcing you to fight enemies whilst also dodging rusty blades swing around the room.

Still, this doesn't excuse the game's poor ending. Not only does the plot descend into nothingness, it also comes across as a giant piece of sequel-bait, more interested in setting up the next game than providing any sense of conclusion. Worse still though, is the game's final boss fight, which throws everything interesting out the window and turns everything into a painfully dull action game.

The Evil Within has so much going on it doesn't seem to be able to handle it all. As a survival horror game, it runs like a "Greatest Hits" title: taking elements from Silent Hill to Forbidden Siren. Whilst it does have some interesting ideas of its own it seems trapped within the old gameplay formula of Resident Evil 4, scuttling back to it whenever it doesn't know what to do next.

For a while The Evil Within is good, really good, in fact. That it trips up and doesn't know where to go. It's certainly full of interesting ideas, it's just not sure how to handle all of them.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Pokken Tournament - Review

Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: The Pokemon Company
Platforms: Wii U 

While we might never get Tekken X Street Fighter, at least we can say we got Tekken X Pokemon. Pokken Tournament reads like a crossover gone horribly wrong, and it certainly could have, the more competitive-oriented Tekken doesn't necessarily gel with the more widely loved Pokemon titles.

Yet, Bandai Namco make this bizarre marriage work. Moreover, the game plays like an eclectic mish-mash of practically every fighting game from the past ten years or so. Battles flip between 3D arena fights that call to mind the more casual-friendly Naruto games and conventional 2D scraps that play like a simpler version of Street Fighter. It's in the gaps between these two types of gameplay that the Tekken influence makes itself known. The juggles and wall-splats are definitely more in the realm of Bandai Namco's fighter, and they fit surprisingly well into Pokken Tournament's strategic breadth.

All of these influences and mechanics could have made for an unwieldy and cumbersome game; too complicated for the Poke-Fans whilst too simplistic for the fighting game nut. Instead Pokken Tournament nails the accessibility-to-depth balance just about perfectly; engaging casual brawlers, whilst ensuring there's a meaningful system underlying everything.

Combat aligns itself around a typical rock-paper-scissors structure. Normal attacks beat out throws, whilst counter-attacks beat out normal attacks, and throws are there to handle both counter-attacks and opponents that are blocking too often. It makes for a simple but engaging system that the game's tutorial mode carefully and concisely lays out.

This is all then layered up with a collection of different attacks to knock seven shades out of one another. Each Pokemon has their own unique attacks, and each conforms to a vaguely generalized playstyle (Standard, Technical, Power or Speed). Many moves however, whilst possessing different effects from monster to monster, are universal across the cast. For example, each 'Mon gets a homing attack mapped to X, Y attacks combo into themselves, whilst almost every “up+y” is an anti-air.

Of course the game's character roster is arguably the biggest draw of a game like this. Pokemon: The Fighting Game might be a bizarre sell but there's no denying that Nintendo's monster designs lend themselves perfectly to this kind of game. And Bandai Namco have done a solid job of rounding out the roster, cherry-picking favourites from all six generations of the core games. There's the obvious inclusions; Pikachu and Charizard, along with the more interesting choices such as Chandeleure and Weavile.

What makes it all the more impressive however is how the developers have pinned down the character of each Pokemon both in terms of their appearance and personality but also in how they play. Weavile is a relentless speedy rushdown character that can cancel his Agility into various attacks (all the signature moves in the game are named after abilities from the main series). Machamp is the slow, ponderous grappler that works his way in close for a command grab. Gengar meanwhile, plays like Gengar should, like a totally tricky bastard.

Despite the relatively slim roster, especially by modern fighting game standards, Bandai Namco leverage the game's mechanics in order to increase the number of Pokemon in the game. Before each match you're able to select a support Pokemon alongside your main fighter. These support characters can then be called in during a fight and provide a variety of effects. Emolga, for instance, hits the opponent from long-range and inflicts a speed debuff, whilst a support like Togekiss provides a positive benefit to your own character.

It adds another strategic wrinkle to a game that already provides plenty to think about. Perhaps what's most impressive however, is how the game manages to get the 3D/2D hybrid fighting to work without the whole thing becoming messy and convoluted.

The switch between 3D and 2D itself becomes part of the game's strategy. Switching from Field Phase (the 3D fighting) to Duel Phase (the 2D fighting) and back again allows the player doing the attacking to wipe away additional health from the opponent. Many attacks inflict temporary damage to your opponent's health bar that's only completely removed once you flip phases. It's a smart mechanic that ensures that players are encouraged to think offensively and have a proactive game plan, regardless of character. Likewise, it ensures that Pokemon that perform better in one phase still have to keep switching phases.

As an arcade port, Bandai Namco have done a pretty decent job of adding additional content for the console release. There's a general story mode which is essentially just fighting through multiple leagues before ranking up into a new (and more challenging) tournament. The AI is absurdly easy to begin with, and if there's one criticism to be had it's that the game takes too long to mount any kind of challenge, and even then the AI remains something of a pushover. This is perhaps understandable given the Pokemon series popularity amongst younger players, but the fact that you have to bore your way through so many fights before getting to a genuinely interesting match is a bit frustrating.

Fortunately, the online modes make up for this. After Street Fighter V showed how an otherwise great game could be ruined by rushed technical aspects, Pokken Tournament manages to avoid these disappointments. Matches come thick and fast, whether you opt for ranked matches or casual bouts. Should a match not be available, the game will quickly boot up an AI opponent until one is. And when you're in a match, things will almost always run smoothly. After over a week of online matches I encountered only two instances of lag.

What Pokken Tournament manages to get more than anything however, is fun. It's enjoyable to play, both as a fighting game and as a Pokemon game. What could have been a horrible mess of a crossover is instead a great game that'll delight Nintendo and Pokemon fans whilst also entertaining the more committed fighting game enthusiast. It might not tear people away from their Street Fighter and Guilty Gear, but it'd be unfair to brush Pokken Tournament off as just a bit of fan service.

In fact, I'd go as far to say that it's the best game I've had the pleasure of playing so far this year. It's not perfect, the characters could perhaps do with a few rebalances (cough...Pikachu...cough) and its single player content is lacking a real challenge, but, despite these issues, it understands what makes Pokemon enjoyable.

It's somewhat bittersweet given that the Wii U is continuing to struggle worldwide (despite a surge in popularity in Japan). However the Wii U's future ends up, it's games like Pokken Tournament, that'll prove that it wasn't bereft of some great releases.