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.


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