Although the core gameplay of Pokkén Tournament is solid and fun, the rest of the game isn’t fleshed out enough to be considered anything much above average.
Pokkén Tournament, as the name would suggest, mashes the gameplay elements of developer Namco Bandai’s Tekken with the world of Pokémon. Players battle 1v1 with other players or NPCs using one of the 16 Pokémon in the game. Another 30 Pokémon are included in “support sets,” and can lend their powers when appropriate.
A standard Pokkén battle starts in “field phase,” and players can move in any direction as they try to jockey for the best position from which to strike. Certain attacks (generally powerful hits) knock the battle into “duel phase,” and the camera angle snaps so that the players can only move back and forth as in a standard 2D fighter. Once again, certain attacks can snap the gameplay back into field phase, and the cycle continues until one player triumphs by depleting the other’s health meter.
Along the way, the player will fill two gauges: the support gauge and the synergy gauge. The first fills at a steady rate over time, and when it reaches its limit, the player can drain it to call in a helper for a moment. Maybe that means a Diglett will pop out of the ground knock the opponent sky high. Maybe an Emolga will swoop in and stun the foe for a moment. The player can choose before the match who he or she would like to call on when the gauge fills.
The synergy gauge fills as the player lands and blocks blows. Just like the Smash Ball in Super Smash Bros., filling the synergy gauge allows each Pokémon to trigger its own special, powerful move. Using synergy properly (or improperly) can turn the tide of an entire battle. Because some speedy Pokémon like Pikachu and Weavile can fill their gauges faster than bigger fighters like Suicune and Machamp, knowing when and how to use synergy is important.
In fact, there’s a surprising amount of strategy that can be put into Pokkén Tournament. At the same time, the controls are simple enough that somebody like me (who, of all genres, is least skilled at fighting games) can pick up a controller and have a blast.
There are 19 battle stages in the game, and the venues range from the inside of a volcano to an amusement park in a city. Each looks unique and has the music to match. All the stages are either circular or ovular, yet they vary in diameter and circumference. In effect, the small stages give a small advantage to speedy Pokémon that need to cover ground to the foe quickly while bigger arenas slightly favor Pokémon who utilize ranged attacks and can simply fire away from their own corners.
But in all, battles feel solid. Each Pokémon has a move set based on attacks they would use in the core Pokémon games. All the fighters feel balanced, and there are plenty of counters to any potentially effective attack. There doesn’t seem to be any one fighter that’s obnoxiously powerful, so any matchup can end up being very intense.
Matches are quick, frenzied affairs that require on-the-spot planning. Like a sped-up game of chess, a match in Pokkén requires the player to always be looking two steps ahead in order to land killer combos. The gameplay, at its core, is just solid, balanced fun.
But with over 700 Pokémon to choose from in the core series, I can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more available in Pokkén. Sixteen fighters is a small roster for any fighting game, much less one with such an expansive potential cast. Not to mention, of the ones that did make the cut, the list includes a dopey Chandelure, three fire types and Pikachu Libre, which might be one of the cheesiest ideas imaginable, if I might be so candid.
Nonetheless, players can duke it out against local foes or online foes. The online mode is a bit laggy at times but usually holds up well enough to fight fair battles. There is also a training area and a hub where the player can customize his or her character, swap out Pokémon and support sets and more. But the core of the gameplay comes in the campaign mode in which the player takes his or her character/Pokémon duo through the leagues to the very top.
Each league features dozens of trainers, and at the very top sits a leader that must be defeated before moving onto the next league. As the player trains his or her Pokémon, it will level up, and the player can assign skill points to its attributes.
There is also a secondary storyline within the campaign that intersects with the player’s quest for greatness. It mixes up the action very well in the first half of the campaign mode but is neatly wrapped up about halfway through the campaign. This unfortunately leaves the second half as quite a grind: fight in a batch of five matches, see how the results change your rank, advance to the league tournament, beat the league leader, advance to the next league and repeat.
The player can essentially take one powerful Pokémon or two semi-powerful ones through the campaign if they’re leveled evenly. In my case, I made the mistake of leveling my Weavile to only about level 20 by the time my Suicune was level 55. As a result, Weavile was useless in the latter half of the game, and grinding him to a higher level would have taken hours. Fighting through dozens of matches as a single Pokémon (my Suicune, who after 107 battles became a level 81 beast) becomes rather monotonous, which is unfortunate. It hinders the player from testing other Pokémon through the game’s bulk.
And although the story itself is more interesting than I was expecting from a fighting game, the voice acting is rather horrendous. Almost all the lines feel forced and unnatural. It was clear that each actor was reading from a script: they never got into character, which was obvious from the pacing and tones of their lines. Not to mention, the player’s “mentor” pulls from her miniscule bank of lines over and over as she tries to “encourage” the player between matches, and there is no way to shut her up. Maybe her constant talking wouldn’t be so bad if she had more lines, but the player will hear them all multiple times within the first hour.
As a whole, Pokkén Tournament is a mixed bag. On one hand, the core gameplay is incredibly solid and a ton of fun. The arenas are beautiful and varied. But on the other hand, the campaign mode is only fun for the first half and becomes rather grindy in the second half. The voice acting is abysmal most of the time and the roster is a bit small.
Pokkén Tournament certainly has a more niche audience than the classic Nintendo brawler Super Smash Bros., and it shows. Although some will find plenty to enjoy thanks to Pokkén’s solid gameplay, many will lose interest due to its lack of content outside the core concept.