Pokemon has built itself up to be quite the brand. Gamers know well of the monster-battling, collecting, and trading of the series' mainline games. However, that's always been turn-based. We haven't had a full-fledged fighter that pits Pokemon against Pokemon unless you have a Pokemon-themed match in Super Smash Bros. Regardless, the development body behind the immensely popular Tekken series and The Pokemon Company have teamed up together to present Pokken Tournament, a 3D fighter with plenty of depth to bring to fans of both Pokemon and fighting games. Though lacking in combatants and slightly less in overall content, this fighter is definitely worth checking out.
Right away, the biggest complaint I have towards Pokken Tournament is that with over 700 Pokemon to choose from, really only a few dozen are truly spotlighted, whether they be playable combatants or utilized in a support fashion. Obviously asking for all 700 or so Pokemon to be featured in the game would be a herculean and quite impossible task, but still, when you have 700 Pokemon to choose from, and your roster has two Pikachus and two Mewtwos (though with different costumes and move sets), you're not really using the amount of available Pokemon to the best of your ability. Still, each Pokemon that is playable in the game has their own feel to them in both controls and the types of moves they can unleash on opponents. This is terrific, as you definitely need to get used to and learn each character if you want to succeed in battle.
At the start of each battle, you choose from a duo of support Pokemon to help you out. As you fight, a support gauge fills, and depending on the Pokemon you choose to, well, support you, the gauge fills up a different speed. Pressing the L button brings in your support Pokemon to do anything from attack your opponent with a leveled, airborne, or anti-air attack, heals you for a small or large amount, gives a negative status effect to your opponent, or boosts your own stats temporarily. Smart and strategic support Pokemon usage can be a defining characteristic between a surprising victory and a melancholy defeat.
As for Pokken Tournament itself, the game is a one-on-one fighter utilizing six unique inputs to carry out functions. There's buttons for close-range and long-range attacks, special moves, jumps, calling in supports, and blocking. There is a rock-paper-scissors metagame involved where counterattacks defeat normal attacks, normal attacks defeat grabs, and grabs defeat counterattacks. You press the Y and B buttons to attempt to grab a nearby opponent while pressing the X and A buttons performs a counterattack.
Pokken Tournament features a two phase battle system that frequently changes when you or your opponent connect with a devastating attack or combo. At the start of battle, the perspective is in a full view, allowing 360 degree movement. When a certain attack is made, that view changes to a side one, essentially emulating a 2D fighter, putting you and your opponent on the same plane. For this reason, two players battles locally are done with one player using one of the compatible controllers for the game (the specifically-made-for-Pokken Horii controller, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Classic Controller, the Wii Remote by its lonesome, and the Wii Remote + Nunchuk) and using the TV screen for their perspective on the battle while the other uses the Wii U GamePad and its screen to see their side of the combat zone.
As the best two-out-of-three battles rage on, your Pokemon's Synergy Gauge gathers power. When full, you can press both shoulder buttons in to become considerably faster and more powerful for a limited amount of time. While in this souped up form, you can perform a Synergy Burst that is a move that if it connects, it unleashes a massive blow or series of blows to your opponent's HP.
After each match, your Pokemon earns experience points that can be used to boost one of four stats with each level reached. The stats include maximum attack, defense, how long the Synergy Gauge boost stays in effect, and how quickly the support gauge fills up. In addition to experience points, you earn money in battles, used for outfitting your custom trainer with all sorts of unlockable items, from clothing to hats, scarves to hairstyles, and avatar backgrounds to custom titles like "Blaixen's Buddy" or "Narcissist".
The single player mode of Pokken Tournament has you being an up and comer going through the Ferrum League ranks. You select a partner Pokemon and three possible support Pokemon pairs, and participate in various leagues, each with a different number of combatants. For instance, the Red League, the first of a series of leagues to play through, has you starting at rank 30, and you take on opponents in bursts of five. Winning matches increases your rank while losing matches slows down your rise in the ranks. After arriving in the top eight, you enter a three round tournament to become that league's champion. After this, you take on the league's master for the right to move onto the next league, earning new support Pokemon and arenas for free battles in the process.
Along the way of (hopefully) succeeding in tournaments, you have various encounters with Shadow Mewtwo, a rogue Pokemon that is causing all sorts of havoc in the Ferrum Region. While the story is nowhere near complex or even that riveting, it's nice to have little story events intertwined with what can be seen as repetitive run and rise through the various leagues.
When the single player content isn't enough for you (I didn't even mention the super helpful training dojo, which teaches you the ins and outs of battle and helps you piece together destructive combos), there's always the online that allows you to partake in either friendly or ranked matches against players across the globe. While there's a total lack of a party system, ability to chat, or spectator mode, the actual netcode is nearly flawless, offering a smooth experience in nearly every match I played. Only on one occasion did the frame-rate stutter, which is mighty impressive.
Pokken Tournament is a delightful looking game. This is the first time Pokemon have been represented in high def, and this is one stupendous coming out party for Pokemon. The Pokemon models show off immaculate detail, from Blaziken's detailed fur to Garchomp's rough shark-like skin and fins. The backgrounds are full of impressive little details like in the Mystery Carnival stage, where a Pikachu in the background playfully chases a Pichu around in a circle while jack-o-lanterns in the distance bob up and down in midair. The amount of characters, both Pokemon and human, the environments and scenery are all mighty interesting to look at. It all runs at 60 frames per second unless you're playing local multiplayer, which cuts the frame-rate in half.
Meanwhile, the sound part of Pokken Tournament ranges from great to very poor. While the music is captivating enough, the very poor part comes from the voice acting, mainly your "helpful" adviser Nia, who talks over every match unless you lower how much advice she gives. However, you can't totally turn her off, so you'll have to stomach her sometimes unintentionally sarcastic "looks like my advice paid off" when you just lost the match.
As someone who is a casual fighting game fan, I found a lot to enjoy with Pokken Tournament, even long after I had completed the single player. With so many titles to unlock, Pokemon to learn the intricacies of and level up, and online battles to partake in, I see myself playing Pokken Tournament for a long time. It definitely feels like the type of fighter that a professional team who knows the genre well would make, and the lovely attention to detail shows that this same team is enamored by the source material and respects it. Pokken Tournament gets a hearty recommendation from yours truly. It's a game that despite lacking in overall combatants, offers something for the professional fighting game fan to the novice, and everyone in between.