When I was growing up, the concept of Pokemon directly interacting was never far from my mind. As I played through the often grindy aspects of the original games, I would imagine my Pokemon whirling through the air, charging thunderbolts, and moving about in a dynamic battle as they often did in the TV show. My 8-year-old mind could not quite grasp the hardware limitations that made my imagined battles impossible for the time being, but fortunately my 26-year-old mind doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.
Pokken Tournament is Bandai Namco’s take on a fighting game starring Pokemon which falls somewhere between Tekken, Street Fighter, and many other fighting games thrown into the mix. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a huge connoisseur of fighting games. My experience ranges from mashing random buttons on an arcade Soul Calibur machine, to occasionally watching Evo, to taking 5 hours learning how to combo into Sakura’s Ultra in Street Fighter IV. Part of what has always held me back from enjoying these games is the amount of skill involved to become decent at the game. I love watching people play them, but there’s always been a sharp learning curve that I can’t quite overcome. After a few hours with Pokken Tournament, it’s clear that this game is different.
Pokken Tournament is excessively user-friendly from the get go. The menus are simple, easy to read, and explained by a guide who might quickly outstay her welcome for older players (more on this later). Menus are divided into Local Battle, Online Battle, Ferrum League (single player mode), Single Battle against a CPU, and Practice. During my initial playthrough, I skipped the tutorial and went straight for the Ferrum League. Battles here were easy, if a bit grindy, and I tried to learn the ropes through a series of battles with NPCs. I imagine that the fights get harder as you progress through this mode, but I’ve had no trouble in any of the battles I’ve attempted so far.
This was not the case when I attempted an Online Battle, but through no fault of the game’s. There was no noticeable lag, and my battle loaded quickly and easily. However, I’m pretty sure the person on the other end spent most of the match laughing at me, as I barely made a dent in their HP bar. This might be where a case can be made for playing through the tutorial before tackling the challenges of the online world, but I digress.
If you fancy actually learning the game before hopping into an online battle, Pokken Tournament does an outstanding job of explaining game mechanics to a player new to the fighting game genre. The tutorial takes you through the various aspects of gameplay, from basic movement and phase shifting to putting it all together in an actual battle. As someone generally incapable of stringing combos together to throw my opponent off-guard, I found the game’s tutorial accessible and easy to understand– something a lot of these games lack.
Pokken Tournament also has something called an Action Dojo– a place where you can go through a Pokemon’s entire range of skills and combos. This was by far my favorite aspect of the tutorial section. Combos are displayed on the top of the screen, performed for you, and mapped out on the controller (although it favors the Wii U Gamepad–something I can’t see myself using to actually play the game). This setup makes it easy to understand what the game is asking of you, and rewarding to go through the actions required to execute a move. I found myself spending a lot of time in this mode, trying to master the basics of my chosen Pokemon. I haven’t mastered them yet, but I will say that I don’t think it will take me as long as most games in this genre do.
Part of Pokemon’s brand has always been its accessibility, and Pokken is no different. A helpful (but annoying) guide follows you throughout the game, giving you tips and coaching between the battle. For Pokemon’s younger audience, this might feel comforting, but as a grown woman, I was desperately looking for a way to turn the guide off. Never fear, there’s an option to completely switch the voice off (or to Japanese!) if you so choose. Still, it’s a nice touch for the younger or less easily annoyed audience.
On that note, Pokken spends just as much time catering to its younger audience as it does its diehard fans. Titles and comments are available, and you unlock more as you play. The titles can be acceptable, but my friend and I had a good laugh going through some of the cringe-worthy comments that pop up at the beginning of a battle. You can also win different hairstyles and clothing from battles, and buy them with the money you win in those battles. This is a fun side activity, as you see quite a lot of your avatar while playing. Ultimately, this is still a game targeted towards a younger audience, although I have no doubt that many grown people will find a way to play this competitively in the future (especially with the promise of its appearance at Evo 2016).
I don’t know enough about the genre to say this for certain, but Pokken Tournament does seem to leave the door open for something resembling competitive gameplay. The shifting between a 2D and 3D perspective leaves a lot of room open for zoning battles, and the use of supports throughout the fight points towards some of the mindgames and strategy seen in many similar games. The basics of the fighting game genre are all there, with grabs, heavy attacks, light attacks, and specials all playing their usual part. Will it require the lightning fast reflexes of a game like Street Fighter? Probably not, but for that I’m grateful. Pokken Tournament is an excellent entry point into the fighting game genre, and it’s the best I’ve felt about games like this in a long time. Maybe Pokken Tournament can even save me from my long-lived habit of button mashing through fighting games.
Ultimately, if you want to watch your favorite Pokemon finally brawl it out, or if you’re looking for a great entry point into the fighting game genre, pick up Pokken Tournament. Diehard fighting game fans won’t see it as flawless, but it’s a solid and enjoyable game appealing to both casual players and hardcore fans alike.