The fighting genre often feels like one of the most intimidating game types of all. Despite a relatively simple concept, deep mechanics, steep learning curves and intense competition can make fighting games feel nearly impenetrable to newcomers.
Pokkén Tournament is thankfully one of the most welcoming fighters in recent memory. Headlined by approachable mechanics and straightforward gameplay, Pokkén Tournament is an entertaining fighter that, while unlikely to satisfy hardcore fighting game fans, successfully retains the fun and spirit of the Pokémon series.
While Pokkén’s charming presentation should feel familiar to fans of the core Pokémon series, mechanically it could not be more different. New trainers still choose a partner Pokémon, enter Pokémon League competitions, and are approached by battle-ready strangers with silly, off-topic dialogue, but the similarities mostly end there. Pokkén ditches the turn-based rock-paper-scissors gameplay of Pokémon RPGs in favor of action-heavy close-combat. No longer restrained by type advantages, Pokkén offers a refreshing Pokémon beat-‘em-up that places more emphasis on brute strength and skill than tactics and strategy.
Part of what makes Pokkén stand out amongst other fighters despite its newcomer-friendly nature, is its unique approach to battling. Pokkén matches consist of two different phases, each with their own opportunity for strategy. Matches begin in the Field Phase, a three-dimensional match type with an over-the-shoulder camera where offensive maneuvers are usually driven by ranged attacks. Conversely, close-quarters strikes drive the Duel Phase, which is a 2D mode more akin to classic fighting games. These phases often alternate multiple times per fight, and every Pokémon is able to shift the paradigm by landing certain attacks. Finding the phase that suits your Pokémon’s play style is a strategy unto itself, and many matches often feel like an entertaining tug-of-war that switches back and forth as players compete for a more favorable advantage.
As intimidating as this all might sound, Pokkén is still highly inviting to new players thanks to a simple moveset. Every Pokémon comes with standard projectile attacks, close-range strikes, grabs and counters, and these basic moves become second nature after only a short time. More complex combos and chains are also available, but even these moves are executed with simple button combinations that shouldn’t be too off-putting for casual players. This streamlined setup admittedly caters more towards newcomers than competitive-minded fighting game fans, but Pokkén plays smoothly enough that there’s likely something here for players of all skill levels to enjoy.
One of Pokkén’s more exciting mechanics comes from each fighter’s Synergy Gauge and Burst Mode. Landing successful hits, and taking them from opponents, fills up your Pokémon’s gauge, which can be triggered to enter Burst Mode when filled. Entering Burst Mode temporarily gives your Pokémon stat buffs and is accompanied by a Pokémon Mega Evolution, when applicable to that character. More importantly, though, activating Burst Mode allows your Pokémon to use a Synergy Burst attack capable of massive damage. These moves are incredibly simple to pull off, and yet make for some of the most visually exciting combat animations in the entire game. These attacks are not only some of the most thrilling moments in all of Pokkén, they’re excellent ways of turning the tide in close matches.
Of course, a fighting game is only as good as its roster of characters, and Pokkén Tournament does not disappoint. Despite a relatively smaller selection of only 14 playable monsters, Pokkén still manages to accommodate an impressive range of play styles. Charizard and Machamp are painfully slow, but absolutely deadly at close range; Pikachu Libre is a smaller yet faster character that comes at the cost of limited defense; and Gengar is a trickier and more technical character that is comparatively more difficult to use, but much more deceptive to fight against. My personal favorite choice is Sceptile, as the giant gecko Pokémon boasts balanced stats, while utilizing a move set that excels at keeping opponents at a distance using projectile attacks and stage hazard traps. The roster feels pleasantly varied, and each character successfully manages to carve out their own niche role.
As great as the character selection is, though, Pokkén’s structure often discourages experimentation. Across all game modes, each Pokémon earns XP at the end of every fight, with stat increases rewarded for leveling up. This is a compelling mechanic that helps Pokkén retain themes from traditional Pokémon RPGs, and works well for the story mode, which consists of ranking up in Pokémon League competitions. However, Pokkén’s insistence on automatically using your selected partner Pokémon means a single character is likely to far outlevel the others. Your partner can be changed at any time from the game’s menus, but to do so would result in a fighter who is potentially underleveled compared to his opponents. This unfortunately affects Pokkén’s multiplayer modes as well, causing balancing issues when simply trying to enjoy a casual match. Leveling up your Pokémon seems like a good idea in theory, but one that probably should have been limited to certain modes only.
Pokkén Tournament’s visuals are also another unfortunate drawback. While the few cutscenes offer beautifully detailed action and character models, Pokkén’s battles have a fuzzy appearance to them. Stage backgrounds, in particular, are accompanied by blurry spectators and wildlife in what would otherwise feel like lively environments. These complaints are purely aesthetic and ultimately have no bearing on Pokkén’s gameplay, but the visual fidelity does admittedly leave something to be desired.
Minor complaints aside, though, Pokkén Tournament is still a worthwhile fighter that stands out for its unique battles and accessibility. And above all else, the lifeblood of Pokémon runs through Pokkén’s veins to create a familiar presentation with welcoming mechanics. Pokkén Tournament is easily one of Pokémon’s best spin-offs ever and a fighting game that should appeal to both longtime fans and series newcomers alike.