Pokkén Tournament: it's not quite what a select few may have imagined when they dared to concoct a Pokémon / Tekken crossover game in the recesses of their wildest dreams, but few had even considered such a ludicrous idea until it actually came to fruition. Nevertheless, it's a real thing that Nintendo and Bandai Namco have produced, and it's much more Pokémon's own breed of fighter than a fan-hack of the classic brawling staple - but does it do enough to stand up amongst so many well-established franchises? In a word, yes.
You take the role of an unsurprisingly mute Pokémon Trainer, but with a difference. As this all takes place in the Ferrum region, Pokémon battles are distinctly different because the game's mechanics demand it and the fans demand the lore to back it up. Using a device known as a Battle AR, you are able to sync your thoughts and actions with those of your chosen Pokémon so you can help guide them in real-time within the battle. It's a fairly extravagant way to explain how you're controlling an otherwise self-aware Garchomp, but it's nice that Bandai Namco went to the effort to do so.
Whilst there is a plot to the game it's paper thin and only really acts as a bit of fluff in-between battles. There's some bad business going down with a strange, shadowy Mewtwo that's been acting just a little bit too selfishly and draining all the energy that allows Pokémon and Trainers to synchronise their intentions. This is told through the Ferrum League campaign, and this primary solo mode is the best way to introduce yourself to the way everything works. It's got a gradual learning curve and lasts between about five and eight hours in total; it's the ideal way to learn how to play, and though the plot is as generic as they come it still adds a nice aside to the otherwise incessant battling.
Speaking of battling, the bulk of the game is boiled down to the fights that take place, which isn't wholly surprising for a fighting game. You control your chosen Pokémon and you must attack, grab, and counter-attack to take your opponent's health down to zero. These three actions work in a typical rock-paper-scissors manner where attack beats grab, grab beats counter-attack, and counter-attack beats attack. Reading your opponent and understanding each action is absolutely essential to getting anywhere; a button masher this game is not.
During the course of the fight - whenever one Pokémon gets appropriately banged about enough - the view of the fight will change between two available phases: the Field Phase and the Duel Phase. The Duel Phase is your typical 2D, side-on fighting game style experience, but the Field Phase allows you to run around wherever you like without being constrained to two lousy dimensions. This is where Pokkén is most obviously different from other fighting games, as whilst others have toyed with having multiple plains, or even in the case of Tekken the illusion of being able to move in a 3D space, having two distantly different styles of play allows for the implementation of more tactical and well-thought out uses of all this extra space you're given.
Your attacks also change depending on which phase you're in, as well as the controls. Ranged attacks in the Field Phase become weak attacks in the Duel Phase, chasing attacks become strong attacks, and your 'Pokémon Attacks' remain essentially the same. Pokémon Attacks are moves that have been directly taken from the Pokémon series, and it's nice to be able to see this distinct connection to the wider, more established world of Pokémon.
The controls are simple and extremely responsive, the complex inputs of other fighting games are completely omitted in favour of a 'direction plus button' style of input more closely related to Super Smash Bros., which is a wall that so desperately needed to be broken down for any less experienced players to properly enjoy themselves. Instead the skill required to play the game comes entirely from timing, reactions, and reading your opponent's moves. This is a wonderfully refreshing approach to the learning curve of many other fighting games that can, in some cases, be enough to put anyone off before they even come close to fully appreciating the experience.
Another area that exceeds expectation is the variety in available characters; even though there are two Pikachu and two Mewtwo to play with, not a single character is a bastardisation of another. Certain characters share some similar attacks, but the vast majority of a Pokémon's moveset is entirely unique, and the way that they all fight is massively different. Some fighters are all about quick, unpredictable attacks, some are more focused on just getting one or two really strong combos in, and others are weirder still, relying on ranged attacks or even draining their own health to gain an advantage.
You can also turn the tide of a battle by calling upon Support Pokémon in times of need, which can have benefits such as buffing your attack or defence, directly damaging the opponent, or restoring some of your lost health. It's also worth taking advantage of Synergy Burst Mode - once your metre is filled and is activated, your attack and defence are boosted and you can unleash an astonishingly powerful attack on your enemy with an appropriately madcap animation. In short not one of the characters feels the same as another, which considering the diverse array of potential monsters is not only representative of the series, but expected of such a title; thankfully it hits the nail squarely on the head.
As you continue to fight your Pokémon will gain Skill Levels, which allows you to assign points to four different stats, namely Attack, Defence, Strategy and Synergy. Attack and Defence are fairly self-explanatory, and the other two improve the charge times of your Support Pokémon metre and your Synergy Burst metre respectively. The difference is very subtle, but this is yet another unique aspect where elements from the Pokémon franchise are implemented in an interesting, fun, and most importantly meaningful way that really brings a new element into the genre. These are always applied by default and can change how a Pokémon behaves, but you can turn them off when fighting friends if you'd rather play vanilla.
On the other hand the arenas you fight in don't have a lot of variety between them, the only differences really being size, backdrop, and whether they're circular or oval. Purists will likely be more than happy with this, but for the less intense fighters it does feel like there's little to distinguish one from another aside from aesthetics, which we feel is a missed opportunity to bring in some more of the wonderful craziness that the series is so renowned for.
The amiibo functionality is also fairly lacklustre, all you can do is scan in any five amiibo a day (cards and all) to receive additional currency, unlock one of the admittedly large number of available items with which you can customise your avatar, or a title to put on your profile card. Those who shun amiibo with fervour will be pleased, and we're happy to see that content isn't locked behind plastic figurines, but exclusive costumes or some other wholly superfluous exclusivity would give our growing collections more worth.
But what it all comes down to is the battles themselves, and they are without a doubt a complete joy to behold. Everything from the impossibly tight controls to the unshakeable 60 frames a second rendering flows so well you'll hardly notice it. Everything in these fights is fresh, different and, most importantly, just works. Visually things are a bit blurry and it seems that the action in-game is rendered at a notably lower resolution than the HUD that surrounds it, but when you're desperately trying to block a Charizard's Flame Wheel and counter it with an Electrode, the fuzzy visuals fade into the back of your mind.
In terms of the various modes here - apart from the aforementioned five to eight hour Ferrum League campaign - depending on your mood you can battle CPUs in normal battles, battle friends on the same console, play with two Wii U systems over LAN, or even brave the world wide web of other players over the internet. In addition, when you really want to refine your skill set you'll need to use the various training modes. These give you a complete rundown of every move a Pokémon has, various combos that can be performed, as well as an in-depth sandbox arena where you can customise dozens of variables to test out anything the game could potentially throw at you.
The local multiplayer sadly drops the frame rate down to 30fps when using a single console, largely we believe due to having to render two screens simultaneously, namely the GamePad's screen and the TV. It's not a deal breaker for friendly matches and the game is perfectly playable at 30fps for a bit of fun, but if you're keen to find out who truly is the very best like no one ever was, you'll need to take advantage of using two consoles over LAN.
The online multiplayer employs an extremely straight-forward process for matchmaking; you select either Ranked or Friendly - the former of which tracks your progress and gives you an appropriate rank to reflect your overall performance - and the game matches you up with an opponent. If it doesn't find one for you within ten seconds, you'll be thrown into a battle with an averagely skilled CPU whilst the search continues, and as soon as an opponent is found, you're booted from the CPU match and into the real thing. This is a very welcome touch, it means that even when servers are slow or underpopulated (which is not currently a problem by any stretch of the imagination) you're not just staring at a menu for ages. You can also keep track of where you stand in global and regional rankings, either by the number of points you've received from your fights or simply by the number of wins you've had. It's an appealing little bonus until you see just how far down the ranks you are.
Things aren't as simple for getting into matches with friends, however. In order to duke it out with a chum you'll both need to enter a passcode for the servers to match you up. This can be any combination of letters and numbers, and you don't even have to have someone on your friend list in order to battle against them using this system. It's pretty open in that sense but it does feel a little bit laborious if you just want to fight one of your friends; the addition of a simple menu with a list of available online friends would have been nice to have to forgo this passcode option, though it shouldn't be placed in its stead.
The online experience, overall, is dizzyingly smooth - it's a massive testament to the developer. The vast majority of single matches we took part in ran just as smoothly as an offline battle against computer-controlled fighters, with absolutely no noticeable input lag. It wasn't all plain sailing, as on a small number of occasions we were clearly matched up with players who had noticeably sub-par connections. Sometimes this resulted in a small amount of stuttering every so often, but the game remained completely playable for a friendly match. We had one instance that had smooth gameplay but an ungodly amount of input lag, making the game little more than a headache we were desperate to stop. This was only one case in a series of nearly a hundred matches, so it's entirely acceptable considering just how well the rest of the games performed.
Pokkén Tournament has attempted to break into the fighting game genre with a bang, and it has done just that. It brings freshness and new life to a notoriously stale genre that's difficult to develop, whilst stripping out the unnecessarily complex controls that have plagued many games before it. Like Super Smash Bros. it's easy to pick up, but the skill ceiling appears to be as high as you'd like, meaning there's a cacophony of enjoyment to be had for both relaxed and hardcore gamers alike. It has a few areas that feel like a missed opportunity and the fuzzy visuals keep it from being truly perfect, but these are grotesquely outweighed by the sheer polish and replayability of the core gameplay. As the first of what we hope is a series of fighting games, Pokkén Tournament surpasses our expectations.