Game: Pokken Tournament DX
Developer: Bandai Namco
Reviewed on: Switch (Review code provided)
It is easy to dismiss as laziness the fact that Nintendo are spending the first year of the Switch’s life pushing a lot of Wii-U ports to the system. However the house of Mario has already shown fantastic foresight in porting Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to the console; all bells and whistles with a bit of a performance upgrade and, most importantly, portable. Perhaps the main reason a lot of gamers are looking upon these ports with a degree of positivity is due to the disappointing sales of the Wii-U; for many, these are games that they never played due to not owning Nintendo’s last system and many are now jumping at a chance to have a go.
Enter Pokken Tournament DX. For the uninitiated, Pokken Tournament is a Pokemon based beat em up, developed by Bandai Namco and published in the arcades by the Pokemon Company in 2015. A Wii-U port followed in 2016, fairly late in the console’s life. Fans who bought and enjoyed the game lamented Nintendo’s lack of support for the title. Outside of a few stability tweaks, the Wii-U version never got the extra characters and balances that were added to the arcade version over time. This DX (or Deluxe) edition has now hit the Switch and rectifies that with a full character roster (plus a bonus character for the Switch, Decidueye) and all adjustments intact.
On the surface, Pokken Tournament is a standard entry into the fighting game genre. Players choose their favourite pocket monster from a selection of 21, as well as a pair of support characters, one of which they choose every round. It has a fairly simple control system of using three face buttons for attack; light, heavy and Pokemon move. Combos and specials are pulled off with specific button and direction patterns, which are not as complex as a game such as Street Fighter 2 but certainly have enough nuance that it’ll take players a while to learn the moves of their favourite ‘mon. The fourth face button acts as a jump button, R blocks and L calls in your support Pokemon. These support Pokemon provide additional abilities during the round, be it a one-off attack, an area effect or a temporary buff to health, defence or damage. A given players choice of support team will likely come down to their preferred play style.
The deeper mechanics of Pokken Tournament are where the game starts to get really interesting. Fighting takes place initially on a 3D plane; this is called the Field Phase. Characters will have free movement around their opponent and will be able to collect orbs which will gradually fill their Synergy gauge. Land specific moves, however, and players will enact a “Phase Shift”, switching the fight to a 2D plane called the Battle phase. Movesets will be slightly different and the player that landed the shifting move will get a significant boost to their synergy gauge. Again, landing certain moves in Battle Phase will shift things back into Field Phase. It’s this see-sawing of phases that gives Pokken Tournament its strategy as players try to fill up their synergy gauges.
When a synergy gauge is full, hitting L and R will put the Pokemon into a super mode, giving attacks a buff and tweaking the available moveset further. It’s in this mode that you can do the most damage so choosing when to activate can make the difference between win or lose. Hitting L and R again while in super mode will kick off a devastating special attack. To add more depth, Y and B will enact a grab move, while X and A will put your Pokemon into a counter. As with the main Pokemon games, there is a pattern to watch out for with the moves you perform. Counters will cancel standard moves, throws cancel counters and standard moves cancel throws. Reading your opponent’s intentions is every bit as essential here as it is in any other competitive fighting game and remembering how to properly cancel their incoming attacks is critical.
There are a number of modes on offer. A single player story mode sees you facing off against opponents in four different leagues. This is a “story” in the lightest possible way, however, with a few scant cutscenes breaking up the action. Standard two player local and online modes are available as well as local wireless play. It’s in the local multiplayer that I found my biggest fault with Pokken Tournament. The arcade version of the game plays on two cabinets with each player having their own screen. The reason for this is predominantly the Field phase of the game where the camera positions itself behind and above the players Pokemon. Playing on individual screens means you’re always focussed on your own character front and center and this was replicated on the Wii-U’s two screen set up. On Switch, however, the screen always favours player one, meaning that those focussing on their character in the background may struggle to properly anticipate some incoming attacks due to the angle of the camera. There is an option to activate a split screen mode to combat this, however performance drops from a smooth 60FPS to a noticeably slower 30FPS; not great for a game that relies on speed! Local wireless play obviously gets round this by letting both players use their own systems, though.
At its core, the main gameplay loop of Pokken Tournament is just the same as any other fighting game. Jump into a battle, pound the opponent, win or lose and rinse and repeat. Some challenge is offered in single player mode where a grid of individual tasks such as using a certain Pokemon or Support a certain number of times, can be gradually unlocked. This awards the player with slogans and clothing items that they can use to decorate their in-game avatar so that they can look stylish in online matches. The more you use a given Pokemon also gifts that Pokemon with experience that can be used to level its abilities to give it an edge in harder matches, as well as online. It should be noted, however, that this can cause an imbalance in local multiplayer and I found it was easier to turn them off when playing against other players.
Still, Pokken Tournament is a fun fighting game with some interesting quirks. It’s already done the rounds in some major fighting game tournaments over the years and hopefully getting more exposure on a more popular system will bring it to even more people’s attention. It also doesn’t hurt that, as with pretty much everything that’s hit the Switch so far, it feels very much at home on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Being able to suspend a single player league series, for example, and pick it back up on the morning commute means that the single player mode is a lot more accessible, and it plays like an absolute charm in tabletop mode with single Joy-Cons.
A solid fighting game which plays to the strengths of the Switch, Pokken Tournament might not be for everyone. However, an accessible yet surprisingly deep set of mechanics will cement its popularity in pro-fighting circles and its pick up and play nature combined with the portability of the Switch makes it easy to recommend for casual fans of Pokemon and fighting games alike.