Pokken Tournament Review: Psych Up, Smack Down

Credit: The Pokemon Company
Credit: The Pokemon Company /

Pokken Tournament is a fast-paced, Pokefied Tekken title that brings Pokemon battles into real-time and 3D. But does the result remain true enough to either series to please their fans?

Developer: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Publisher: The Pokemon Company

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: March 18, 2016 (WW, Wii U); July 16, 2015 (JP, Arcade)

It’s incredible that we’ve not had a game like Pokken Tournament in twenty years of Pokemon and Pokemon spin-offs. Pokemon Stadium and its ilk brought Pokemon battles into 3D, certainly, but lacked the high-energy action of a fighting game’s instantaneous input and response. Several Pokemon have trickled into Super Smash Bros titles over the years, but they were merely guests at a much broader banquet. Enter Pokken Tournament, which takes Tekken mechanics into the Pokemon world with a new region, new characters, and new challenges to test a trainer’s battling prowess. The result, while beautiful to look at and fun to play, holds its fair share of disappointments, too.

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A League of Its Own

Pokken Tournament does an excellent job of offering players every conceivable way to test their skills. The game includes both Local and Online play, a generic Single Battle mode, a Training Mode, and a single-player “campaign” of sorts called the Ferrum League. Each mode, along with an options/customization area, is stylized as a locale in the Ferrum Region, where the game takes place.

I began with the tutorials in Training Mode, which first teach the basics of battling regarding movement and different types of attacks. Each Pokken match takes place in a round arena of variable size and consists of up to three rounds, best two out of three. Rounds contain two phases: Field and Battle. Field Phase lets Pokemon use the entire arena to fight with a zoomed out camera and mostly free movement, while Battle Phase resembles the 2D back-and-forth of arcade-style fighting games.

It’s obvious that each Pokemon was carefully selected and designed both to fill a specific spot in Pokken Tournament’s lineup, but also to remain as faithful as possible to what fans know of them.

Each Pokemon available for play has the same basic type of attacks set to each button (ranged, homing, physical combos, etc.), but flavored with that Pokemon’s unique skill set. I was impressed with the faithfulness to moves I would see Pokemon actually performing in a main series game–almost every movement I saw a Pokemon make could be traced back to a teachable ability from the games. The roster for Pokken Tournament seemed small at first until I realized each Pokemon on it filled a different stylistic niche. Charizard and Machamp were heavy powerhouses, Chandalure is an explosive ranged attacker, Lucario is a heavy combo-user, and Pikachu Libre moves like lightning. It’s obvious that each Pokemon was carefully selected and designed both to fill a specific spot in Pokken Tournament’s lineup, but also to remain as faithful as possible to what fans know of them.

Support Pokemon helped fill out the number of cameos. Summonable on a timed basis, Support Pokemon can attack enemies, disrupt their attacks, or buff you. You can pick them in pairs before going into a match, then select which one you want available for each round of the fight. Along with the Support timers comes the Synergy gauge, a bar that fills as you land hits and, when maxed, allows you to use a Synergy Burst for a major stat buff and access to a powerful finisher move.

The finisher moves aren’t just awesome to pull off, but they’re beautiful to look at. The entire game is lovely, with wonderful detail put into the backgrounds and Pokemon. I can see Pikachu Libre’s adorable yellow fluff rippling in the wind, and am completely disgusted by Machamp’s awkward, muscley four arms. Backdrops for each stage (normally selected at random, but your choice for Local Battles) are full of detail–little things like Volcarona following a kid on a bike and Whirlipede on a treadmill made me wish I could pause the fight and just explore.

Pokken Tournament battles are smooth (even online!) and the Pokemon handle responsively. Good combos are challenging to pull off, but insanely rewarding both in damage dealt and in unique animations. All in all, the fighting component of Pokken Tournament is everything it should be. It’s the structure around it that’s falling apart.

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Shadow and Synergy

Once I was done with the tutorials, the next logical place to fight was the Ferrum League itself. The campaign consists of four different Leagues: Green, Blue, Red, and Chrome. You begin each League at the lowest rank and can move up by winning League Matches. You’ll be placed in a pool with five other NPC trainers around the same rank as you, and must fight five back-to-back matches, with your overall win/lose count for those five determining how far you move in rank (and in which direction). Achieving Rank 8 or higher makes you eligible for a tournament with the other top 7, and winning the tournament lets you take the Promotion Test against an especially difficult trainer to move into the next highest league.

The Ferrum League encompasses as much of a “Story Mode” as Pokken Tournament offers between your coach, Nia’s, constant commentary (I recommend turning off all of the voice acting for this game, seriously) and the mysterious presence of Shadow Mewtwo, who appears now and again to totally thrash you in battle. There’s little of interest plot-wise…until the last few hours of the game, when a sudden information dump reveals an underlying story that would have been excellent if dragged out more over the course of the entire Ferrum League progression. Instead, it ends as quickly as it began.

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Between the Synergy Stones, the various characters, some of the end-game bosses, and Ferrum itself, Pokken Tournament completely missed an opportunity for awesome lore. Every stage description and character begs for context. Somewhere at Bandai Namco or The Pokemon Company is a person who has the entire story of Ferrum mapped out in his or her head, of which only a few snippets were shown in-game. And we’ll never see that story.

Beyond finishing Ferrum League, there’s not much incentive to play Pokken Tournament for the long haul. Sure, there’s titles and costumes to collect, but there’s so many and the requirements for a good majority of the titles are totally random, giving them less potency as an incentive. You can play with friends locally, but only one-on-one, so this isn’t a party game. Online Play is fun for awhile and will probably draw the more serious players, but that’s just it. Even in the lower tiers of Ranked Play, I struggled to win my matches (though kudos for giving me CPUs to fight while waiting for other reviewers to battle!).

Pokken Tournament is not a game for casuals, at all. I even had trouble toward the end of the single-player campaign, and I would consider myself of slightly above average ability for this type of game. Considering how rough it was going up against other reviewers, there’s no way I will be competitive once the rest of the world joins in on the fun. I am left with little reason to pick up the game again after slogging through battle after battle for 25+ hours.

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Pokken Tournament is beautiful, polished, and fun for awhile, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s for the very few. In spite of its faithfulness to the letter of Pokemon, there’s little faithfulness to Pokemon’s spirit of all-inclusiveness. There’s simply nothing to do if you’re anything less than above average at fighting games. The single player is dry, and everything else is just an endless slog of unchanging battles. Mini-games, tournaments, matches with special rules, challenges for specific Pokemon…there are so many ways this title could have given us reason to return again and again, yet there’s none of that. It’s like if Pokemon Stadium had nothing but battle after battle after battle.

That being said, the raw fighting elements of Pokken Tournament shine. There are so many combinations of Pokemon, Support Pokemon, stages, and set-ups that no match will ever be the same if you’re invested in those nuances. A year from now, the people that picked up Pokken Tournament won’t be playing it anymore. But I think it’s very likely we’ll all be watching the game at tournaments with delight and awe for several years to come.


A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.