The WiiU had a ton of wonderful titles that were marred by some serious shortcomings. Captain Toad was completely reliant on the gamepad. Minecraft was pretty limited and felt slow compared to the PC release. And poor, poor Pokken Fighter was dead before it hit the ground. Bad load times, a relatively small install base and zero updates, this dope arcade experience languished in forgotten shadows on the WiiU. Nintendo, hearing fans and wanting to give things one more try, has proudly put out Pokken Tournament DX, the definitive edition of the game.
For those who aren’t aware, Pokken Tournament answers the question of “What would it be like if Pokémon fought like they did in the animation?” Far from a traditional Pokémon game, Tournament allows you to choose one of 21 fighter and go head-to-head against other Pokémon in a full arena setting, fighting each other with kicks, punches and facsimiles of the moves used in the actual game. Players can also call upon support Pokémon for extra help/damage, and they also charge up a “Synergy Burst” that puts your fighter into a hyper state, allowing for extra damage and one “Synergy Move” that hits like a truck if it lands.
The storyline of Pokken Tournament DX is a pretty straightforward one. The core Pokemon games often hint that people use Pokemon for all sorts of tasks and purposes other than “catch em all,” and this is an example of the world of Pokemon extending to what is legal street fighting. Trainers have a sort of VR eye attachment that allows them to communicate and direct their Pokemon in a one-on-one throwdown to see who is truly the strongest. Players have a choice between just doing regular fights out in the world, or participating in the tournament of the Ferrum league, gradually going up the ladder to become the strongest in the land. But there is a dark force that watches and waits, and it seems that there may be a trainer on a different level of connection with their Pokemon…
The fighting style is not going to necessarily appeal to fans of the traditional fighting games. Far from things like Tekken and Street Fighter, Pokken Tournament DX is fairly simplistic in its approach. You have moves mapped directly to buttons, and pushing a button plus a direction triggers a different attack. The entire battle relies on the Fighting Triangle, which is grab beats block, block beats hit and hit beats grab. There’s nothing wrong with this setup, but there’s already been plenty of complaints about how casual Pokken is. Granted, there aren’t huge debates about how to create the perfect juggler or why certain characters need to be merged, but that’s more than OK. Pokken brings plenty to the table as an original approach to the genre, and there’s still a ton of strategy to keep in mind.
The fights generally go two to three rounds, depending on successful knockouts. The fight also changes between two phases, Field and Duel, with Field being more 3D combat and Duel being close quarters and more 2D. People looking for quick finishes will want to initial Duel fast and get in the hits, while people looking for more style and dramatics will stay in Field. Both phases can be easily shifted into depending on moves that land, so you do need to plan accordingly. Grab or counter at the wrong time and you may initiate a shift that’ll throw off your entire plan.
If you’re coming from the WiiU version, this is, essentially, a whole new game. There are new fighters (all from the arcade updates plus more), online replay sharing, daily challenges and some good tweaks for the local battles. The local fights don’t look as great as I’d like them to in handheld mode: to accommodate for the split screen, everything drops to 30fps, which seems a lot more noticeable in handheld mode than up on the big screen. But you still get more than enough real estate to keep track of your fighter and plan out things accordingly. Even with JoyCons as my primary controllers, there was no input lag, and I was able to stay afloat despite my truly terrible fighting skills.
There’s also the inclusion of mission panels that have now been added to the single player mode. As you fight to reach the top of the pyramid, each league has a specific set of missions to accomplish for extra bonuses and perks. This adds a ton of replay to the game, as you will more than likely not finish half the panels before being promoted to the next league. The panels themselves are different degrees of complexity and purpose (win 25 battles, use EMOGLA 6 times) and, unfortunately, most are league specific. For example, those 25 wins MUST happen within the same league you’re trying to unlock the mission. You can’t go and do 8 battles in the harder leagues, then come back and do number 25 in the lower league. Replay or not, this was a little frustrating, as the difficulty scales considerably between leagues and going back down can almost feel like a waste of time.
Leveling up is also a thing, but it seems pretty paltry if you’re simply a strong player. Each level lets you sink points into improving offense, defense, synergy (charge up that meter faster) or strategy (charge up support Pokémon faster). As long as you get into a good groove, it feels pretty arbitrary where you invest those points. Additionally, they make no difference in normal versus mode, only in the story mode, so…I just dumped them all into offense every time. I can’t block a punch for a damn, but I hit like a meteor strike.
Graphically, I adore how the whole game looks. Each Pokémon looks like a great 3D model of their handheld counterparts with just a bit more polish and sheen thrown on. My personal main, Empolyon, is a massive, beaked warlord in the game, and he moves and looks like he’s ready to destroy everything in his path. The legendaries, like Darkrai and MewTwo, are sufficiently towering, and the only one I took umbrage with was Libre Pikachu. He was created in Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, but he still feels too on-the-nose in this game, but at least you can choose regular Pikachu if that’s your jam. Additionally, it’s not just the characters: the levels and stages have been beautifully rendered to make everything feel like you’re deep in the Pokémon world. One of the stages is heavily inspired by the famous crosswalk of Shibuya, and you really get that sense of the Pokémon world outside of the base games. This is what happens when you’re not a 12 year old child on a mission. You’re a dope ass teenager doing street battles with your Pokémon for money.
That, sadly, is one of the massive shortcomings of the game: the money rewards system. Winning tournaments, battles, leveling up, and just one off fights, will net you Poke cash. From the get-go, all the characters are unlocked. There’s no worlds to explore, and you can’t charter a flight to a new continent and fight there. So the only purpose of the cash is avatar customization, and you only see the avatar between fights. You can’t make your awesome Pokémon look different, but you have a choice of twelve different glasses to put on your dumb face. I liked it enough, but it was such a wasted opportunity and, for people who just want to fight, it’s totally pointless. I hope that we do see more updates in the future to make the cash worth something.
The online matchmaking is taking a page out of the Splatoon 2, doing its best to both make pairings fast, rankings accurate and droppers intolerable. This is definitely a “buyer beware” moment for fans who have poor internet connection, as there’s already been a considerable amount of grumbling regarding players who’ve been banned from Splatoon 2 due to their tin can internet going belly up. I think Pokken Tournament DX is really gunning towards becoming a serious contender in both eSports and fighting games, and they are taking their participation in making future players and elites more vested in the stability and reliability of the game very seriously. They want fans to know they’ll be given a fair and genuine fight, and won’t have to worry about rage quitters, but that could still be quite ominous depending on how everyone receives this condition.
And that’s what Pokken Tournament DX is really going to hinge on: the future. This is an amazing gesture of goodwill from Nintendo. They made everything about the original WiiU version better – the load lag is gone, the roster is full and the game is available on the most successful Nintendo system in years. I mean, Nina still screeches in an awful voice, but you can change her “advice” frequency to zero (Thank You!) and put her natural voice to Japanese, which is slightly less grating. But now we need to see what becomes of Pokken Tournament DX as the community embraces it. The single player mode is interesting and takes a good amount of time, but all fighting games live and die by community investment and the developers responding in turn. If people can accept this game with a different learning curve than, say, Super Smash Bros, then it can thrive. If Nintendo rolls out more fighters in the future like they did with the arcade, and also makes sure to re-balance based on input, the game will flourish. I want Pokken Tournament DX to do well, because this is the year for Nintendo, and I’d hate for anything tied to such a massive IP fail in any capacity. For fight and Pokémon enthusiasts everywhere, this could be the vanishing point where the genres successfully intersect and bring the best side game since Pokémon Colosseum.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - /10
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