Pokkén Tournament DX is the latest in Nintendo Switch's fast-growing library of games, upgrading the Wii U fighting game Pokkén Tournament with extra modes and five new Pokémon fighters.
The battles are split between two phases, labeled the Field Phase and the Duel Phase, which seamlessly shift between one another to create a satisfyingly complex yet fluid pace of battle. The Field Phase is what you see in many promotional materials, where your Pokémon run around a 3D battle field launching projectiles, rushing in for attacks, and spacing each other to gain the upper hand. The Duel Phase is more reminiscent of classic fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, where Pokémon stand on a 2D plane and use a variety of techniques and combos to leverage momentum into massive damage. Phase Shifts, transitions from one battle phase to the other, can occur when you land specific attacks or deal a particularly heavy blow to your opponent.
The primary offensive battle mechanics include attacks, counterattacks, and grabs. These three options create a triangle wherein players can punish an opponent's attempted grab by attacking, punish an attempted attack with a counterattack (or charge the counterattack to take the opponent further by surprise), and punish an attempted counterattack by grabbing. Players on the defensive can use shields—called Blocks—to protect themselves from attacks and counterattacks, or use evasive maneuvers like dodging to avoid all three offensive techniques.
Pokkén Tournament features two special abilities that radically influence the battles.
Players can choose a set of two "Support Pokémon" before a battle and then bring one such Pokémon into each round as a backup. A player's Support Gauge will charge over time, and once it's ready, players can use the support to heal their damage, interrupt their opponent, unleash major damage, cancel an action to take opponents by surprise, or any mix of the above and more. Facing off against the same fighters is not only refreshing every time they choose a different support Pokémon, but it allows players to complement or counterbalance their favorite fighter's strengths and weaknesses (or the player's own) by choosing different Support Sets. And we can all agree that it's wonderful to see thirty beloved Pokémon like Diglett, Umbreon, and Victini represented in Pokkén despite missing their shot to join the roster of playable fighters.
Pokkén also features a powerful battle condition called a "Synergy Burst." Players can fill their Synergy Gauge by successfully shifting Battle Phases, collecting Synergy on the battlefield during Field Phase, and more. When the gauge is full, players can enter Synergy Burst, cancelling out an opponent's move while greatly increasing both offensive and defensive powers for some time afterwards. Synergy Burst also gives players access to a powerful Burst Attack, which can completely reshape the outcome of the battle.
While all this may sound frighteningly complex, the truth is that it's quite simple to learn by experience. In fact, I found myself understanding and capitalizing on the deep complexities of battle by sheer intuition before I even knew how to describe many of them. But Pokkén recognizes this fear and introduces a thorough tutorial system in its Practice Mode for players who need a clear cognitive understanding of the game's systems, from the most basic fundamentals to its most complicated tricks. Practice Mode unfortunately organizes its tutorials by skill level, and it's impossible to find an individual technique to practice and master without repeating the entire subset of tutorials over and over again.
It was more personally disappointing for me to see that the stages and music in Pokkén Tournament are completely original, which greatly limits the sense that this game truly takes place in the world of Pokémon. The vast majority of stages create original locations based on tired themes, most of which are already familiar to Pokémon fans. There's a quiet rural village, an Eastern-European town square, and a haunted mansion, all of which would have easily passed for beloved locales like New Bark Town, Laverre City, or the Old Chateau, even without any cosmetic changes. A small handful of standout stages do make a point to feature certain Pokémon, but their designs nevertheless fail to capture the appropriate magic of the Pokémon world.
The music, likewise, had the opportunity to stand out with pulsing remixes of beloved battle themes and background music from the series' history, but ended up with a soundtrack that accomplishes little else but to fill the silence.
The character selection is a wonderful contrast, however, as it brings together fan-favorites and surprising curveballs. The Nintendo Switch version's lineup includes four Pokémon previously exclusive to the arcade version of the game, and one brand-new fighter in Decidueye. Each of the 21 playable fighters brings a distinct personality to the game, from their unique playstyles to their expressions. Machamp, is brash and dominant, while Braixen is bubbly and charming, and each one has been brilliantly realized in a way that's as heartwarming as it is true to the Pokémon themselves.
The main attraction in Pokkén Tournament is surely the battle system, but there's a campaign mode called the Ferrum League for players who want direction in their solo game time. It's a fairly simple mode where players will challenge five opponents in a row to climb the ranks of the Ferrum League. It's an excellent way to hone your skills as you familiarize yourself with the game. The Nintendo Switch version also features a Daily Challenge mode, where players are incentivized to try out different characters and techniques.
Gamnesia was provided by Nintendo with a copy of Pokkén Tournament DX for review.
The Verdict: Still Great
Pokkén Tournament DX is a lively, refreshing fighting game, loaded with gorgeous visuals, mechanical nuance, and an incredible cast of Pokémon. The dichotomy between Battle Phases, in both gameplay and strategy, combined with the core battle mechanics and special abilities, creates a rich fighting experience that's both novel and energizing. Technical nuances buried within each playable character will require deep thought to master, but don't sacrifice the vigor and joy that players of all skill levels will find on the game's surface. If you played your fill of Pokkén when it launched on Wii U, Pokkén Tournament DX may not have enough new content to suck you back in, but it's nevertheless an incredible outing for young gamers and hardcore fighting fans alike, and a wonderful addition to Nintendo Switch's lineup.