Pokkén Tournament is a new entry in the long-running history of Pokémon spinoffs, this time breaking away from past traditions to focus on action-oriented fighting. It's the first time outside of the beloved Super Smash Bros. series that Pokémon battles have been fully realized in 3D, and though it could use an extra nudge to become the Pokémon fighting game of fans' wildest dreams, as the first iteration of such an idea it's wildly satisfying.
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 up 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 also introduces 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 introduces 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.
All these elements come together to create a refreshing and invigorating battle experience reminiscent of the Pokémon battles we might have imagined while playing the original games so many years ago. Most of the attacks any given fighter uses don a proper name from the main series, and the UI is very reminiscent of the main series' battle layout. It comes together to create an incredible realization of action-packed Pokémon battles, and ones that we can finally control for ourselves moment-to-moment rather than turn-by-turn.
And 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 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.
This kind of disorganization is perhaps Pokkén Tournament's greatest fault—the information it so often displays will disrupt the game to beat you over the head with its presence every single time. The most stunning example, though certainly not the only one, is the game's achievement system. Whereas most games convey achievements with a discreet notification in the corner of the screen that gets automatically dismissed in a matter of seconds, Pokkén Tournament opted to consume the entire screen with an "ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED" message, which a player must manually dismiss to move on. It then repeats this process to announce specifically what you've unlocked, which is usually nothing more than an trivial label you can assign to your trainer. On the bright side, that this is the game's greatest active flaw is a fitting testament to its masterful finesse.
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. Each stage is sprinkled with a handful of Pokémon spectators in the background, which is a nice touch, but they seldom feel like they truly belong within the game's uncharacteristic aesthetic. There's a small handful of standout stages, like Regi Ruins, which 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 dozens of fan-favorites like Gengar and Lucario together with more surprising choices like Chandelure and Braixen. Each of the sixteen playable fighters brings a distinct character to the game, from their unique playstyles to their expressions and personalities. Machamp, for example, 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. While many fans complain about notable exclusions like Jigglypuff, Meowth, Greninja, or any members from the family of Hitmon-Pokémon, the roster feels complete and satisfying as it stands.
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. In each difficulty ranking, also called "Leagues," you must break the top ten in order to challenge a tournament and then advance to the highest-ranked trainer in the given League. The number of trainers you defeat in this process determines how high you'll climb at the end of the challenge, which means losing is a passive non-reward instead of an active punishment. This was likely a decision made for novice players not to become jaded with losing, but I believe an approach like Street Fighter's would have more effectively allowed advanced players to climb the ranks at a satisfying pace, while allowing beginners to familiarize themselves with each opponent in order to advance through experience, rather than introducing an element of chance. But playing through the Ferrum League is nevertheless an excellent primer for each opponent and each stage, and all players would do themselves well to play through to the end.
The Verdict: Fantastic
Pokkén Tournament is a lively, refreshing new 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. While Pokkén Tournament won't make longtime Pokémon fans feel as tingly inside as I believe it should, it's nevertheless an incredible outing for young gamers and hardcore fighting fans alike.