If you think about it, Pokkén Tournament makes perfect sense. After all, casual observers have been crying out for a more action-based console game for ages. Pokkén Tournament is Game Freak's way of giving these people what they want, albeit in an unexpected form.
Developed in conjunction with Bandai Namco, Pokkén Tournament translates Pokémon's time-tested RPG mechanics into an attractive 3D fighting game for the Wii U. It's fast-moving and surprisingly technical - clearly aiming to entertain a young crowd while also catering to more advanced players - and it's faithful to the source material. But while it has its moments, I'm hesitant to say that it's a successful fighting game.
On the face of it, Pokkén Tournament works reasonably well. Matches are split into two phases - a 3D field phase and a more traditional Street Fighter-style duel phase. The goal of the field phase is to land a solid hit and gain the initiative heading into the duel phase, where combatants exchange combos at close range. The transitions are confusing at first; but after getting the hang of it, I found the field mode to be a welcome respite from the often intense duels - an opportunity to retreat and catch my breath for a split second before going back in.
As the match progresses, a synergy gauge will steadily fill to the point where you can activate a monster's ultimate form, granting you more powerful attacks and a final super move. It's here where matches are typically won and lost, as the ultimate form is incredibly powerful and capable of turning a match on its head. It's frustrating to get wrecked by these forms; but on the flipside, they make it feel like a huge comeback is never really out of reach. The super moves are also stylish and fun to look at, bringing with them the kind of anime flair that Bandai Namco is known for.
Given the power of these ultimate forms, your first impulse may be to button mash your way to victory. To Pokkén Tournament's credit, that would be a mistake. Its extremely simple inputs - a couple button taps in conjunction with the movement stick - make it easy to pull off combos against unprepared opponents like the CPU; but against enemies who can block and time out counter attacks, you'll be punished relentlessly. At the higher levels, Pokkén Tournament slows down considerably as combatants probe for weaknesses while trying to avoid walking into counters - fighting game staples that are very welcome in Pokkén Tournament.
My problem right now is that I'm pretty sure projectile spam is too powerful. Monsters like Braixen, Gengar, Chandelure, and Suicune can keep you at range and ensure that you can never get too close. There may be a counter to projectiles that I'm not aware of, but I was able to do a huge amount of damage just by firing Shadow Ball after Shadow Ball. The fact that you only have to press a single button to fire a projectile makes it feel like Street Fighter's hadouken spam on steroids.
Another issue that I have with Pokkén Tournament: the roster is too small. While it's not any worse than Street Fighter V, it suffers when put against the total pool of Pokemon, which numbers more than 700. And while there's no way that Bandai Namco can come close to representing that many monsters in a fighting game, the main roster mix could be better. It's weird to see Chandelure and two separate flavors of Pikachu make the roster at the expense of more popular choices like Infernape, Deoxys, Greninja, Scizor, Blastoise, and Tyranitar. Heck, even an obscure monster like Aegislash would have been more fun than a projectile spam ghost. Thankfully, most of the choices that do make the cut - Charizard, Lucario, and Gengar among them - are pretty solid. But it's disappointing to see quality monsters like Umbreon get relegated to support status, or neglected entirely.
On a related note, I'm not sure the styles are diverse enough. For instance, there isn't a true grappler in the bunch, with even Machamp using projectile spam to a degree. The most interesting character is probably Weavile, which relies on extreme speed and combo damage and is just a pain to deal with. The rest of them have their differences, but otherwise just don't feel different enough.
The thin roster is felt most acutely in the main story mode, which consists of a series of a leagues featuring a handful of battles, a tournament, and a final boss. There's a basic story holding it all together, but it's mostly an excuse to grind through successive battles and unlock outfits for your main avatar. The structure isn't all that bad - the tournaments are at least faithful to the premise of the series - but fighting the same limited pool of monsters soon becomes repetitive. With the story being limited as it is, the local and online multiplayer is left to carry the burden of replayability.
Maybe that's expecting too much from a game like Pokkén Tournament, though. I kind of get the feeling that Bandai Namco is aiming for an even younger demographic than usual with this spinoff; and in that light, it's more or less successful. Given how easy it is to beat the computer even in hard mode, I can totally imagine a seven-year-old mashing away at the buttons and having a good time. For older players, though, I'm guessing it'll be a fleeting pleasure. Outside of the splendid visuals, my greatest enjoyment in Pokken Tournament came from customizing my avatar with the wide variety of hats, outfits, and accessories that can be unlocked in the main story mode.
Speaking as a Pokémon fan, I'll say that it is actually pretty neat to see a turn-based RPG realized as a fighting game. It brings to mind the anime, which continues to hold a lot of sway in the mainstream collective memory, and it puts a different spin on what has become a well-worn formula. In that respect, it's refreshing.
On the other hand, Pokémon spinoffs are often too shallow for their own good, and Pokkén Tournament is no exception. The story mode is weak, and I'm not convinced that the competitive battles will hold up to the scrutiny that high level play brings to bear. It'll be interesting to see how it fares at EVO 2016 later this year - if nothing else, the animation will make it telegenic.
Even if it does better with the competitive community than expected, though, it still leaves much to be desired as a total package. The foundation it lays is entertaining enough that I'd be interested in playing a potential sequel; but if Game Freak and Bandai Namco are interested in building a successful series out of Pokkén Tournament, then they still have a ways to go.
The menus are colorful and easy to navigate, making them perfect for younger players.
Pokken Tournament's voices have that breathless dub quality endemic to second-tier anime games, and the announcer quickly grows repetitive and tiresome. The music is decent but forgettable.
The characters look great and the ultimate moves are exciting. I'm more on the fence about the arenas, which have something of a low-res look to them. My overall impression, though, is that Pokken Tournament is a very attractive game.
Pokken Tournament is fun for a bit, but I'm not convinced that it has any staying power as a fighting game. It's further hurt by its thin single-player mode and limited roster, which hurts its potential with casual fans. As attractive and faithful to the license as it is, it has plenty of room for improvement. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel.