Tekken 7 Review: A Tale of Iron Fists and Limp Storytelling

Tekken 7 Review: A Tale of Iron Fists and Limp Storytelling

A superb, deep 3D fighter with a disappointing casual component.

Fans have been waiting for a long, long time to get their hands on Tekken 7. It’s been a fixture in Japanese arcades since 2014, and has received at least one major upgrade between then and now. But unless Western fans were lucky enough to either play it at various tournaments -- or live near one of the miniscule number of North American arcades that could obtain the game – all they could do is watch recorded matches and yearn, for years on end, to finally play the newest installment in their favorite fighting game series.

Now, after what feels like an eternity in fighting-game time, players finally have their promised “early 2017” release of Tekken 7. Was it worth the wait? Yes… but also no.

Tekken 7 seems to have taken the harsh lessons learned from last year’s barebones launch of Street Fighter V to heart in a big way: It’s positively packed with content from the get-go. A huge character roster (with more promised via paid and free DLC), multiple single-player modes (Story, Arcade, and Treasure Battle), character outfit and player HUD customization options, online multiplayer, and music and art galleries featuring 99% of the art and cinematics from almost every single Tekken game released up to this point, including the Japanese pachinko and slot machine spinoffs. It’s quite impressive, and makes you feel like you got your money’s worth from the get-go.

Perhaps the biggest draw for many fans is the story mode, called The Mishima Saga. If anything would justify the console version’s lengthy wait, it’s the promised ultimate resolution to the long-running blood feud between Kazuya and Heihachi Mishima that’s powered Tekken’s plot for the past two decades. It’s a home-exclusive mode, packed with the sort of eye-popping action choreography and CG excess Tekken fans have come to know and love, with playable fight sequences (and the prominent appearance of guest character Akuma) sandwiched in-between it all.

It sounds great on paper, but its actual execution is a massive disappointment. The main story is told through the perspective of a faceless journalist trying to cover the conflict between Heihachi's Mishima Zaibatsu and Kazuya's G Corporation, who narrates everything – including the destruction of his own town – in the most hilariously detached and bored voice imaginable over motion-comic like stills.

The CG cutscenes look great when they do show up, though when they transition into a fighting sequence, it’s often sudden and jarring, giving little warning to the player that a fight is about to begin. Characters and plot points are introduced, and then either completely forgotten or written off almost instantly. And the promised resolution to the long-running Mishima family battle… really isn’t much of a resolution at all, leaving a mess of hooks and unanswered questions that all but ensure a Tekken 8 will happen sometime in the future.

Making matters worse is that the overwhelming majority of the individual characters in Tekken 7, including longtime fan favorites like Paul Phoenix, Xiaoyu, and Hwaorang, don’t get much – if any – screentime in the main story mode. They are instead relegated to one-battle "character episodes" that don’t even present proper endings, only brief and frequently goofy vignettes. Even basic arcade-style stories and endings for each character are nonexistent.

All things considered, Tekken 7’s story mode doesn’t even approach the high bar of fighting-game storytelling that NetherRealm has set with their most recent efforts, particularly the just-released Injustice 2. This wouldn’t be so big a deal if this mode hadn’t been played up so much by the developers, but when it seems like this is the only special thing home players get in exchange for a nearly three-year wait, it’s a crushing disappointment.

But there’s another problem with story mode that goes beyond its presentation and implementation: it does a really, really lousy job of teaching you how to actually play Tekken.

See, the core fighting game of Tekken 7 is undeniably great – the product of nearly twenty years of refinements. Movement feels tight and responsive, juggles are flashy and satisfying to pull off, and the character variety allows you to find a character that suits you in both aesthetics and playstyle.

There are some excellent new additions to the core engine: Rage Arts add a bit of tension to fighting by granting a single-use special move when a fighter is on their last leg, while Power Crush moves let you execute attacks with a long windup without fear of getting counter-hit (though you’ll still take damage if the opponent hits you, and you can be countered with a low attack or throw). Even things like the simple process of getting up after a knockdown and 3D movement have seen some tweaks that make the fighting feel more solid.

The progression Bandai-Namco wants you take is clear: go through story mode, finish everything there, then jump into the other single-player modes like Treasure Battle before finally trying your skills against the multitude of human competitors waiting online. To aid you, story mode has shortcuts to execute useful moves for each fighter you play as, and even auto-combos on the easier difficulty settings. They work okay as initial "training wheels" to give the player a feel for the flow of combat, but even as it progresses, the game fails to teach or contextualize anything: how and why should I be using these attacks? What importance does movement and guarding have? When characters have huge movelists like they do in this game, how do I learn and remember what’s good?

When you’re suddenly thrown into the deep end with boss fights where you need to sidestep attacks and the game has taught you nothing up to that point about sidestepping, I can see a lot of players becoming very frustrated. There is a training mode, but no tutorial mode. The training mode has a lot of options for the experienced player, but it's overwhelming if you're not already versed in fighting games (and 3D fighters in particular).

To be fair, failing to teach the player the game’s nuances in an engaging way is a problem present in a lot of fighting games – and there are copious online resources to help you learn the ins and outs of Tekken’s systems -- but I was hoping that the game that many see as a leader in the field of 3D fighting games would do more to help the player learn within the game itself.

For those who do decide to stick with the game, however, there’s a lot see and do. Arcade mode is a straightforward set of battles against CPU opponents, while Treasure Battle mode has you fighting various opponents to earn rewards. Treasure Battle does a nice job of not feeling overly grindy: the difficulty ramps up nicely, and it’ll sometimes throw you curveballs in the form of special conditions like turbo-speed fighting. Winning these fights yields special cosmetic options and money you can utilize to purchase decorative flourishes for individual characters and your HUD, in addition to unlocking a wealth of art and cinematics in the archive. Almost all the game’s customizations can either be earned through single-player combat or purchased with this currency, meaning you likely won’t have to pay for much cosmetic DLC or grind online for hours on end to earn Tekken bucks.

Once you’ve earned your items and spent time in the customization modes making everything look just right, you can take your individualized character online to battle it out with fighters across the globe. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the PS4 version – which I have for review – has been experiencing frequent disconnection issues when trying to match with other players, so I’m currently unable to comment on online play quality at this time.

It might sound like I’ve been overly negative here, but in all honesty, I think Tekken 7 is a fantastic fighter – albeit one that’s hobbled by a front-and-center single-player mode that’s unsatisfying on its own and does little to help players understand what makes the core gameplay so solid. Players have been waiting a long time for this game, and more than anything, I’m glad that it’s finally in the hands of Tekken fans worldwide. But in an increasingly competitive market for the attention of both casual and competitive fighting game players, it feels like the iron fist doesn’t hit quite as hard as it should.

Lasting appeal
Like earning unlocks? Like playing character dress-up? Like showing off your customized fashions online while you juggle other players into oblivion? Then you’re bound to spend a lot of time with Tekken 7. Just don’t expect to play around in story mode for very long.

Tekken has been known for great soundtracks, but Tekken 7 is probably the weakest in the series so far. There are some superb tracks, but there’s also quite a bit of really, really painful dubstep-style music that doesn’t fit with the fighting or the backgrounds.

Tekken 7 looks great all around: excellent character models, superb art direction, flashy special effects, and fun little visual flourishes throughout. It’s definitely the best-looking fighting game on the market right now.

Tekken 7 is a fantastic fighting game when taken on its sheer fundamentals. People who are already well-versed in the genre will find a lot to chew on here: nuanced gameplay mechanics to learn, lots of characters to try out, and lots of neat cosmetic upgrades and historical extras to unlock. But if you're coming at this game fresh-faced -- or even as a 2D fighting game player making the jump to a 3D game -- you won't find a lot of in-game aid to explore its complex mechanics, and you're not likely to learn anything beyond button-smashing to get through the game's short and thoroughly underwhelming story mode, either.


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