Pokken Tournament is the first Pokemon-focused fighting game ever released, but the final product feels more like a barebones offering rather than a fleshed out product.
Gamers have wanted a dedicated Pokemon fighting game for as long as the series has been around. Admittedly, Super Smash Bros. made for a nice sampling of what something like that would resemble, but Pokken Tournament for the Nintendo Wii U was set to be the first game that truly delivered on that premise. Despite this, developer Bandai Namco has built a fun fight title that quickly runs it course – leaving players perpetually looking for a little more than what's offered in the initial SKU.
Of course, Pokken Tournament isn't a bad game at all. What's included in the final package is an engaging and unique twist on the traditional fighting game genre. The battling system plays out truer to how many fans likely imagined an actual Pokemon battle would, and this all thanks to the 3D and 2D lines of movement that are so heavily featured throughout play. Executing a series of close-up combos will activate a Phase Shift, which changes the action from 3D to a more linear 2D fighter.
It's a rather different approach that some will be unfamiliar with – others with an intimate knowledge of anime-based fighting games maybe less so – but it doesn't always work that well. The rock-paper-scissors aspect of combat (grab-strike-counter) plays decently into the mythos surrounding the fight title as well, but especially so since type-based weaknesses are apparently barred. Still, the end result lacks substantial depth, which is rather tragic for any wannabe competitive game. Perhaps the fact that I found the career mode so easy is a contributing factor to this (I had won 78 matches in a row before having my reign toppled), but even the tutorial didn't bestow all that much faith in me.
The number of playable fighters is also weak, with the roster capping off at 16 playable Pokemon after both Mewtwo and Shadow Mewtwo have been unlocked. Considering that this is a fighting game that features creatures that currently number over 720 (and growing) in the latest pair of games, the low character count is an absolute shame that's further highlighted by the fact that there are two Pikachus and two Mewtwos featured as playable. They all play different from one another, but, with such a diverse roster of mascots to choose from, their inclusion feels incredibly redundant.
If there are redeeming qualities to be found, however, then diehard fans need not look any further than the graphics featured with Pokken Tournament itself. The creatures and environments are the highest quality look at the world of Pokemon to-date, with each fighter being brought to the Wii U with near-flawless results. The way each Pocket Monster poses before and after a fight, the way they execute their Burst Attacks, and even the combos they chain together are faithful to the original content, and those already familiar with the IP will be delighted to see it all brought to life on the Wii U.
There are also a number of unlockable pieces of equipment and titles for players to deck out their trainer in a bid to personalize them. Doing so allowed me to make a unique profile that carried me through the entirety of the campaign, but the same profile will also be made available to view during online play as well. Having a wide variety of items to unlock gave me a purpose with each and every battle, and (while the unlockables aren't all that engaging themselves) they make for a nice side goal while tearing through the various campaign-centric leagues.
Of course, a fighting game would be nothing without multiplayer, and Pokken Tournament features just that. Local multiplayer is supported through the Wii U GamePad and a Pro Controller/special Pro Pad controller, but players will have to have at least one user on the system's tablet-like remote. As a result of this, the frame rate is said to be reduced to 30fps, although the game still ran quite smoothly during my time with it. It also makes sense that fans have to use the GamePad during couch-based multiplayer sessions since perspective is a big part of the 3D battle elements, so it's hard to fault Bandai Namco for taking it in that direction.
What's present in Pokken Tournament feels like a very solid foundation for what could be a great fighting game series. Even then, the embarrassingly low number of characters, coupled with no current plans for future DLC, makes for a disheartening aspect of the final title. Overall, its unique take on combat, well adored IP, and enjoyable battle mechanics all show promise, but the overall lack of content fails to build the game as anything more than a promising first step.
Pokken Tournament arrives exclusively for the Nintendo Wii U on March 18, 2016.