One of the things that people like to complain about when it comes to the main Pokemon series is that fights feel slow and nothing actually hits your opponent. Pokken Tournament rectifies that by letting trainers ‘synergise’ with their Pokemon, taking on their form to kick the crap out of someone else’s treasured pet in a straight-up fighting game. You can cut a Pikachu to ribbons using Weavile’ claws as your own, or freeze the mighty Garchomp with Suicine’s Ice Beam
Fights switch back and forth between two phases; Field Mode, which allows you to run around the full arena as a 3D space; and Dual Phase, which sees you square up against your opponent in a side-on, 2.5D view like Street Fighter 5. The shift between the two styles makes for tense fights as it constantly keeps you on your toes, but it’s also overly complicated. Not only is it a change in perspective, but you’ll also need to adjust the way you play. A button combo in one phase will do something different in the other, and certain moves only work in certain phases. It’s incredibly annoying when the arena changes just before you start an attack, and it makes for very messy fighting. Any expertise you may have in other fighting games won’t help you here - you’ll be just as lost as the newcomers.
There’s also a rock/paper/scissors element at play. Grabs break through blocks, blocks cancel normal attacks, and normals override grabs. You also need to consider support Pokemon types, powerful Burst Attacks and between-round cheering (your advisor can give you a boost between rounds by filling your synergy gauge or getting a partner Pokemon ready). Each component is meant to inspire complex tactical thinking, but in practice it feels fiddly. It’s trying to do too many things at once. I felt like I was winning fights through lucky guesses and button bashing rather than skill at reading opposing Pokemon’s moves.
But despite all that, it’s still exciting to be able to actually directly battle Pokemon. Pikachu zips across the field to unleash powerful electric tackles, and Charizard’s flamethrower feels great when it connects. While I’d like to play as even more Pokemon, each one feels unique and has strengths to suit your preferred playstyle. Even the bizarre, light-fixture-ghost-thing Chandelure feels at home in an arena, capable of keeping even the best trainers at bay by throwing various long-ranged orbs, having a low profile, and being a total bastard to fight against.
Pokken Tournament is compatible with every single Amiibo product. Yep, //all of them//. Even the Animal Crossing Amiibo cards. You can tap any collection of Amiibo up to five times a day to unlock a random customisation option such as a new scarf or title. You can also unlock funds for your wallet, but those can only be spent on outfits and hair dyes for your trainer. It’s a great way to reward you for using them that never breaks the balance of the game.
Despite all being various sizes and shapes, they’re all well balanced. Pokken makes things fair by ignoring type advantages from the Pokemon RPGs (water beats fire, etc). It makes a lot of sense, because otherwise normal punches and kicks would pass straight through ghost type Gengar, and where’s the fun in that? Despite the weight difference small Pokemon like Pikachu Libre can still pick up and throw the giant Machamp or Garchomp by using electricity as an extension of itself (or, in the case of Gardevoir, psychic energy). No matter the typing or ability of the ‘mon you’re facing, it never feels like you’re at a disadvantage.
There’s also a strong single-player campaign that puts Street Fighter 5’s non-existent offline game to shame. It sees you work your way up through several leagues and tournaments to uncover the secret behind Shadow Mewtwo. Although weirdly for a fighting game, you’ll also level up your chosen partner by putting points into stats such as strength and defence. While working through the stages and unlocking loads of customisation gear for my trainer is great fun, the levelling system doesn’t need to be there - it doesn’t add anything and it limits you to using one Pokemon to reach the top. You can switch your partner, but you’ll need to level them up to fight in the tougher leagues, so you’ll have to put lots of hours in to make sure your ‘mon stay competitive.
Multiplayer is where you start to notice just how complicated fights can get. The AI in single-player is easy to rally against and overcome, but fights can feel fruitless and disappointing against a real person, especially when it’s difficult to get a read on them. Local multiplayer also has one huge, experience-ruining flaw in that one of you has to play on the cumbersome GamePad with the small and inferior screen as your guide, while the other can use a pad and the TV. It’s a massive oversight, as every match is inherently unfair to whoever is stuck with the GamePad. It’s the gravest of sins for a technical fighting game. It’s been done that way because you can’t follow both players individually in the 3D field phase, but I can’t help but feel that Pokken would be a far better game if it did away with the arena part and just focused on the 2D dueling. You can hook up two Wii Us via LAN to get around it, but it’s unrealistic to expect people to be able to play that way.
Thankfully that’s not an issue when fighting others online as you can use whichever pad you like best. You can choose between ranked and friendly matches with friends or strangers, and you can fight against the CPU while you wait for a match. It’s your standard online fair, but is currently doing one step better than Street Fighter 5 as you’ll actually get punished if you rage quit a match. Not that you'd ever do that. You're better than that.
There are a few other irritants - environments look like layered cardboard cutouts, and you’re guided through the entire game by your coach Nia whose voice acting is so boring even a Pachirisu on X Speed would struggle to stay awake. It’s hard to get excited for a match or feel threatened by a dark force when your advisor is slowly suffocating you with the flatness of her delivery. Mercifully you can turn off her ‘advice’ during a match, which I implore you to do for the sake of your own sanity - it’s a much better game without her input.
If you’re looking for a fun, solo, Pokemon-shaped distraction for 8-10 hours, then Pokken will happily scratch that itch. If you want more of a challenge against your fellow trainers then you’ll be left wanting. The complicated mechanics and mixed controller matchups make fights unfair, which is a shame given how much work has gone into making the Pokemon feel just right. It’s a valiant effort, but it’s not the competitive battler fans were hoping for.