Pokken Tournament Deluxe Review: Giving Fighting Games a Fighting Chance

Pokken Tournament Deluxe is a Pokemon fighting spinoff game developed by Bandai Namco and published by Nintendo. It originally released in arcades and Wii U in 2015. A port to Nintendo Switch was released in September 2017 with the combined content from both Wii U and arcade versions. MSRB is $60. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Arms was the Nintendo-fied Fighting game, a smooth yet quirky approach to the genre. I liked it so much that I felt a “real” Fighting game was worth another shot. However, if I was going to put in the time and effort needed to learn all the mechanics and memorize the combos, I would need something to help me stay going.

Why not Pokemon?

As a fan, I saw Pokken Tournament as a long-awaited opportunity — what if you could directly control the Pokemon during a battle instead of picking attacks from an RPG menu? The game answers that question spectacularly. I get a great kick out of the spectacle of each battle — Machamp’s punches have that impact that you’d expect them to have, and Decidueye’s flips have the kind of momentum you’d see in an anime, not in a video game. Scizor’s body glistens with a metallic polish and Gengar’s wisps glow menacingly. I recognize that Game Freak have a lot on their plate with hundreds of Pokemon to model and hundreds of attacks to animate, but when I saw Pikachu zipping left and right while Charizard’s flamethrower consumed the battlefield, I couldn’t help but feel awestruck by Pokken Tournament‘s superior animations. I can only hope that one day Game Freak will make their games look half as good.

Pokken enlisted a healthy roster of 21 fighters across many different elements and body types, not including the 2 DLC characters and the dozens of Support Pokemon. Sadly, the cute Pokemon did make the roster cut, most were the “cool / tough” Pokemon that you’d expect to see in intense battles. I enjoyed diving into each Pokemon’s unique moveset. After spending time looking at each one, I still struggled picking a main — over half of the fighters landed well for me. Some Pokemon that I’ve never paid attention to in the RPGs, such as Braxien and Empoleon, became some of my favorites in Pokken. In the end, I picked Empoleon as my main. I loved his wide surf attacks, his long-reaching ice beam, and his aqua jet could take any opponent off guard.

It’s a good thing I found Pokemon fighters that I liked, because this game took me several hours to memorize the combos as well as adapt to not one, but two different fighting phases. Each match begins in Field Phase, where you can freely control the Pokemon around the arena, firing off ranged attacks for chip damage and finding an opening in your opponent’s moves. If you land a strong combo or make the right attack, you’ll trigger Duel Phase. In Duel Phase, the Pokemon move left and right on a 2D plane like a traditional Fighting game. During Duel Phase you’ll need to pay closer attention to spacing and timing. If you deal enough damage to your opponent, you’ll trigger the game to revert back to Field Phase, and the cycle will begin anew.

There are other details to keep in mind, too. If you trigger a phase shift at just the right time, you can heal some of the damage you received. Similarly, your opponent can do the same; so while chip damage can help, the most important things to do is to connect your combos. A well-timed use of Support Pokemon can disrupt an opponent’s momentum and actually change the tide of battle. Similarly, a wise use of your synergy gauge can help turn around a desperate situation. Finally, each arena has an invisible wall around it, and you can actually use that wall to juggle your opponent easier. I often used Empoleon’s aqua jet to push the enemies to the wall then juggle them there for a bit. Once I got the hang of it, it became quite satisfying to pull off. The Fighting game mechanics had a solid foundation with unique mechanics of their own. I’m happy that they didn’t just put a Pokemon skin on a basic Fighting game. I could tell the developers put some consideration into it. The different phases allow the Pokemon to shine both in their special ranged attacks as well as up close with their physical attacks.

Not only that, you have a triangle of attack types. Normal attacks beat grabs, shields and counter attacks beat normal attacks, and grabs beat shields / counter attacks. You can’t rely on one attack type for too long; your opponent will catch on and use the appropriate counter. You’ll need to play mind games with your opponent and act in a way that’s difficult to predict. And if there’s one thing I love about Fighting games, it’s the mind game portion of it.

As much as I liked the Fighting mechanics, they still puzzled me for a while. I often spent the early hours in the game’s Tutorials as well as practicing in the Action Dojo, where you literally go through a list of every single move a certain Pokemon has. After that, I went through the game’s Combo Practice until I could somewhat perform them without needing to look at a paper. I appreciate that Pokken Tournament has enough resources available right in the game for me to get the hang of everything. Even then, I wasn’t exactly the fastest or most coherent fighter to have ever played.

Outside of tutorials, there are several modes to actually use the fighting skills you’ve learned. Team Battle was my favorite single-player mode, where you pick three Pokemon on your team, and you have to beat the opponent’s team before you lose all of your Pokemon. I know that most Fighting games have this kind of mode, but in Pokken it felt like a Pokemon trailer battle. It was a perfect fit. I only wish there was a way to have a 6 vs. 6 mode of the same kind to make it truly like the RPGs.

Pokken Tournament also offers a Daily Challenge mode, where the player has to use a specific Pokemon to beat a certain opponent. For a while I looked forward to these daily tasks and rewards, but after a few weeks I got tired of them as they cycled through the same types.

Winning battles earn you two different rewards: skill points for your Pokemon, and money for you. Skill points can be spent to increase some of your Pokemon’s stats, while money can be used in My Town to customize your avatar. These felt like rather basic rewards, and they didn’t keep me engaged for long. It’s certainly nothing as exciting as unlocking trophies in Smash Bros. or even as satisfying as earning new arms in Arms.

I was hoping that the story mode, called the Ferrum League, would be a compelling campaign that would stood out from the rest of the other modes, but alas, it’s also rather plain. The Ferrum League is a series of tournament fights where you first earn a ranking and then participate in a bracket-style tournament. These are simply fights — nothing more, nothing less. You can try to unlock a few rewards through clearing missions, but these are as interesting as “use Support Pokemon XYZ five times.” There’s a story involving the mysterious Shadow Mewtwo, but I was not impressed by it very much. Shadow Mewtwo is certainly a fun and challenging fight, but the actual story left no impact on me at all. Sadly, I have nothing to comment about it.

Finally, you have the option to participate in Online Multiplayer. Like with Arms, I’m pleasantly surprised with how well the entire thing worked and with how well my matches went. Why did Switch games from 2017 have good online but later games suffered? Wouldn’t it be the opposite? Also like in Arms, I suck at it. The one thing it lacks from Arms is diversity of battle modes. You can fight others and… that’s it. At least Arms had some gameplay variety to keep you more interested.

In the end, Pokken Tournament had similar strengths and similar weaknesses to Arms. It showcased this fantastic fighting foundation with a fun roster to get acquainted with, it just lacked in the single-player department, a place where the developers left so much potential on the table. It’s a good thing I liked the Pokemon so well and that the gameplay was so deep, because those were the key factors that kept me playing the game casually. If it had a World of Light story mode, then it could’ve rivaled Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but that’s not the kind of game we got.

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