It’s not just a Phase
Pokkén Tournament comes from developer Bandai Namco, who have brought us plenty of other fighting games in the past – most notably the Tekken series (from the which the name Pokkén and a few of its gameplay elements derive from), Naruto, and the Soul Calibur series. Pokkén combines both free-roam style combat and close-quarter 3D fighter elements by having players “Phase Shift” back and forth between the two types continuously during matches. While strenuous at first, this mechanic is both unique and elaborate, and when correctly optimized it provides a high level of engagement for players.
Perhaps surprisingly, Pokkén is turning out to be one of the most technical fighting games I’ve played, and I say this as a self-professed enthusiast of the genre. The Phase Shifting mechanic is the mainstay of the title and getting acquainted with button assignments within each phase is what might ultimately turn casual players off. Matches begin in the “Field Phase” which is reminiscent of free-roam arena fighters like Naruto, and eventually – through either a string of combos or a heavy blow to your opponent – you Phase Shift into Duel Phase where more classic 3D fighting mechanics come into play. Phase Shifting is crucial because it provides a boost to the Synergy Gauge (super meter) and basically gives more stage control. Projectile based characters, known as “zoners,” will want to stay away from Duel Phase, while the melee fighters take advantage of the close quarter format to string together combos and deal increased damage. Like all fighting games, there’s a rock-paper-scissors element that also comes into play, but this game thrives off this “Attack Triangle” where grab beats counter, counter beats light attacks, and light attacks beat grabs.
All of this information is explained in depth by Nia, your advisor, in a helpful but daunting hour long tutorial that dumps all of the intricacies of the game on you within four or five small sessions. The tutorial alone will perhaps be enough to scare the typical gamer out of delving deeper into the game because it bombards you with so much information all at once; missing the smallest detail during this tutorial will leave you clueless as to what’s going on in battle. As such, absorbing the game’s mechanics is vital to success. Nia also introduces you to the Ferrum Region where these Ferrum Battles are all the rage. As your advisor, she’s also very active during battles where she cheers you on providing a wide variety of boosts based on your settings, as well as providing advice on your opponent’s Pokémon and how to handle them in battle.
The stages are all either circular or oval shaped with varying sizes in diameter. Once again, this adds complexity and strategy to the gameplay by picking stages based on the character selection of each player (counter picking) and their preferred playstyle. Ranged Pokémon will love the additional space that larger circular fields provide, and “rushdown” fighters will want the smallest oval-shaped stage possible to engage quickly in Dual Phase. The stages are visually appealing, and there’s always something catching your eye in the background. Whether it’s a Whirlipede rolling around on a treadmill, Sableye riding a mine cart in a cave, or Slugma swimming around in lava, the stages become a Pokémon edition of Where’s Waldo.
There are only 16 playable Pokémon in total, a number that many might have a problem with given the 700+ Pokémon the team have at their disposal. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this number since it allows the team to provide quality and depth to those included. I can’t help but think that a game with all 700 Pokémon included in this genre would be a case of quantity over quality, and thankfully the developers have fleshed out those available sufficiently, meaning they all stand out from each other and have an identity of their own.
All 16 Pokémon have unique moves that they are synonymous with from the handheld games, and it’s always a pleasure to see these iconic moves take place in such a visually attractive title where they have only previously been seen as sprites or basic animations. What’s more, the effect these moves have in prior Pokémon games are also present; Chandelure’s Will-O-Wisp will lower the opponents attack, Sceptile’s Leaf Storm hits hard but will reduce your attack for a short time, etc. There are also plenty of support Pokémon to choose from that will come to your aid should you find yourself in a pinch. With this many Pokémon playing important roles in the game, each generation gets plenty of screentime in Pokkén Tournament in one way or another.
A light story mode is present when playing through the Ferrum League, and without giving too much away, an old favorite is the big bad of the game. In the lower ranks, the Ferrum League is incredibly easy since all it takes to get a few “perfects” is one button without having to pay much attention. As you climb through the ranks, however, battles get exponentially harder with the CPUs challenging your knowledge of the Attack Triangle. This makes the climb all the more enjoyable as opposed to some fighting games that lock down the CPUs to a single level through an entire single-player run.
The online multiplayer mode comes with an option to play Ranked Matches and Friendly Matches with other online players or friends respectively. The game runs incredibly smooth online and matches are easy enough to find. While the online play works great, local play has its issues – especially since the battle camera only focuses on Player One, meaning that Player Two must use the gamepad as a separate screen for the entirety of the match. While this doesn’t completely ruin the multiplayer experience, it does take away some of the enjoyment that a shared experience of the cinematics might otherwise have provided.
There are an abundance of customization tools within the game that range from clothes and facial features for your avatar, Nia’s apparel, Support Pokémon sets, titles, and more. All are unlockable trough the Ferrum League, purchased with in-game currency, and, of course, Amiibos. Another form of customization is the allocation of Skill Points for your Pokémon following each match. You can place them in attack, defense, strategy, or synergy, and how you choose to spread these points out matters since they also carry over into ranked matches online.
Pokkén Tournament seems to have come out of nowhere for me; I hadn’t expected it to be as deep and engaging as it has turned out to be. Merging Tekken with Pokémon would have been enough for most people to enjoy this game, so kudos must be allocated to the developers for going the extra mile and providing a game that players can spend hours analyzing, and seeking out all of its nuances. This really is a true fighting game; don’t let the Pokémon veneer tell you otherwise. This is a game which takes patience and concentration to learn to play effectively, and it successfully manages to blend together elements from other fighters such as Street Fighter, Marvel, and Tekken, and combine them with new ideas to create something truly unique. Pokkén is a difficult game – perhaps too difficult for most of its target audience or casual players. But there is a real sense of reward for those who are determined enough to dig into this deep and technically excellent fighting game.