Released on: September 22 2017
Available Platforms: Wii U (Original), Nintendo Switch (DX)
Price: $79.99 CAD ($59.99 US)
Fighting games are the cornerstone of competitive gaming since the days of the arcade. Two (or more in some cases) players face off to find out who is the best at pressing buttons. All joking aside, fighting games are an infinitely intricate genre. There are so many strategies, mind games, moves, and gameplay nuances that go into each fighting game. There is even a glossary to describe all of the different terms. So what would be the best fit for such a complex genre of game? Why Pokemon, of course! Thus, Pokken Tournament was born. Having first played and enjoyed the game in an arcade while visiting Japan, I was excited to get the home console version. Pokken Tournament even got a re-release on the Switch, which included more content and new modes called Pokken Tournament DX, which we are looking at today. Was the wait for a North American version worth it?
In Pokken Tournament DX, trainers from all over the world come to the Ferrum region to become champion of the Ferrum League. Pokemon battles happen much differently than in other regions. In Ferrum, the trainer uses a unique device called a Battle AR, which allows the trainer to synchronize perfectly with their battle Pokemon. This synchronization ostensibly enables the trainer to have direct control over their Pokemon when battling. Trainers use this method of Pokemon battling to rise to the ranks of the Ferrum League. Meanwhile, a mysterious Pokemon and its trainer loom over the player as they rank up. Who are they, and what does this mean for the Ferrum region? The story mode is on the repetitive side, but it is also a great mode for the player to learn how to play the game at a reasonable pace. There are a lot of matches to get through, perhaps even too much. Thankfully, all the characters and stages are available from the start, so the story mode is entirely optional.
Pokken Tournament DX is a gorgeous looking game. If Pokemon Sword, Shield, and even the Let’s Go games looked this polished, I don’t think they would have gotten as much flak. The details on each Pokemon are stunning. When viewed up close, Lucario (who is a dog-like fighter), for example, has visible strands of fur. Decidueye (who is a ghost owl archer) has individual feathers on its wings. This attention to detail on the Pokemon models are what I was hoping for from Pokemon Sword and Shield. The stages also have an unprecedented amount of care. Diggersby Land takes place in a Pokemon themed amusement park. The lights of the rides light up the background. There is even a crowd of people and Pokemon. I especially enjoy the night version of Neos City, as the city lights give off a nightlife vibe that I love. The night version of Neos City also has reflective water puddles on the ground, adding even more depth to the stage. Those are just two stages in particular that came to mind. There are twenty-one stages in total, and they all that a similar amount of care put into them. If the player is especially astute, they will notice a lot of Pokemon in the background watching the battle unfold. It feels like I could praise the stages forever.
What keeps me coming back to Pokken Tournament DX time and again is the gameplay. At first glance, Pokken Tournament seems very basic. When the player plays on more hardened difficulty modes or tries their hand at online battles, they will learn that there is more to Pokken Tournament than meets the eye. Pokken Tournament has two battle phases: Field Phase, and Dual Phase. In Field Phase, the player can freely run around the arena, shooting projectiles at their opponent to try to get an advantage. When one player deals significant damage to another in Field Phase, the battle shifts to the Dual Phase. Dual Phase plays like a traditional two-dimensional fighting game and is where combatants have the chance to unleash their deadliest combos. In both phases, players can attack, block, counter, or grab. Pokken Tournament DX is fascinating, as it employs a rock-paper-scissors involving the mechanics mentioned earlier. Attacks take priority over grabs; grabs conquer blocking and countering opponents, blocking negates attacks and countering allows players to retaliate after being hit. Once the player understands these concepts, they can apply them to their battle to get the upper hand on their opponent. Some Pokemon even have special moves that incorporate counters and grabs to their moveset. The nimble Pikachu, for example, has a move where he leaps towards the opponent, grabs them, then starts his combo. The mighty Garchomp (who is a bipedal land shark) has a move that, when attacked, shoots sharp stones from the ground, launching the opponent in the air leading to a deadly combo. Players can also call upon their support Pokemon to help them keep the pressure up, gain temporary boosts, or interrupt the opponent’s combo for a chance at a comeback. The best fighting games make the player feel like they are learning with every game played and Pokken Tournament DX, with its deceptively deep gameplay, delivers on this notion beautifully.
Pokken Tournament DX’s greatest strength is with how unique every Pokemon feels from one another. If I take Garchomp from earlier, he is powerful but slow. To circumvent his low speed, he can burrow underground to approach his opponent much faster. Decidueye, being an owl, can hover over enemies to either continue their combo or reposition themselves for a surprise attack. Even Pikachu Libre, who is Pikachu, but in a luchador outfit, feels entirely different than regular Pikachu. What makes Pokemon so endearing is how unique they are from each other, and Pokken Tournament DX not only understood this, but it took that idea and ran with it.
One thing I have noticed with Switch games is that a lot of games have issues when it comes to playing online. Thankfully, I had minimal problems when it came to Pokken Tournament DX. There were a few matches that have lagged a bit, but those were far from the norm. If I could give a numerical value, I would say eighty percent (80%) of my matches were smooth.
So with how much praise I give Pokken Tournament DX, there are a few things that do bother me.
Let’s start with the Pokken Tournament DX re-release itself. The main differences between the Wii U and Switch versions are the inclusion of all of the arcade characters (Darkrai, Scizor, Croagunk, and Empoleon), new characters (Decidueye in the base game, Aegislash, and Blastoise as DLC), Daily Challenges, Team Battles and more stages. While it does seem like a lot, those that have played the Wii U version and are content with it might find little reason to pay full price for the Switch version.
On the subject of content, I felt that the original Pokken Tournament was a little lacking when it came to swingle player content, an issue that Pokken Tournament DX does not fix. The addition of Daily Challenges helps, but there is little else to entice players who enjoy playing by themselves to come back.
While I do praise Pokken Tournament DX’s gameplay mechanics, they can also cause a lot of frustration for the player. Fighting an opponent who far outranks the player will feel like a hopeless endeavor. When playing online, the possibility of running into other players who are either way above or below the player’s rank is a little too high for my taste. I understand that getting destroyed is part of the learning process, which is not exclusive to Pokken Tournament, but its never pleasant feeling feeble.
At the start of the game, the player meets Nia, their advisor. She shows the player around, and advises players in the middle of the battle…a lot! Her loquaciousness is my biggest gripe with Pokken Tournament. By default, she comments on everything the player does in the fight and never lets up. Nia’s worse quality is how condescending she sounds whenever she talks to the player. I decided to change Nia’s voice from English to Japanese to see if the experience was better; it was not. Thankfully, the player can turn off her comments in the options menu, but if the player isn’t privy to this information, they will suffer from Nia’s company. The player can change Nia’s outfit, but that does little to increase her likeability.
If the player can get over Nia and the lack of engaging single-player content, Pokken Tournament, at its core, is a wonderful time. Gorgeous visuals, engaging gameplay, and a reliable online mode, Pokken Tournament DX is well worth a look for fighting game fans who never played the Wii U version.