Rokken like Pokken
Pokkén Tournament was one of the more intriguing games on the Wii U. It combined a lot of things I love like fighting games, Pokémon, and anime avatars. But while it found some success with an audience in the center of a crazy Venn diagram, it became little more than a brief curiosity seemingly doomed to its experimental obscurity.
With Pokkén Tournament DX, there’s a hope the newish coat of paint on the Switch will entice more of the world at large. It’s, well, moderately successful in this regard.
Pokkén Tournament DX (Switch)
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Release Date: September 22, 2017
DX is unique in that its core fighting system feels light and arcadey, yet weighted. Fights take place on a circular plane with the camera positioned behind your chosen fighter. In this “Field Phase,” the two fighters can run around and shoot projectiles at one another, or you can choose to enter the “Duel Phase,” by approaching your opponent and hitting them with enough attacks to enter a semi 2D plane resembling a more traditional fighter. This system can have a nice level of complexity as some characters, like Braixen and Suicune, do better in the field phase and some characters, like Scizor and Machamp, are better up close and personal. I mean, it can have strategy, but I often found myself progressing through the Ferrum League (DX‘s lightly story tinged arcade mode which sets you on several sets of fights as you move up in rank) with the same strategy of shooting a few projectiles, forcing my opponents into the Duel Phase, and building enough meter to use either my Support Pokémon (which will either attack, give buffs, or debuff the opponent), or my Synergy Burst (DX’s version of super meter which gives your Pokémon a brief transformation and potential super move).
Although fights against the computer pretty much all broke down into the same meta-strategy, successfully landing combos can feel pretty satisfying. Though attacks are limited to single face buttons (one for projectile attacks, one for the up-close homing attacks, and one for more specialized moves), adding a directional input changes their properties. My go-to Scizor, for example, can either shoot buzzsaw energy blasts or unleash a claw shaped, heavier version of that projectile by adding a directional input. Each of the characters has little nuances like this, and combined with the deliberate pace of each move, pulling of longer chained combos always feels good. But given the difficulty curve doesn’t advance until much later in the Ferrum League, there’s no real reason to experiment with these nuances until you play in other modes.
Speaking of other modes, Pokkén Tournament adds a few things to its DX Switch package. Along with brand new character Decidueye (and support Pokés Litten and Popplio), and arcade exclusives Scizor, Darkrai, Empoleon, and Croagunk, there are daily challenge fights yielding skill points (which still don’t seem to make a huge difference after playing for a few days), multiplayer lobbies and replays, but the more intriguing additions are Team Battle and the ability to play split-screen local multiplayer.
Playing local battles on the Wii U version had one person playing on the TV while the other utilized the GamePad screen, so I was very curious as to how it would work. After testing it on my TV, and using the Switch tablet alone, split-screen works with a few caveats. Naturally there is a limit to visibility as the game itself is squashed into a smaller square but, with the health bar and meters outside of that square, it works pretty well without frame rate drops. You can also bypass this by having both players share the same screen at different ends of the circular arena like it were a round of Mario Tennis or Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm.
Team Battles have a great setup. Playing almost like The King of Fighters series, each player chooses three characters with a new character tagging in the next round after one is defeated. There’s a subtle change to how it works from the KOF series I appreciate, however. In that series, you choose your three characters and set their order of appearance before the match starts. In DX, however, you set the order as you go along. So let’s say I wanted to save my strongest Pokémon, Scizor, as the last character in case things got hairy. But if I were to say, be completely dominated in the first round, I could choose Scizor to get me out of that jam as the second character instead of praying he’ll still be super effective when facing down a full team of three opponents. This is the mode with the most draw in the entire package, and is something I’d be interested to watch professionals play around with. Not only does it add layers of nuance to the present meta-game, but to character selection as well.
There may be enough content packed here to qualify this as a “deluxe” version of Pokkén Tournament, but the presentation doesn’t always reflect this. Luckily you can turn the “coach,” who speaks throughout the game’s menus and fights, off because her voice acting is incredibly wooden and hard to listen to after several hours. The character models all look striking in their own way, but don’t hold up to close scrutiny with jagged shadows and a general blur over their models. Arenas also share these same faults as they all look well made at a distance, but if you look at any of them too closely, they’re all pretty bland and lacking in finer details. But at least it runs well in both TV and handheld play, and only has some small dips in performance when playing online.
Pokkén Tournament DX won’t exactly draw in those who aren’t interested in fighting games or who’ve already played the version released on the Wii U, but it does offer a fun system to fool around with to those waiting for a train or sitting on a toilet or something.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]