Spin-offs of Nintendo's long running Pokemon franchise tend to be a bit safe. Most of them (like Pokemon Conquest and Mystery Dungeon) are existing gameplay systems with Pokemon's cast of monsters spliced in. Pokken Tournament is similar, but taking Tekken's action packed fighting system and adding Pocket Monsters is a much more interesting prospect than adapting a different flavor of RPG. The game shines based on that gameplay, and it's truly exciting to see a different side to Pokemon battles after twenty years. However, the game's lack of skill in expanding beyond its gameplay betrays Pokken's origins as an arcade original, and makes it feel like a Relicanth compared to its peers.
Like most Pokemon stories, Pokken Tournament starts with you customizing your up and coming trainer in a brand new region. However, Pokken's Ferrum region hosts its battles a bit differently. Here, instead of a Pokedex, trainers receive a Battle AR. This small headset device allows trainers to give orders to their creatures faster. Trainers are organized into four tiers, with tournaments taking place to determine who has the right to battle the leader of each league and get promoted higher up the chain. This sets the stage for the real-time gameplay of Pokken Tournament, which is the true star of the show.
The first time you load into a battle in Pokken Tournament will be a memorable moment if you've played Pokemon since the beginning. I've always had a picture in my head of what the crude battle animations were portraying on my Game Boy, and Pokken realizes those childish thoughts into a fully HD reality. Each Pokemon in the game moves and attacks as you'd expect them to, and most special moves are modeled after moves that veteran trainers will immediately recognize. Gengar can sap an opponent's life with Dream Eater. Blaziken damages itself when missing a High Jump Kick. Sceptile can pepper opponents with Bullet Seeds. Everything is nailed when it comes to representing the admittedly small cast of characters, and that attention to detail may be enough to win over some Pokemon fans in and of itself.
If we look beyond the playable fighters (and the cast of supports you can call in a-la Marvel vs. Capcom), then the game's ties to Pokemon become a bit more tenuous. In establishing an entire new region to fight in, Pokken's stages are generic by design, limited to themes like "City at Night" and "Haunted Mansion" that aren't memorable in the slightest. The music accompanying your fights sound like knock offs of the mainline game's soundtracks, and everything about the presentation feels lacking. I understand the desire to establish something new within the franchise, but I can't help but miss the straight adaptions of battle music and other game elements from earlier titles like Pokemon Stadium.
Once you dive deep into the game's mechanics, you'll find a 3D based fighter that tries a little too hard to fix what isn't broken. Gameplay is centered around the Phase mechanic, and attacks will shift the view of the camera between a Field Phase and a Duel Phase. When on the Field, projectiles are your friend, and you're allowed to keep a bit of distance from your foe. When Dueling, it's more of a traditional one on one setup, reminiscent of the game's Tekken forefathers. The problem is that a Pokemon's moves change depending on which camera angle is currently active, forcing players to memorize two sets of moves for each Pokemon in order to truly master them.
That's true in theory at least. Nothing is stopping players from foregoing memorization and just mashing moves out until a victor is declared. Attacks deal massive damage in Pokken, especially the Burst Attacks, which are this game's versions of ultimates. These can be usually be charged up once a round and can decimate half of a health bar with ease. In addition, players can choose supports and skills that charge that meter faster, and the game spawns pickups of energy that also serve to get your closer to a flashy finishing move. As my time with the game progressed, I found myself consistently working towards charging my meter and then winning with an ultimate, since no other strategy really made sense.
This strategy can eventually be overcome in the game's multiplayer component, as humans know when to dodge out of the way of cheap attacks. However, it works every time against the Pokken's awful AI challengers. At all but the hardest levels of the single player campaign, I could deploy beam attacks or rush in for close combat at such a pace that I was basically stun locking the opposing creatures. I could achieve flawless victories without even trying, and grinding through the game's single player tournaments turned into a repetitive chore.
This could have been helped by some sort of ongoing incentive to keep going. In theory, players will be following along with the story as well as earning money that they can use to customize their in-game avatar for online bouts. In practice, the options for customization are limited at best, and you'll easily unlock what you want within an hour or so of playing with no other way to spend the currency you're racking up. The game's "story" is laughably brief, consisting of a rushed bunch of narrative segments shoved in-between two of the tournament tiers. It speaks about the same "shadow" powers that Pokemon Colosseum loved so much, and I imagine that even the most avid of Pokemon fans will find little to latch onto here.
Despite my issues with the game's amount of content, fighting against friends both locally and online is undeniably enjoyable. There isn't a crazy amount of depth to the game's systems, but it will work beautifully as a casual game to break out for an hour or two at a friend's house. The game works fine online, allowing you to match with friends or take on the world via a more serious ranked battle. I did find it unusual that the game only searches for an online match for ten seconds before dumping you into an AI match, but this will probably not be a problem after the game's launch.
Pokken Tournament brought back an unexpected nostalgia to me. It reminded me of playing Konami's classic brawlers for the first time with unlimited continues, getting to the final boss, and then leaving my controller with nothing but disappointment. Much like the arcade ports of years past, Pokken fails both to expand its core gameplay and to justify its existence on home consoles as a full priced release. If you just want to mix it up with human beings, Pokken Tournament has you covered. Every other facet of the game fails to satisfy in any meaningful way, and few will have the patience to get through the game's tedious single player content.