Pokken Tournament DX review: Pokemon brawler goes portable

Eric Abent - Sep 18, 2017
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Pokken Tournament DX review: Pokemon brawler goes portable
Editors' Rating: 8/10
Pros
  • An excellent Pokemon fighting game. What more do you need?
  • Offers a varied roster of Pokemon from most generations
  • Stands out in a sea of fighting games with Phase Shifts and Support Pokemon
Cons
  • Only one truly new Pokemon, Decidueye, added to the roster
  • Voice acting is disappointing
  • Daily challenges are a poor replacement for a dedicated challenge mode

Even though I consider myself a pretty big Pokemon fan – I’ve played every mainline game since Red and Blue and to this day can still sing the PokeRap (it’s like riding a bike, honestly) – Pokken Tournament evaded me when it was originally launched on the Wii U. With Pokken Tournament DX, I’ve been given another shot at experiencing the game, so how does Nintendo’s Pokemon fighting title hold up in the jump to the Switch?

Pokken Tournament DX
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Nintendo

Pokken Tournament DX comes as something of a surprise to me. I usually don’t care for Pokemon spin-offs, nor do I really consider myself a fighting game fan. At the most, I’m a very casual fighting game player, and I could never hope to actually play one to any competitive degree. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching people compete in titles like Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros, and Injustice, but I’m so far from that level of skill that I can only ever hope to button mash my way to glory.

You’d think, then, that I would quickly lose interest in Pokken Tournament DX, but I’ve actually quite enjoyed them time I’ve spent with the game. You don’t have to willing to memorize moves or pull off perfect combos consistently in order to enjoy Pokken Tournament DX. You can learn those, of course, but this is a game that is immediately accessible to most anyone. I suppose we have the fact that it carries the Pokemon brand to thank for that.

Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely a level of depth present for those who would like to play this like they would any other technical fighting game. Indeed, all you need to do is watch a few pro Pokken Tournament matches to understand that fighting game aficionados will have a lot to keep them occupied. The difference between Pokken Tournament and the rest is that Pokken isn’t intimidating to the newcomer. While Street Fighter and Tekken may have been made for the person who wants to excel at fighting games, Pokken Tournament was made so that we could watch Pikachu beat up Charizard in full 3D glory.

To that end, Pokken Tournament is a success. Pokemon fans should get a kick out of taking notable Pokemon from each generation and pitting them against each other in one-on-one battles. Given that the core Pokemon experience revolves around battling, it’s a wonder it took Nintendo so long to release a Pokemon fighting game, but now that it’s here, it’s a blast to play.

For the uninitiated – those who missed out on Pokken Tournament the first time around – Pokken Tournament matches are best of three affairs that place players against one another in a 3D arena. There are two phases in battle: the field phase and the duel phase. The field phase is the 3D portion of the battle, giving you full range of movement in an open area where long-range attacks are very valuable. The duel phase, on the other hand, changes the perspective to a more traditional side view, prompting the combatants to get up close and personal. Battles are constantly shifting between the two phases, as these so-called “Phase Shifts” happen after you do a certain amount of damage to your opponent or vice versa.

Almost immediately, Pokken Tournament stands out from the crowd because of its Phase Shift mechanic. Some of your attacks will do different things depending on the phase you’re fighting in, which means that casual fighting game players (like me) won’t necessarily be spamming the same attack for the duration of the match.

We also have Pokken Tournament DX’s support system, which allows you to pick two Pokemon at the start of the match and call them in as support during battle. These support Pokemon do a variety of different things, to damaging and debuffing your opponent to buffing and healing your Pokemon. It’s an interesting mechanic, and best of all, a well-timed support call-in can actually turn the tide of a losing match.

In a departure from mainline Pokemon games, type advantage doesn’t play a role in Pokken Tournament DX. Instead, Pokemon are split up into four different groups: Power, Speed, Technical, and Standard. Each group has a distinct play style, with Power Pokemon being slower than most but capable of dealing out a punishing amount of damage with their attacks. Speed Pokemon can zip around the battlefield and use that agility to get the one up on their opponents, while Technical Pokemon seem to have a higher skill cap that rewards practice. Finally, Standard Pokemon seem to be all-rounders, offering a nice balance of speed, skill cap, and power.

There are 21 different Pokemon to choose from, with the full roster from Pokken Tournament returning. That means five new characters are present in Pokken Tournament DX, with Scizor, Croagunk, Darkrai, and Empoleon joining the roster from the arcade version. That leaves Decidueye as the only truly new character in Pokken Tournament DX, so those of you who managed to play the original Pokken Tournament in arcades may feel a bit underwhelmed by this roster expansion.

The single player modes feel fairly robust. If you want to do more than just a single exhibition match against the CPU, you can participate in the Ferrum League. The League serves as the main single player experience, in which you’re matched against a large number of CPU opponents as you ascend the ranks. After winning a certain number of League battles, you’ll be able to participate in a tournament that tasks you with winning three battles in a row. If you can do that, you’ll be able to fight in a promotion battle, and winning it will allow you to graduate to the next league.

The Ferrum League starts out at a very low difficulty, allowing new players to dive right in. While things stay easy for quite some time, the difficulty begins to spike in later Leagues. Most players will be able to build up a sizable win streak in the early Ferrum Leagues, but don’t be lulled into some false sense of accomplishment – these matches actually get very challenging as you rise through the ranks, which was a pleasant surprise for me. Overall, the Ferrum League offers a significant amount of content for those looking to stick to single player, as you need to dedicate some serious time in order to finish it all.

Other single player content includes an in-depth tutorial mode (which all players should check out) and daily challenges that you can complete to earn extra skill points for some of your Pokemon. These challenges assign the Pokemon and supports you’ll use at random, forcing players who focus on using a handful of Pokemon out of their comfort zones. It’s a nice feature, but I would have liked to see a more fleshed out challenge mode. As it is, daily challenges feel like a mere diversion rather than fully-fledged game mode that can stand alongside Ferrum League.

Of course, there are also online modes to participate in once you’ve finished the single player content. Given the fact that we’re still a few days away from release, I wasn’t able to find many online matches, but I liked what I saw. There is a ranked mode for people who take competition seriously, but it’s also for those who don’t like it when opponents rage quit because a match is heading south. The game makes it very clear that those who leave in the middle of a ranked match will face consequences, and it’s nice to see Nintendo taking the spirit of competition so seriously.

In Pokken Tournament DX, you can also create online groups for competition between members. Perhaps you create a group for your friends so you can easily hold weekly tournaments, or a group for people who are just getting started with the game and want a welcome place for beginners. It’s a cool feature, but again, it’s kind of hard to judge just how useful it will be before release.

If you take your own improvement seriously, you can also watch replays of your matches. These replays will give you a read out of your inputs in real time, letting you know if you’re executing combos correctly or if you’re spending most of the match mashing buttons. You can also watch replays of others’ online matches, which is handy for seeing how others play your favorite Pokemon. Between replays, tutorials, and groups, there are a lot of resources for players who want to excel at Pokken Tournament DX, so don’t be surprised to see a healthy competitive scene spring up around this game.

For the most part, I very much enjoy Pokken Tournament DX and I think Pokemon fans who missed out the Wii U release should absolutely check it out. However, my enjoyment doesn’t come without complaints. While they’re mostly minor on their own, together they hold Pokken Tournament DX back from becoming truly excellent.

For starters, it’s disappointing to see only one new Pokemon added to the roster. It’s true that those who never played the arcade release have five new Pokemon to look forward to, but this would have been a great opportunity for Nintendo to add one or two new Pokemon from Sun and Moon along with Decidueye. I hope that Nintendo decides to support Pokken Tournament DX with some DLC fighters down the road, but if it doesn’t, that’ll only to add to my roster disappointments.

The voice acting in this game is pretty bad as well. That wouldn’t normally be a concern in a fighting game, but there’s a surprising amount of spoken dialogue in Ferrum League, which offers a somewhat bare-bones side story as you’re competing in each League. The main NPC, Nia, who is by your side every step of the way, sounds like the AI assistant on your smartphone, while many of the other voice actors sound uncommitted and bored. I understand that voice acting shouldn’t be the primary focus of fighting game, but with all the dialogue that Namco and Nintendo recorded, there should have been more emphasis on actually making it good.

For players who are uninterested in online play, there just isn’t that much to do once you finish the Ferrum League. It’s true that the Ferrum League offers a lot of content on its own, but this is where the lack of a more in-depth challenge mode (like the ones we see in the Super Smash Bros series) becomes disappointing. Namco was certainly onto something with the daily challenges it added to Pokken Tournament DX, but I would have liked to see it take daily challenges a few steps further so it’s a mode I’d have to actually invest some time into.

Wrap-Up

At the end of it all, Pokken Tournament DX will still be a worthy addition to your Switch library. The game runs really well on the Switch – I didn’t notice anything in the way of frame drops, and all of the 3D Pokemon models look great. For Pokemon fans, this is certainly a must-have, even if you only have a passing interest in fighting games.

If you are a fighting game fan, however, there’s plenty for you here as well. Hopefully Nintendo gives Pokken Tournament DX some post-release love by adding new fighters and arenas to the game, because this is certainly one title that has the potential to enjoy a long life on the Switch.

Should you buy Pokken Tournament DX if you already played the original on the Wii U? While Nintendo’s first Switch re-release – Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – is a must-have title on the Switch regardless of the time you spent playing it on the Wii U, I’m not sure the same is true for Pokken Tournament DX. The additions Nintendo and Namco made are nice, but I don’t think they warrant a $60 price tag. At the most, this game should cost $40.

On that note, I will say this: those who buy Pokken Tournament DX will definitely benefit from the fact that it’s launching early on in the Switch’s life, at a time when the console is only rising in popularity. Contrast that to the fact that it first launched when the Wii U was declining drastically in popularity, and it may be worth another purchase for some fans. If you want a larger online community to play with, you should certainly consider Pokken Tournament DX.

In the end, it’s up to players to decide if this is worth the $60 Nintendo is asking. For someone who never played the Wii U release, it absolutely is, but those who have already seen what Pokken Tournament has to offer, the answer to that question might not be quite so clear.


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