As much fun as it's been to battle Pokemon in turn-based battles, there's always been a desire to watch them duke it out like in the anime. There's been an itch to watch them take it to each other with physical special moves, mixed in with hand-to-hand combat. Pokken Tournament was supposed to represent that kind of Pokemon battle evolution, but the collaboration between Bandai Namco and The Pokemon Company sadly doesn't live up to its grand potential.
There are 16 of the popular Pocket Monsters out there to choose from, all fighting across both 3D and 2D planes in best of three round sessions. The controls are far simpler than the average fighting game, with a strong and weak attack button, a special attack button, and a jump button that may throw off anyone more accustomed to using "Up" to perform a leap. The 3D plane creates the potential for interesting encounters, with the control pad and the various attack buttons performing different moves, in addition to unique special moves for each fighter. So far, all sounds well and good.
Unfortunately, the battles quickly start to feel repetitive. Many of the battles seem to be missing that intangible thrill sensation one would expect to find in established fighting franchises, including ironically enough, Pokken Tournament producer Katsuhiro Harada's own Tekken series. The idea of simplicity isn't a bad thing in itself, but Pokken Tournament's lack of depth clearly becomes evident through repeated playthroughs. The combo system doesn't feel particularly intuitive, the Phase Shifts that take battles between 3D and 2D feel inconsistent in their implementation, and battles often feel like they're over far too quickly.
Meanwhile, the special Synergy Bursts that turn many of the competitors into their Mega Evolution (or grant auras to those that don't have one) almost feel like a moot point, as fights often feel like they're already over by the time anyone gets to utilize one. Granted, they certainly have a theatrical element to them, but the thrill of Synergy Bursts wanes quickly. Worse yet, they don't seem to encourage a lot of strategy, since Burst meters can be filled purely through aggressive and thoughtless play. Many games will come down to repetitive melee attacks or spamming projectiles and that just doesn't feel fun.
But while it feels like Pokken Tournament doesn't have a lot of depth to it, the game does its best to offer learning tools to the player. Not only are there tutorials for the game's controls and various phases of battle, but there are also tutorials aimed at teaching combos and advanced techniques. This will be helpful through the lengthy single-player mode, which requires players to climb the rankings before competing in the Ferrum League tournaments. This means playing through four-fight sessions several times, which can feel like a drag.
The one element of Pokken Tournament that does show a lot of potential is the Support Pokemon system. This allows players to select pairs of lesser helper Pokemon and pick one to bring into each particular round. These Pokemon can assist by either helping recover health, increasing the competing Pokemon's Synergy gauge, or even by intervening directly with a counter attack or anti-air maneuver. This introduces an intriguing sense of strategy, requiring players to study more than the individual matchups. However, rounds are often over so quickly that many times, the helper Pokemon won't even see any action.
Pokken Tournament tries its best to cater to a more casual fighting crowd, but in its efforts to do so rapidly becomes mundane after repeated playthroughs. There's little lasting appeal here and no real incentive to get better, ironic given that the game is based on the property made famous by wanting the very best, like no one ever was. Without the depth and complexity of a Street Fighter or Tekken and without the increasing fun factor and crazy comebacks of a Smash Bros., Pokken Tournament falls into a nebulous middle ground that leaves it feeling unremarkable, much like a throwaway Pokemon battle with a Bug Catcher or some other random trainer.
This review is based on a Wii U digital copy provided by the publisher. Pokken Tournament will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop digitally for $59.99, on March 18. The game is rated E10+.