Whilst games such as the Nintendo 64’s Pokémon Stadium came pretty close, seven-year-old-me’s dream of battling Pokémon in a way that feels ‘real’ has never truly been realised. I’m just as much a fan of the core Pokémon games as the next trainer, but I always wanted to see Pokémon moving around like real creatures rather than sprites that wiggled slightly. Now, thanks to an unlikely collaboration between Nintendo and Tekken developer, Bandai Namco, we have Pokkén Tournament – possibly the closest we have come to those dreams so far. Originally released in Japanese arcades and then for Wii U, the latest version, Pokkén Tournament DX, has arrived on Nintendo Switch with some exciting new content. Does it come close to my childhood dreams, though, and more importantly: is it worth buying?
For those who may have missed the Wii U version entirely, let me explain the game’s concept. Pokkén is a fighting game where you take control of the Pokémon themselves, battling in circular arenas. Unlike the core series, Pokkén does not work around an RPG system and has no turn-based action to speak of; you fight in real-time. The game explains that by harvesting the power of Synergy Stones (sources of very strong energy) into Bluetooth-like headsets called ‘Battle ARs’, trainers are able to be in sync with their Pokémon. It isn’t really an important fact but does clear things up for fans of the main series who demand answers as to why we can suddenly control Pokémon in this way.
The plot of the solo portion of the game sees you working your way through the Ferrum League – a competition hosting a series of battles to become the champion. As you progress through these battles, a mystery surrounding a strange, aggressive, seemingly-out-of-sorts Mewtwo unfolds, and at times you will encounter the legendary ‘mon yourself. Without wanting to spoil the plot any further, I’ll stop there and add that the story isn’t an essential part of the game by any means, but it does help to make the solo campaign feel a bit more purposeful. What the game is really all about, however, is the battling itself!
This turns out to be a great thing because wow, they’re good! You can immediately tell that this is a very detailed, incredibly well-thought-out fighting game; characters have moves assigned to almost every button, alternative attacks when moving sideways or in the air, combos, blocks, counter attacks, grabs – you name it! There is a rock-paper-scissors system in place surrounding grabs, attacks, and blocks, meaning that gameplay focuses more on reactions to your opponent than button-mashing or mind-numbing combo sequences. The battles also swap between ‘Duel’ and ‘Field’ phases as you’re duking it out. Here, the battle will change back and forth between an open, 3D space, and the more traditional 2D, side-on view. The attacks and abilities of the Pokémon change between these two phases and, if you know what you’re doing, you can trigger a phase-switch almost at will. There is an awful lot to learn if you’re willing and, whilst mastering the game is a tough feat, grasping the basics is a surprisingly accessible goal.
The Pokémon themselves are extremely varied too, meaning that getting to know the ins and outs of how they all work will take a lot of time. The roster has grown since the Wii U instalment, to a total of 21 (albeit with two of those being reasonably differentiated variations on existing characters), with Darkrai, Empoleon, Scizor, and Croagunk being copied over from the arcade version, and a completely new fighter, Decidueye, from the Pokémon Sun & Moon games. These characters all come under categories of ‘Standard’, ‘Technical’, ‘Speed’ or ‘Power’, have unique movesets, and behave in different ways. For example, Empoleon is a rather brutish character who makes use of its immense strength and stays close to the ground; Darkrai, on the other hand, is a menace who disappears and reappears, glides around the arena, and uses traps against you. Every character is available from the start which is great in one way, as players of the original can immediately get stuck in with their favourite characters, but it loses the sense of achievement that the original offered upon unlocking new fighters. It’s especially strange that you should immediately have access to ‘Shadow Mewtwo’ considering the character is a vital plot point later in the story mode.
Battles go even deeper thanks to Support Pokémon and Synergy Bursts. Support Pokémon are extra creatures you take in to fight with you and, again, there is a large selection. Supports are activated when their gauges are filled, and can do a number of things such as attacking your opponent in different ways, tampering with their attacks, or even aiding your own stats. Synergy Bursts are a powered-up state that can be accessed by each character once you have collected enough Synergy. This is achieved by switching the phase of battle, landing attacks, and collecting energy sources from the ground. Whilst in Synergy Burst mode, your Pokémon – for a limited time – becomes much stronger and has access to a Burst Attack: a fancy, cinematic move that does an awful lot of damage.
Whilst the single player mode is great for learning the ropes, online is perhaps where players should expect to spend most of their time, and the options here are very impressive indeed. You have your standard battles, which can be played against players across the globe – either ranked or just for fun – or against friends, by both of you inputting the same code before searching for a game. (For the sake of research, of course, I am happy to report that “Bacon” works as a valid code.) On top of this, you can create groups (private or public lobbies) with all sorts of customisable rules, such as whether battles are ranked or not; you can even set certain timeslots throughout a day when the battles become ranked affairs if you wish to utilise both types. The function is also available to view replays of players’ matches from all around the world, which could be extremely useful for learning how the top players work their magic.
The time I spent playing online against others was without incident and I see no reason to be worried about the game’s servers holding up when the whole world gets their hands on it. There was usually a slight delay at the start of each match but once it had started it ran very smoothly indeed. There seemed to be a (very) slight dip in the quality of the visuals at times, but it was hardly noticeable and the fighting itself felt great. This extends to other multiplayer modes too (for the most part).
The other ways to play against friends are with either the Wireless or Local modes. Wireless requires two players to have their consoles at the ready, connecting over a shared Wi-Fi; again, this mode ran perfectly for every game I played, so no complaints at all. Local is your typical living room setup, with two players needing a controller each to play. You actually have the option to either play split-screen, or full screen with one player’s Pokémon just being at the back. For the love of Arceus, pick full screen! When in split-screen, the visuals drop from 60 to 30fps and, whilst I’m not generally too fussed about graphical power in a game, the difference is incredibly noticeable here and can easily be avoided by playing in full screen.
There are other modes on offer too, one of which is Practice. This is a training centre where, unsurprisingly, you can practice your skills and learn to be the very best (like no-one ever was). It features some lengthy, in-depth tutorials, a Combo Dojo to learn all about each individual ‘mon’s combos, and you can even be shown through each Pokémon’s entire moveset; it’s amazingly extensive for a training section. As well as this, there is a Single Battle mode where you can set up a battle against the CPU with customisable rules – this includes Extra Battles and Team Battles which work differently to your normal romps, making use of item boxes and a 3-on-3 mechanic (where you battle until a player loses all three Pokémon) respectively.
All three of these available battle types may also crop up in what is a new feature to Pokkén Tournament DX – the Daily Challenge. Here, every day brings a new challenge with different requirements. If you manage to complete the challenge you will be rewarded with Skill Level points for random characters – power-ups that are usually only acquired for the fighter you are using at the time. These challenges seem relatively easy to complete, but they do force you to use different Pokémon each day, which is a good way to get players trying something new.
Something else that cannot be ignored is the incredible amount of customisation options available – not just to the button layout for your attacks (which is fully customisable), but your avatar too. The amount of different outfit choices is staggering, as is the number of different Titles and Comments you can assign to your in-game self. You can unlock all of the above through in-game achievements, amiibo (any figures, up to five scans a day), Lucky Bonuses, and optional tasks presented on Mission Panels. You’ll find yourself acquiring new goodies regularly and, with literally thousands of things to collect, you’ll be there for some time.
DX is, without question, superior to its Wii U predecessor; it has more characters, more features, and more modes – it is the definitive edition of the game. It looks absolutely stunning in both docked and undocked play-styles; there is a slight “fuzziness” to the character models at times, but you’ll hardly notice it when you have a Blaziken mercilessly kicking you in the face. The music is awesome too, although it is hard to hear under the sound effects of the fighting. Of course, this makes sense because you want to be immersed in the action, but thanks to in-game settings you can make the music stand out more if you wish – here’s looking at you, Haunted House stage!
It’s also undeniable that the Switch’s Pro Controller (or the official Pokkén control pad, should you have one) is the best way to play. The Joy-Cons in their grip are a decent second to this, but the Pro Controllers are where it’s at. Handheld mode is fine but not quite as comfortable – moving from the triggers to a combination of face buttons is rather tricky when holding the weight of the console, as your grip needs to constantly change position slightly; it’s perfectly manageable, just not the optimum way. Having a singular Joy-Con on its side is near-impossible, however. Of course there is no D-Pad, it is uncomfortable to hold, and I really struggled to switch from attacks to blocking without almost dropping the controller. Pokkén was never made with a singular Joy-Con in mind so it would be unfair to criticise it over that, but it is worth noting.
Overall, Pokkén Tournament DX has been a thoroughly unputdownable pleasure to play; it might not be the unfairly flawless image from my young mind’s imagination but it’s pretty close. I decided against buying this for Wii U when it released last year and I now regret not giving it a chance. It’s a wonderful fighting game in its own right – one of the best in recent times – and the characters (including some nicely refreshing, more obscure choices such as Chandelure), as well as the arenas themselves, will make Pokémon fans feel right at home. Ever wanted to watch a Whirlipede rolling on a treadmill? Now you can! With Pokkén Tournament DX, fighting fans have gained an immensely deep experience to sink into, Pokémon fans have gained a beautiful take on their beloved world, and the Nintendo Switch has gained itself yet another star. See you on the battlefield!