I’m not new to the world of Pokken. I’ve played the game during not one, but two testing phases. I sunk a hefty amount of change into the game during its Japanese arcade launch and came back for new fighters, even if the game’s been unpopular out here. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Nintendo’s PR sent me a review copy of the game. While Gamer Professionals will wait until the game has a full release to score the game, I’ve been allowed to give you readers a preview of the western release of the offline play.
For those unfamiliar with the game, Pokken is a simplified fighting game similar to the likes of Tekken, including a 3-D Field Phase and a 2-D Duel Phase. While there are still move cancels, combos, and other more complex mechanics that generally scare people like me away from Street Fighter, the game mostly focuses on easy, Smash Bros-type combo moves with a “rock-paper-scissors” like formula: counters beat normal attacks, grabs beat counters and blocks, normal attacks beat grabs.
Before each battle, you can choose a set of support Pokemon, who will enter the fight briefly (such as to heal you or lower the enemy’s defense) once it becomes “charged.” You also have a “synergy” meter that, when maxed out, allows you to enter “synergy mode,” making your fighter significantly stronger while regaining health, and unlocking the opportunity to use a sort of ultimate attack, your “synergy burst.”
I don’t recall seeing it in arcades, but there are “cheer” options that also change the way you receive buffs after each round. By default, the support Pokemon you didn’t choose will become fully charged if you won the round; if you lost, both supports will be maxed out and your synergy meter will get a small boost. You can adjust the system to focus more on support skills or more on your synergy meter, among other options.
Unlike the arcade version of the game, the Wii U version has a story mode, and while the AI isn’t perfect, it’s significantly smarter and more challenging than anything I faced in the arcade. The Wii U version of the game also includes new fighters and support Pokemon. You start with four power types, three speed, two tech, and five standard types. The types dictate certain stats: power types tend to have more health and hit harder, speed types have weaker attacks but seem to have priority more often, and technical types often have slower synergy charge times but compensate with interesting tool kits.
I’ve played a lot of these characters before and they feel the same as they did on the arcade, so your skills should translate well. The exclusive Wii U characters– Mewtwo, Garchomp, and Braixen– are great additions. They fit right at home with the older arcade characters, with one exception.
Shadow Mewtwo (which is easily accessible before finishing the very final match if you don’t have its amiibo card) is a bit more unique, feeling like a a combination of Gengar (a projectile specialist that inflicts damage on itself while capable of sucking up HP) and Chandelure (a character with long-reaching melee moves). I don’t feel the amiibo card is necessary to unlock the character, and almost worry that new players might have a rougher time with the game if they start with Shadow Mewtwo, as the character feels like it has a slightly higher learning curve than many other fighters.
Both the GamePad and the Pro Controller were comfortable to use, but the Wii Remote and nunchuk for multiplayer felt awkward. For casual players, the drop from 60fps to local multiplayer’s 30fps won’t be felt; at least, my partner and I didn’t notice anything.
In anything other than Practice Mode or Local Multiplayer, your Pokemon can gain levels based on your performance; even if you lose, you can gain a hefty amount of experience. Levels allow you to increase your attack, defense, synergy (the offense and defense boost received in this mode), or support (lower charge times and increase stat-based effects). The effects are noticeable, but I was able to switch from my level 74 Gengar to a fresh Chandelure and still perform fairly well in the game’s highest difficulty level.
To note, the local multiplayer doesn’t record any stats or seem to unlock anything, including achievements. It’s fun, but I feel like this further emphasizes the title as meant for online play. While there are two different modes, at least me partner and I didn’t really feel any difference. One mode is standard, while the other introduces random Attack/Defense/Speed boosts and debuffs to the field. Perhaps part of this was because the matches often last less than a minute and maintaining moment plus field control feels significantly more important than risking your life on a barely perceptible bonus.
Players can use five amiibo a day for random rewards, like titles, money, and customizations for trainer, and rewards are not related to the amiibo (Ness gave me the “Pikachu’s Pal” title, Charizard gave a Garchomp title, and Pikachu’s amiibo gave money). For those who are curious, the Japanese arcade Namco cards that save our arcade don’t work at all with the game, but are detected as potential devices. I’ve reached out to Nintendo to ask if the Japanese Wii U version of the game interacts with the cards, but haven’t received an official response.
The game also allows for some customization. While this cost you real money and in game currency in the arcade version, the Wii U version only requires Poke-Gold for new clothes/designs for your avatar. Playing the single player game unlocks more options, including the additional cheer skills, support pokemon, and even outfits for Nia, your personal cheer leader. For those who are curious, yes, Nia’s English voice actress can be replaced with the original Japanese voice actress, which is a nice little addition for anyone trying to practice their Japanese.
Offline, Pokken is a solid fighting game experience for those who want something more traditional than Smash Bros but feel intimated by the likes of Tekken. Seeing Pokemon in detailed HD with fairly realistic animations (Pikachu and Shadow Mewtwo being the biggest offenders) is something I really wish we got more of from the Pokemon series in general. I must admit that I dislike the small roster and type choices (two fighting types but four fire types?), but being able to sit down and play Pokken anytime I want without having to feed an arcade machine has been a mostly satisfying experience even with just the single player mode.
Check back with us in a few days for our final review of Pokkén Tournament!