You know, it’s kind of weird that Pokémon hasn’t had a fighting game until now. Despite it being turned based, Pokémon has always been a series about battling monsters; so it was only a matter of time before we saw them fighting fully animated outside of the cartoon.
So now we have Pokken.
Pokken started as an arcade game, and it’s easy to see just from a glance. The story mode, which consists of a series of ranked battles leading up to a series of boss fights with no real narrative to speak of.
On a mechanical level, the game isn’t terribly complicated, though it will require that even experienced fighting game veterans go through the tutorial to get a handle on the more unique systems.
During battle there are two distinct phases. There’s the default field phase, where the player is in free control of their Pokémon and can use attacks freely, and the duel phase, where the two fighters are locked into a side scrolling classic fighting game template and more damage can be dealt out.
Also, there are support Pokémon on hand, who, while not fully playable fighters, can be called to the fight for support. This can take the form of simply attacking the opponent, causing status effects, or buffing players stats.
It’s a good system that’s easy to learn, though I can see it being held back by simplicity.
Visually speaking, Pokken looks nothing short of spectacular. With the most recent generation of Pokémon games we’ve seen what these colorful critters can look like rendered in 3D, but the processing power of the Wii U trumps anything the 3DS can dish out. Each Pokémon fighter looks distinct, with great texture work and animation. Pikachu looks vaguely furry, whiskers bristling with electricity, and Charizard has gleaming scales that practically radiate with heat. This is what Pokémon are meant to look like. And this rendering will make fans long for the full scale console adventure that will probably never be made.
While the environments also look great, they’re also unfortunately just there for set dressing.
Matches take place in a variety of locations, ranging from pastoral villages, raging volcanoes and wet riversides, but it’s entirely cosmetic. The battles are restricted to a circular arena in each area surrounded by invisible walls. This is a huge missed opportunity to include breakable environments, and use the scenery to make fights way more interesting. Why can’t I use my Charizard to throw Pikachu down the mouth of a volcano, or use Machamp to punch a mountain into splinters? Come one, Nintendo.
The roster of Pokémon fighters is kind of weird. For the most part, they all consist of vaguely humanoid fighters, Blaziken, Gengar, Machamp, but there are a few notable absences. How the heck can you make a fighting game with either Hitmonchan or Hitmonlee, the Pokémon named for Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee? There’s also the bizarre additions of Chandelure, the Pokémon who is literally just a chandelier with a face, and Suicune, a legend who’s one of the starter fighters.
There’s almost certainly DLC planned to add in more fighters, but I’m not big on the idea of being sold upwards of six hundred monsters piecemeal.
Pokken’s biggest problem, at least from a single player perspective, is that it’s just two easy. I managed to push my way through the entirety of the campaign's first two tournament tiers without taking any damage, and even the harder boss monsters didn’t give me a whole lot of trouble.
This game was definitely made with multiplayer in mind, which makes sense due to its arcade origins. The multiplayer experience is really the way the game is meant to be played. It’s far more engaging, challenging, and will probably where the meat of the game's play time can be found (if you can wrangle another person and controller).
Taken as a package, Pokken is a fun little distraction that Pokémon fans will probably love, though it won’t do much for the most hardcore of fighting game enthusiasts. It’s a good sideshow, but it doesn’t have a lot of meat on its bones.