Pokkén Tour­na­ment

Wii U

EDGE - - GAMES - Bandai Namco Nin­tendo, The Poké­mon Com­pany Wii U Out now

This, Cap­com, is how it should be done. Just weeks af­ter Street Fighter V launched, promis­ing to wel­come new play­ers be­fore slam­ming the door shut in their face, Pokkén Tour­na­ment is a shin­ing, timely ex­am­ple of how to ex­plain to a begin­ner the com­plex­i­ties of one of the most im­pen­e­tra­ble gen­res in gam­ing. The tu­to­rial is gen­tle, light-hearted stuff, split into sec­tions by dif­fi­culty so that even if you can’t han­dle the high-level tech­niques, there’s still a ‘cleared’ badge or two on the menu screen. A tab on the pause menu sug­gests a few handy com­bos and the AI in the sprawl­ing sin­gle­player mode is an ef­fec­tive tu­tor, un­afraid even dur­ing the early stages to bust out a few tricks, and grow­ing in skill along­side you as you work your way up the ranks.

Which is just as well, be­cause even old hands will need a gen­tle leg-up for what is, even by genre stan­dards, a thor­oughly un­usual game. This is a game whose core in­tended au­di­ence – the cen­tre of the Venn di­a­gram be­tween Poké­mon lovers and skilled Tekken play­ers – would likely not be able to help Namco and Nin­tendo re­coup their in­vest­ment if they each bought it twice. Suck in the vast Poké­mon au­di­ence, though, and you’re laugh­ing. The de­sire to ap­peal to an au­di­ence that may never have picked up a fight­ing game is not just ev­i­dent in the tu­to­ri­als, or the gen­er­ous solo com­po­nent; it runs right through the game’s de­sign – and is both its great­est as­set and big­gest draw­back.

Four­teen fight­ers are avail­able at the out­set, and to­gether com­prise a ros­ter that ticks all the nec­es­sary fight­ing game boxes (fast and weedy; strong and slow; rangy all-rounder) while draw­ing up a few new ones (lucha li­bre Pikachu; pos­sessed chan­de­lier-ghost). Ac­com­pa­ny­ing you into bat­tle are a duo of sup­port Poké­mon, one of which is cho­sen at the start of a round to be sum­moned into the fray for a sin­gle, cooldown­con­trolled move. At first, you only have a few sets to choose from, and those on of­fer fill sim­ple, nec­es­sary roles, but you un­lock more as you progress, and be­fore long you’re re­fill­ing health while turn­ing all your at­tacks into crit­i­cal hits, slow­ing the op­po­nent, or steal­ing some of their (Su­per-me­ter-like) Syn­ergy bar.

All sup­port Poké­mon are de­signed to give you a re­li­able, one-but­ton way of tilt­ing the odds in your favour, while also help­ing Bandai Namco fea­ture a few more selections from the Poké­mon bes­tiary than the mea­gre base cast al­lows. This sim­plic­ity of con­trol ex­tends right through the moveset de­sign, with ev­ery move per­formed via but­ton presses and sin­gle D-pad di­rec­tions. When your Syn­ergy me­ter’s full, a si­mul­ta­ne­ous press of L+R puts you in a pow­ered-up, speedy state; tap the but­tons again to trig­ger a hefty Syn­ergy Burst move. Tekken’s combo-build­ing blocks of launch­ers, jug­gles and wall bounces are all present and cor­rect, and the tim­ing on some at­tack strings may be tight, but begin­ner but­ton-mash­ers are cer­tainly guar­an­teed a good, em­pow­er­ing time of it.

How­ever, while Tekken fans might quickly feel at home with the nuts and bolts of the combo sys­tem, the struc­ture of a fight it­self is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, since play is split into two phases. The Duel phase is the fa­mil­iar one, set across a sin­gle 2D plane and the back­drop to the real dam­age-deal­ing. The Field phase is cagier, af­ford­ing you full free­dom of move­ment through a ringed 3D arena, the Duel mode’s light and heavy at­tack but­tons in­stead per­form­ing ranged pro­jec­tile at­tacks or risky hom­ing blows. Matches start in Field, and make for a tense open­ing, play­ers chip­ping away at each other in the hope of gain­ing an ad­van­tage be­fore the real ac­tion be­gins. Then some­one lands one of their phas­eswitch­ing moves, the cam­era zooms in, and health bars start to melt away. It’s an ex­cel­lent idea, split­ting apart and more rigidly defin­ing the two cru­cial com­po­nents of a fight­ing game’s ebb and flow: the neu­tral game, and the scram­ble. And it al­most, al­most works. Pokkén Tour­na­ment is ul­ti­mately un­done by its de­sire to be begin­ner-friendly. Ac­knowl­edg­ing that the most likely thing to put a fight­ing game new­bie off for life is be­ing on the wrong end of a to­tal past­ing, Bandai Namco has sought to ac­tively de­sign against it. And it’s gone too far. While the play­ers get to de­cide when to switch from Field to Duel phase by per­form­ing an at­tack de­signed for the pur­pose, the switch back to Field is au­to­mated. Cause a lot of dam­age a lit­tle too quickly for Namco’s lik­ing, and you’re back in the neu­tral game.

It’s es­pe­cially frus­trat­ing when you’ve fi­nally pushed an op­po­nent into wall-bounce ter­ri­tory and are a few hits into your favourite combo, when your done-for ad­ver­sary flips out au­to­mat­i­cally and floats gen­tly down to the cen­tre of a gi­gan­tic arena. Fight­ing games are ul­ti­mately a bat­tle of ter­ri­tory be­tween two com­bat­ants, not two com­bat­ants and a heavy-handed cre­ator. Throws – your most re­li­able op­tion against an ad­ver­sary who just sits there block­ing – are an in­stant phase-switcher too, pun­ish­ing you for do­ing the right thing against an overly de­fen­sive foe.

The game’s big­gest down­fall, how­ever, is the counter-at­tack, per­formed by hold­ing down two but­tons and de­signed to ab­sorb an in­fi­nite num­ber of hits dur­ing its wind-up an­i­ma­tion. It’s used ex­ces­sively by late-game AI op­po­nents and, we must shame­fully ad­mit, abused re­lent­lessly in our de­feat of them.

Pokkén Tour­na­ment is a bold, thought­ful ex­per­i­ment in ac­ces­si­bil­ity, the fight­ing game’s big­gest, most en­dur­ing prob­lem. But at times, in cru­cial mo­ments, it goes just that bit too far, like a box­ing ref­eree stop­ping the fight af­ter a cou­ple of quick jabs. A help­ing hand is all well and good, but some­times the best way to learn is to take the beat­ing you de­serve.

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