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.