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I used to think Skullgirls was the new standard for fighting game tutorials. Sure, it wasn’t a game for everyone, but if you put some time into the tutorials, you would walk away from that game with a basic understanding of its concepts. Pokken Tournament does one better, introducing its concepts and then allowing you to practice nearly every minute detail of every character’s ability. Pokken slowly feeds you information, but doesn’t waste any of your time.
Pokken excels at what is essential. The combat flows expertly and, after the amazing tutorial, you’ll be juggling fools like a champ in no time flat. Battles are divided into two phases, the projectile heavy field phase and the 2D-esque duel phase. Field phase is a tense bout of chicken, where each player fires projectiles and inches closer and closer in an attempt to activate duel mode and begin to land actual combos. Shifting between phases occurs when enough damage has been dealt, so there’s always a chance to recover and try to shift the battle to your favor. There are no “cheap” tactics here, just pure skill, with many ways to get back on your feet, should you need it.
There’s plenty of character variety, with no weak characters in the mix. If you want something basic, you can play as Blaziken or Lucario, two basic humanoid Pokemon. But if you’re a weirdo like I am, there’s Chandelure, a ghost chandelier with fire based attacks, or Pikachu Libre, a Luchadora Pikachu that’s quicker than almost everyone else on the roster. The previously mentioned training mode lets you sink your teeth into every character, so it’s simple and quick to find someone you like. There are “only” sixteen characters in the roster, but Pokken Tournament was more worried about quality over quantity, and for that I’m thankful.
Speaking of quality, Pokken’s netcode is top notch. In all of the online matches I played, I never experienced a single bout of lag, even when playing against Japanese players. Every match felt local, which is always essential for a fighting game. There’s already a penalty in place for ragequitters, so Pokken has a leg up on Street Fighter at the time of writing. Winning nets you Pokemon Coins which you can trade in to buy items to customize your trainer avatar, but you also gain cosmetics through random drops, so the coins aren’t the most important thing in the world.
The audio/visual aspects of Pokken are great, too. The soundtrack is top notch, even though it can be a bit hard to hear at times over your Pokemon screaming and firing energy at each other. Every Pokemon is lovingly designed, with every detail you could ever want, from specific moves you’d expect them to use to glistening Machamp muscles. One character is annoying, and it’s the tutorial lady, Nia. She pops up constantly, trying to give you tips, but usually ends up spewing annoying, self-congratulatory quips. She’s ignorable if you turn off her audio, however, and it’s advised you should. Her line delievery is embarassingly bad at times.
If there’s one thing that takes the wind out of Pokken’s sails, it’s the pacing. Mind, I’m not talking about story, I’m talking unlocks. There are a handful of stages, assist Pokemon, and titles to unlock, and most of them are doled out by clearing battles in the League mode, which is the closest to an “arcade mode” this game has. My main problem is that Mewtwo, the only unlockable fighter, is barred behind clearing this mode fully. It takes ages to get through, and the game wants you to have its full roster up front, save for one, and even though I can respect that, it makes not having Mewtwo up front so much more frustrating. Most fighting games spread character unlocks a bit thinner to make you feel like you’re building a set. This feels like a huge clump of sprinkles on top of an ice cream cone: nice when it’s not all at once and definitely not enough to support an entire mode, especially when Shadow Mewtwo, a separate character, is already playable if you have his amiibo card.
Pokken has everything you could want from a solid fighting game. It has style, substance, and a great netcode. Even though the single player is a bit lacking, there’s enough to the fighting that, if you let it, Pokken can take you on a true quest to be the very best.