Sporting one of the best portmanteaus in the business, Pokkén Tournament DX is arguably a bit of a stop-gap game for Nintendo. Blending the worlds of Pokemon and Tekken to create a fast paced, close quarters Pokemon fuelled beat 'em up, this was a game that didn't exactly set the world on fire when it initially released on the Wii U some eighteen months ago - but with a few tweaks and additions under its belt, plus the added attraction of now being a portable game, thanks to this re-release on the still-selling-like-hot-cakes Nintendo Switch, it's a game that at least fills a Pikachu shaped hole in the console's line up.
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Offering battles that are the closest you'll come to an anime style showdown, Pokkén Tournament is a game that plays out in a drastically different style to the mainline series. Rather than facing off in turn based battles with hundreds of Pokémon to collect, the combat in Pokkén is instead of the button mashing, real time variety, with just 21 hand-picked Pokémon to choose from - two of which are Pikachu - a tiny chunk of the 800+ in existence (and five of those are new for this DX version). Alongside buff dark type Darkrai, boxing frog Croagunk, crown penguin Empoleon, the giant clawed Scizor, and the dramatically caped Decidueye, the DX version of Pokkén also sees the addition of a 3 on 3 versus mode, a "daily challenge", and a few extra "support" Pokémon you can call on in battle, alongside an all but untouched (and still disappointing) single player mode.
While the idea of a Pokémon themed take on Namco's famous fighter Tekken sounds fairly simple on paper, those new to Pokken on the Switch may be surprised to find out that actually, this is a lot more complex than you'd think - and a lot more complex than it really needs to be. Rather than a side on fight, battles instead take place in a circular arena, and begin with a camera swooping and circling overhead, staying focussed on your opponent. On one hand, that's a good thing, as it makes the battles look every bit as dramatic as the TV show (and films) - but on the other hand, it doesn't half get a bit confusing when you get up close to your opponent, and the camera starts swinging around wildly to try and keep you looking straight at it.
Performing "certain moves", as the tutorial helpfully (!) explains will switch the game's combat (and camera) into "duel mode", which transforms the gameplay into a slightly more standard, side-on battle. With only a limited selection of moves in this mode, although with many being more powerful, the game brings you and your foe closer together, for a brief high stakes confrontation, before switching back to "Field" mode and the overhead/angled camera when either you or your opponent performs a certain type of move.
While it may sound complex - and the game's way too overly wordy tutorial sees fit to give you a thousand word lecture about it - the whole dual camera/mode thing isn't actually as tricky to get to grips with as it sounds, with the transition rarely throwing you off mid-battle. While we can't help but get the feeling they'd have been better sticking with one or the other, what's here is at least functional, and at times can actually be a lot of fun. Firing off hyperbeam after hyperbeam as the ever overpowered Mewtwo, transforming into Gengar's Mega form to dish out some pain, or hitting a Machamp with a Stone Cold Stunner from the game's stand-out Pokémon, Pikachu Libre, there's a real zone you can get into while playing Pokken Tournament, as the spectacular Pokémon battles you used to dream about as a child come to life before your eyes. If only Pokémon Stadium looked quite this good.
In terms of controls, however, things are only so-so. With the game's aforementioned awful tutorial doing an incredibly bad job of explaining which button does what, despite taking over an hour to fully explain it all to you, your first few matches will likely be spent trying to figure the game out for yourself. As it turns out, the underlying system here is actually pretty straightforward, with an "attack triangle" (counters beat normal attacks, normal attacks beat throws, etc) determining which moves land when you and a foe go attack land blows at the same time. X dishes out a strong attack, Y launches a weak attack, A lets you perform a "Pokémon attack" (i.e. a move that's specific to your Pokémon), while B lets you jump.
What's perhaps most unusual about the battle system is that counters don't work quite like you'd expect them to. In fact, they don't actually counter - instead, they simply block. Pushing Y and B at the same time will let you pull off a counter move, while holding it will let you charge it up first. While you're charging or using the counter, you're basically invulnerable to any normal moves - and should you perform the counter at the same time as your opponent uses a normal move, you'll do extra damage. Throws and grapples, meanwhile, are handy for breaking stalemates, as they can't be blocked.
As you battle, two bars will fill up. The first is your Synergy Bar, which when full, lets you press L + R to perform a Synergy Burst, which powers up your moves, and also lets you perform your Burst Attack, which is essentially your Pokémon's special move. Pikachu Libre's sees you teleport your foe into a wrestling ring, before landing the elbow of a lifetime on them.
The other bar is your Support Bar, which when charged will let you call on another Pokémon for help. Before each battle, you get to choose which support team you want to have in your corner, and then which support Pokémon of the pair you want to actually answer your calls in the fight. Different Pokémon do different things, with Litten attacking with fire fang, while the perpetually happy seal Poppilo uses Bubble Beam - a move which in Pokken doesn't damage your enemy, but instead lets you double jump.
But while battles themselves certainly have their highlights, what Pokken Tournament DX is missing is a really substantial single player mode, and a reason to keep coming back to it. While there is a single player mode here, it's limited at best, with a rough league/tournament format giving you plenty of battles to play through, but not all that much reason to do so. With four leagues to conquer, you'll begin by playing your way through five battles in a league style system, with your wins and losses across those battles being used to calculate how much you move up or down the rankings. Make it to the top eight in each league, and you'll be entered into a tournament - win the tournament, and you can take on the league promotion test - a battle against what's essentially the boss of that league. While an unlockables system does try to give you an extra reason to keep playing (completing challenges like winning 25 battles, or using a certain Pokémon in battle a certain number of times will unlock new items for your avatar, and new titles for your profile), there's still not all that much incentive to keep you coming back.
What's equally disappointing is that the decision to go with the weirdly 3D battle approach has meant that two player local multiplayer is awkward at best. Thought the game does let each player play with only a single Joy-Con mode, meaning you and a friend can play without needing to buy any extra controllers, Pokken Tournament DX just isn't designed to be played in local multiplayer. With a choice of either same screen play (so one player has to cope with the camera facing their Pokémon, rather than facing away from it), or split-screen, which puts you in a really small window, it's clear the local multiplayer here is something of an afterthought - and while it's certainly better than nothing, it would have worked a lot better if Pokken itself wasn't so complex.
In all, then, Pokken Tournament DX is a game that's a reasonable brawler, but one that you won't be coming back to. While Pokémon fans will appreciate the spectacle of the battles, they've likely already played this all of 18 months ago on the Wii U - and unless the promise of five extra characters and the ability to play on the go is worth paying the entry price all over again, it's difficult to see the argument for picking this up too. Similarly, more casual Pokémon fans may appreciate the nice touches in the game's arenas, but will likely find the roster to be too sparse, and too heavily geared towards the gruff/tough Pokémon rather than the cutesies - and the fact there's no playable Magikarp is a veritable disaster. If you haven't played it before, Pokken Tournament DX is well worth a blast if you can find it for the right price - just don't expect much in the way of longevity from this brawler.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch