It all started from one image. The lonely, leaked and slightly blurred screenshot of Blaziken and Lucario facing off in gorgeous 3D graphics clearly rendered on a home console. In other words, a game many Pokémon fans have been dreaming of for years.
So, how does the final product stack up against our longtime fantasies?
The title begins with a basic character customization in which players can choose gender, skin color, hair color and partner Pokémon for their trainer. After a quick tutorial from the very helpful support character Nia, you can begin to explore the Ferrum region’s various locals for the modes.
My Town is the one you should probably check out at first, since you can finish customizing your trainer avatar (mainly hairstyle and color at this point). Once you’ve obtained enough currency from league matches and versus battles, you can return to purchase outfits and other cute accessories.
There’s also an incredibly comprehensive Tutorial within My Town, as well as three other practice sub-modes: Free Training, Action Dojo (for practicing all actions) and Combo Dojo (to practice various combos).
Next up is the most robust mode in the game (also serving as the resident story mode): the Ferrum League. Moving through the ranks in this mode isn’t a simple affair of fighting a few matches and then you’re the champion. This is an involved process requiring players to fight through several levels of leagues, starting with the Green League, until you reach the top league and become a true champion.
In order to move up a letter grade, which corresponds with the league you are currently in, you must first engage in several League Matches to raise your number rank within that letter grade. Players must be careful as rank can go down as well if you lose battles. At the end of five rounds, you rank increase (or decrease) is decided and you can continue to battle in League Matches.
Once your rank is eight or below, you can participate in the Tournament opposed the other seven ranked trainers. Once loss equals a knockout from the league but if you win, you earn the right to a Promotion Test. This allows you to challenge the current League Master in that particular league and if you win you’re promoted to the next League Rank.
There’s also Free Battle under the Ferrum League; a way to battle league trainers without affecting your rank. This is good for getting some practice in against some of the trainers you’ll have to face in the actual league.
If you want to take a break from the high stakes world of the League Tournaments, there’s the single-player mode under Single Battle. Basic Battle is your standard match, either single or versus. Extra Battle is made to spice things up as players can change settings and play a different take on battles. In this sub-mode random boxes appear around the stage for the fighters to collect, each one granting a variety of effects.
Local Battle is the multiplayer mode that requires another controller, as well as the Gamepad, to be connected. Pokkén Tournament allows for a range of controllers to be used such as the Gamepad, Wii Remote, Classic Pro Controller, Wii U Pro Controller and the special edition controller especially made for the title. Unfortunately the Player 1 character must use the Gamepad. Just as in the singleplayer, you can choose from Basic Battle and Extra Battle.
The feature that most competitive players will be using, Online Battle, features two variations: Rank Battle (you’ll be typically paired with those around the same rank and winning or losing affects rank) and Friendly Match (a more relaxing sub-mode with no effect on ranking).
When waiting for an opponent, a count down will start from 10 seconds. If time runs out, the player can fight against a CPU opponent while the game continues to look for an opponent. Once an opponent is found, the CPU battle will interrupt and you’ll be taken to a match against them.
This feature is quite handy, as it let’s players sharpen their skills while waiting for a match, occupying their minds and preventing one from being trapped in a lobby purgatory until a another player is ready to engage. After winning or losing the match you can choose to re-challenge the opponent or find a new opponent to fight.
Overall the online is quite smooth with solid netcode and very few hiccups, even if your connection speed isn’t up to snuff. The online works surprisingly well with the off-screen play feature on the Gamepad; however, expect slightly more hiccups.
Each Pokémon is separated into one of four categories: Standard, Speed, Power and Technique. The category they’re in determines the play style of that fighter. For instance, Charizard is a Power type so he’s slower and his moves hit harder than Pikachu Libre, a Speed type.
Then there’s the types of moves themselves that can be used during battle: Normal, Guard and Grab. Like the classic Fire, Water, Grass strength/weakness triangle from the main series, the aforementioned types in Pokkén Tournament also form the same type of triangle. Normal attacks are strong against Grab, Grab is strong against Guard and Guard is strong against Normal attacks.
Pokémon also have their own Special attacks, based completely on moves they can learn in the main series (with a few liberties). There’s something majestic about seeing some of the flashier attacks animated in beautiful 3D, such as Blaziken’s Sky Uppercut.
Working in tandem with the fighters are the Support Pokémon. Players can choose one set from several, each one with different properties to aid in battle. Some attack the enemy either close or long-range, others heal and/or buff your fighter and still others debuff the foe. Choosing the appropriate set that suits both your Pokémon and your style of battle is imperative to victory.
Finally there’s the flashiest mechanic in the game, the Burst Mode or Mega Evolution (depending on the Pokémon). As your Pokémon attacks, their Synergy Gauge fills up. Once it’s full, you can unleash the Mode or Evolution, staggering the opponent briefly when it activates.
During this mode your Pokémon is much more powerful, faster with a higher defense. You can also unleash the powerful Burst Attack once per transformation, either dealing great damage or inflicting a severe amount of debuffs.
Figuring out when to use your Synergy Gauge or when to save it plays into the strategy of the game, as well as timing the use of your Burst Attack during battle, as the initial activating combo can be blocked).
Not only do these battles result in the player learning more about the battle system and how to best utilize their partner Pokémon, but also netting tangible experience points for said partner and allowing you to control their growth paths in Attack, Synergy, Defense and Support Pokémon. Figuring out were to allocate skill points is a vital but luckily not permanent as you can reallocate them in the My Town mode.
All-around the balance of the game is steady, with each fighter filling in their own niche while managing to be competitive in their own right. Discovering the right normal and special attacks to chain together in order to create intricate and unique combo attacks holds surprising depth; the other mechanics blend in to build a complex system that’s perfect for competitive players to get into but simple enough for more casual players to stil enjoy.
One complaint I do hold is the amount of fighters. Including Mewtwo and Shadow Mewtwo (which are unlocked later) there are only sixteen of them total. Though that’s certainly a fair number for a fighting game, considering the 721 types of Pokémon in the main series, sixteen is fairly disappointing. This is an oversight meant to be cured in future installments of the game I imagine.
Outside of battling, players can purchase new outfits, hair styles and colors and accessories using the currency earned through league and normal battles. Your support Nia can also be customized with new outfits and hair styles as well.
This is where amiibo come in. By scanning in a new amiibo figure each day, you can unlock new avatar items at random. You can use as many amiibo as you want but each one only once per day. I must admit, part of the fun found in this title is derived solely from garnering new clothes to create your ideal trainer.
Honestly, though, it’s much less time consuming to simply grind for the cash for what you want to purchase, as the random factor — coupled with the sheer variations of clothes and colors — makes it nearly impossible to receive the exact item you want for free. It’s a nice little addition for amiibo owners, though.
From the humble beginnings of the simple, singular image above to the fully fleshed out title we have now, it’s been quite the journey. And considering the high quality product we’ve gotten for our patience, Pokkén Tournament has been worth the wait.