Pokkén Tournament DX review: The third, best, and (hopefully) final version of Pokkén Tournament

By on October 13, 2017 at 1:00 pm
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Pokkén Tournament DX is the third revision of Bandai Namco’s experimental, perspective-switching Pokémon fighter. Pokkén’s journey started in Japanese arcades in 2015, making it to Wii U consoles in ’16, and is now at home on the Nintendo Switch as of September 22nd. It has been an… odd journey.

Pokken Tournament DX

As I write this, I cannot help but parallel the trajectory of Pokkén to another recently released Bandai Namco fighting game: Tekken 7. Both used experimental asymmetrical camera viewpoints for each player, which is quite the novelty in the fighting game genre. It was a decision that marred early Tekken 7‘s syncing and load times, and forced Pokkén into inelegant multiplayer solutions on its initial console release. Both started in arcades in 2015, a few months apart, and both landed on consoles in 2017 with intermittent revisions between them. For Tekken, it was the arcade title update Fated Retribution. For Pokkén, it was the Wii U. And in both instances, they were good games in progress of becoming great games.

In short, DX is what Pokkén Tournament should have been in the first place.

In case you missed the Wii U version…

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There may be someone reading this that hasn’t played or researched the original Pokkén. If that isn’t you, you can likely skip ahead: there are no major system changes between Wii U and DX for you to worry about.

If you’re still reading in this section, let’s get you up to speed: Pokkén is a very-easy-to-play, surprisingly difficult-to-master fighting game that constantly switches between a 3D roaming “Field Phase” and a 2D, Street Fighter-esque “Duel Phase.” Broadly speaking , Field Phase favors zoning characters and provides more opportunities for building large amounts of super meter, which lets you use the all-important “Synergy Burst” Mode. Whereas in Duel Phase, space is limited and combo damage gets quite high, thanks to wall combos and juggles.

Phase shifting, and understanding the goals of playing each phase, is vital to playing and discussing this game. Phase Shifting is Pokkén, and if you don’t like it in the same way you don’t like long combos in Tekken or assists in Versus-style games, then Pokkén will not be for you. Ever. Even if you’re the type to learn quickly, phase shifting will be a jarring experience the first time you play. But learning when and why the shift occurs — and how you can manipulate the Phase Shift system — is a large part of the fun of this series, and one of the reasons it has developed a vocal (and growing) following.

Every skill you’ve ever developed playing other fighting games is put to the test in Pokkén in some way, but none of the games you’ve played before play quite like Pokkén because of the Phases. Those with a variety of fighting game experience — particularly Bandai Namco experience — should expect to be playing at an intermediate level very quickly and with little work.

The Switch works beautifully for Pokkén, not the other way around.

It’s no secret that part of the problem with marketing the Wii U version of Pokkén was the Wii U itself. The asymmetrical design and absurdity of setting up local play was a nightmare. These design problems had very clunky solutions, of which the Switch is simply better equipped to handle.

First, there’s Local Battle. This is what you’ll use when you only have one Switch available. When using this mode, you have two options: you can either use Split Screen mode, or Shared Screen. Shared Screen flips the directional controls of the player in the background during the 3D roaming Field Phase, which may be jarring at first. Personally, it’s my preferred method of playing between the two, and I had no problem adjusting after a few games.

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The real strength of Pokkén, though, is its use of Switch’s portability. That’s where “Wireless Mode” comes in. Through this mode you can quickly play a game with anyone else that has their Switch on hand, anywhere, anytime. Every game I played in this way was as good as I can expect an online match to be. To be fair, Pokkén is a 60 FPS game where most moves fall into only a few categories of move speeds. Jabs are 13 frames, and anything faster is 9 frames. Most moves are slower, and there’s only three possible on-block punishment situations (-12, -16, or -whatever you want). It’s a lot easier to design decent netcode around a slower-paced game like this, and the stuff you need to react to (jumps, Counter Attacks, block punishment situations) aren’t adversely affected by slight lag the way it would be in a less-streamlined game like, for easy comparison’s sake, Tekken 7.

At the first local tournament we had here in Austin, if a setup was unavailable, I just played with someone else nearby in Wireless Mode for casuals. I would say about 90% of the time, it felt like a LAN connection, with only a few moments of lag spikes in the many, many matches I’ve played in this mode. I’ve played Pokkén with my friends at a restaurant while waiting on my food. While this is not yet a replacement for tournament play, it is the very best portable experience I have had with a fighting game to date. Period.

And that’s good news, because…

Pokkén is a great game, at its core.

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Really.

Pokkén Tournament was a shockingly balanced, deep experience. I have a list of problems with the original Wii U release and almost none are related to the gameplay itself. (Almost. We’ll get to that in a second.)

Balance was phenomenal in the original, and it remains so in DX. Every rebalance decision shows the hand of a team that really listened to the community. Nerfs were sparse and logical, buffs were plentiful for the bottom tiers, and the new characters (all of which are “arcade tested” by this point: my two favorite words to say about a Namco game) all seem relatively strong in their own ways. There is no character strength excuse to hide behind, and nothing we’ve seen yet has put a character wildly over-the-top from the very strong cast. The jury is still out on the newest addition, Decidueye, but even if he ends up being “too good” in the long run, the overall cast is so powerful that I’m not terribly worried about where he ends up.

pokken pikachu libre happyWhen talking about balance, it’s important to also talk about variety. No one in Pokkén plays similarly to each other. There are no clone characters. (No, not even Pikachu and Pikachu Libre.) The thing that impresses me the most about the 5 new characters is that they legitimately squeezed out 5 new ways to play in this sandbox. This is my highest compliment for a fighting game: I do not feel any redundancy when I am learning new characters.

All that said, I don’t think the core design of Pokkén is perfect. I have real philosophical differences with some core elements, the biggest of which is the oddity of Burst exhaust frames. I wrote extensively about how much I loathe this mechanic here. If you don’t feel like getting into the messy technical details, I’ll try to summarize: the end of your “Burst Mode” is potentially vulnerable unless you hold a direction, which is a fact the game never tells you anywhere in its tutorial modes. This fussy, unintuitive detail is bizarrely out of place in the otherwise streamlined world of Pokkén, and I’m not pleased to see its return.

Online is as good as you can expect it to be.

There’s a lot of questions one should ask about any online fighting game experience. For myself, there’s two that are more important then anything else:

  • Can I frequently get matches?
  • Are the matches that I’m getting latency free enough for me to react to obviously reactable things? (e.g. anti-air)

Question #1 is an area that Pokkén got right the first time on Wii U, and continues to do so in DX. I get matches every single time I jump online, instantly. There is a “Fight the CPU” mode when waiting in Ranked, but I’ve never actually made it into battle vs. the CPU before a challenger appears. But just finding an opponent isn’t enough; the connection has to be good. Well — do you have a LAN adapter?

This is not a slam on Pokkén so much as the Switch itself, but it blows my mind that in 2017 a hardware company can release a console without an ethernet port. I get the Switch’s portability is its selling point. I get that, I spent a paragraph above praising that aspect. But there’s a dock here on the switch that has gigantic empty space on it for you to put an ethernet port, and it’s not utilized.

While the above may be a bit of a rant, it’s an important one. LAN adapters aren’t expensive and they make the experience a lot better in playing online. I can instantly tell when I get matched up with someone on terrible wifi, and it is experience-ruining. Shockingly, it has been a rare occurrence (I’d estimate maybe only 15%-20% of my matches have been laggy to the point of unplayable, a number I expected to be much higher by the very nature of the Switch), but I get these wifi players much more often then I do on Tekken.

Once again, not the fault of Pokkén. But it is reality. To speak to problems that are directly the fault of Pokkén’s design, Event Mode is by far the biggest culprit.

Event Mode is repackaged LAN Mode, and it’s still a bad idea.

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Event Mode is the new LAN mode for Pokkén, and everything that was wrong before, is wrong now. You need additional hardware for it function properly (Serebii.net has a great breakdown on what you need), you need more setup time then you do for any other fighting game out there, and you need a secret code to even get into it. So, needless to say, Pokkén retains its championship belt of “world’s hardest modern fighting game to run a tournament for.” The only positive in all of this? There is absolutely no excuse for a Pokkén player to not at least be able to bring a Switch to the tournament.

There is one amazing new aspect to Event Mode, though. Every stage now has a standard sizing for tournaments. You know what that means?

No More Ferrum Stadium for Tournaments!

This is a godsend for Pokkén Tournament players. It may seem small, but getting to hear other songs in the game and see new stages after a year of Ferrum Stadium is so unbelievably refreshing that it deserves its own mention.

But this is only in Event Mode and Group Mode, so that’s bad. That essentially invalidates Local Battle as a possible alternative to Event Mode, too. I am permanently left shaking my head at this decision.

3v3 Mode is fine, I guess?

Included in Pokkén is a 3v3 King of Fighters-esque Team Battle mode. I was looking forward to this mode, but you can’t actually play it online, nor can you play it in the game’s Event Mode, which is necessary for tournaments. This pretty much reduces it to a throwaway oddity for Wireless Mode and Local Play: it’s nice that it’s there, but you won’t be seeing any real events for it. The newly-announced patch promises to add 3v3 mode to Online Mode ; this is a step in the right direction, but it is still not available in Event Mode.

Replays! And Groups!

Pokkén offers a fairly robust replay system for players to manually upload their favorite matches from Ranked, Friendly, Group, and Wireless Modes. All replays are automatically saved and you can watch any of the last 16 of each of those categories, or save them. You can also search for other replays by rank and character. It’s a nice step up.

Groups are also interesting new way to play. It’s basically Pokkén’s own lobby system, allowing you to make rooms with up to 100 players. You can spectate or play with other players in the group. Fairly standard stuff, but with its large lobby size and ability to set so many different variables, it’s a powerful new vehicle for serious players.

Overall, I love Pokkén Tournament DX’s gameplay, and a few of the new touches fully flesh out this release. Its surrounding elements, such as Event Mode and 3v3 Mode, are clumsy and inelegant, but probably forgivable to the Pokkén community that’s already put up with worse for over a year. I’ll be losing a lot of my time to this game for sure — especially now that a recording option will be added to training mode — though I really hope this is the last title revision of this game before a proper sequel.

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Pros

  • Great, easy to pick up, unique game-play with a shocking amount of depth.
  • Every single character plays wildly differently from each other, even including the new characters.
  • Same fantastic character balance, and rebalance changes show that Namco understand what works in their own game.
  • Replays.
  • FERRUM STADIUM, BEGONE!
  • Switch’s portability makes this the easiest fighter to lab on the go.
  • Online is fantastic… with a LAN adapter.

Cons

  • LAN adapter necessity.
  • Only Event Mode has Ferrum-size Stadiums.
  • 3v3 could have been implemented better.
  • Burst Exhaust invincibility still exists.
  • The gall it takes for any company to think the labyrinth of “Event Mode” is acceptable for offline play in 2017 astounds and frightens me.

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Hey, I'm just a 3D-head in a 2D-world. I like pretty much all FGC stuff, and I really like hearing about the way people think about games.