Pokkén takes that basic fighting game formula and adds quite a bit of additional layers to it. You’ll bounce back and forth between two distinct styles of fighting. During the “field” phase of battle, you’ll have free movement to roam around a large arena. You’ll vie for positioning and attempt to get phase-shifting strikes in when you can. Landing a strike will force both players into the 2D “duel” mode, which restricts your movement, but allows you to rack up damage with the long, sustained combos you’d expect to bang out in a traditional fighter. Once you’ve dealt your damage, though, you’re kicked back into the open arena where you repeat the process anew.
New players — we’ll assume that’s most of you, given the Wii U’s meager sales — may have some adjusting to do. Watching your preferred warrior Pokémon wailing on someone else until they lose consciousness doesn’t jive well with the franchise’s cuddly image. (Though the series is already somewhat notorious for its mélange of light and fluffy critters and gallows humor).
The two-stage system works surprisingly well. It gives matches more structure than most fighting games, and combats some of the problems that tend to plague more hardcore, combo-loving fighters. You’re always shifting between two modes with clear boundaries. That also gives you solid proximal goals that you’re always seeking. If you’re in the Field phase, then you’ll be looking to shift, which takes an otherwise overwhelming array of attack and combo options and narrows it to a select, useful few.
The two-stage system works surprisingly well.
At the same time, it can feel a bit like learning two different games, especially when support Pokémon get folded in to augment your anchor fighter’s abilities. You have multiple meters to manage — some that control your special attacks, and others that determine when you can use the ability of a reserve Pokémon, which can do anything from add attacks to give you a boost to speed or defense.
Thankfully, Pokkén gives players an extensive training sequence that not only runs through how all of these systems work, but how you can apply them and their fineries in actual fights. You’re never left with an array of tactics or techniques that feel worthless. Even better, the tutorials let you train with whatever Pocket Monster you wish. Combined with the addition of five new Pokémon — Croagunk, Darkrai, Decidueye, Empoleon, and Scizor — fans will have plenty of options for how they’d like to start their Pokémon fighting adventure. All of these characters, as well as Mewtwo, whom you could unlockable in the Wii U version, are available to play immediately, so there’s no grinding through a campaign to re-access what may have you already earned.
The Switch reissue’s biggest additions are in its multiplayer modes. You’ll get new three-on-three matches that more closely match the pacing of Pokémon battles. As with the primary line of Pokémon games, you’ll pick a team of fighters — albeit one of three instead of the usual six — and battle an opposing team until one of the fighters goes down. When that happens, you just tag out and keep rolling.
Team battles add an element of team composition and brings the whole experience just a bit closer to the source material. It’s a small addition, but it really, really works. There’s an intrinsic satisfaction in aligning Pokémon of different types and strengths together for a common goal.
The Switch reissue’s biggest additions are in its multiplayer modes.
The only notable disappointment here is that developers didn’t choose to do much else with it. There’s some serious potential here for a more strategic fighting game, one that balances the team-based play of Marvel vs. Capcom with the constant flux of battle phases already in Pokkén. Sadly, that’s not quite what you get here. Team mechanics matter, surely, but there’s no direct cooperation and the Elemental type match-ups endemic to Pokémon don’t matter nearly as much.
When you’re ready for tougher competition, you can jump online with a new ranked matchmaking feature, but it’s a bit threadbare. There aren’t many other players or much to do beyond casual and competitive matches.
Splitscreen play, on the other hand, is a complete mess. While it’s consistently impressive that so many excellent-looking games are now portable, the console struggles to crank out enough frames for smooth play with two people. There’s still plenty of excellent multiplayer modes, however. Local non split-screen play is still an option, as are tournaments and other battle settings for nearby wireless games, so fear not.
Even after two years in the arcades and another on Wii U Pokkén Tournament still stands out as wholly unique fighter. It may not have the spit shine or depth needed to stand out as an esport, but it’s got plenty of bright ideas and is approachable enough that it’s a worthy addition to the rapidly growing Switch library.