If I had to describe my first experience playing Pokkén Tournament with one word, it’d be "messy." The movement felt foreign, I had no idea why the camera and my moveset kept changing, and I kept getting assaulted by menus telling me to make choices. Playing just one round was enough for me to quit out of the game and head straight to the tutorial. The name Pokkén made me expect a game much closer to Tekken, but Pokkén is definitely its own thing, and coming to terms with that was one of the most challenging and interesting parts of my experience.
The core of Pokkén Tournament’s fighting mechanics is a rock-paper-scissor system: counter attacks beat normal attacks, grabs beat counter attacks, and normal attacks beat grabs. Correctly guessing the right move does more than just give your move higher priority, though, as it also activates a critical hit that increases the damage dealt. In concept it sounds like a fairly rigid system for a fighting game. Despite the simplicity, the system manages to stay interesting because there are so many variations of the three types of attacks that I never felt like I was playing the same game over and over. Once I understood that the basics of the game weren’t really that complicated, Pokkén started to make a little more sense.
A bigger factor in Pokkén’s complexity are the shifts in battle perspective. Pokkén battles are split between two phases: Field Phase and Duel Phase. Every battle starts off in Field Phase, which gives you fully three-dimension controls and often results more defensive and ranged styles of play. Eventually things will move to the Duel Phase, which is an angled two-dimensional perspective that feels more in-your-face and closer to more traditional fighting games.
I enjoy zoning in other fighting games, so I like the idea of the Field Phase in Pokkén, but its existence in most of my matches ranged from negligible to highly abusable. Some Pokémon like Braixen thrive on firing out projectiles, but if you have two close-range Machamps then this phase will only last seconds. In contrast, the Duel Phases last a lot longer and feel more like a genuine fight. In the Duel Phase you can pull off a variety of different special moves by holding a direction and a button in a similar manner to the Smash Bros. games, which puts a focus on the type of attack you use (normal, counter, grab) over the attack itself.
Learning how to adjust between phases can be tricky, because even after playing the tutorial my understanding of switching phases worked remained vague. The tutorial says that "certain attacks" cause the transition, and while you are given some examples, the phrase isn’t sufficiently elaborated on. From my experience, nearly any solid hit will transition from the Field Phase to Duel Phase, but only extremely powerful attacks will move Duel Phase back to Field. It’s not a perfect science, however, and even over a hundred matches under my belt I will still occasionally be caught off-guard by a phase change.
Pokkén also has a multitude of more minor mechanics in play to keep the game fresh. A staggering variety of assist Pokémon can be brought into battle and summoned once your assist gauge fills up. Filling up a separate gauge allows your Pokémon to transform (usually into a Mega Evolution, but sometimes they just get really tough) and unleash super attacks as well as more powerful variations of both your Field and Duel Phase movesets. Some of the most Tekken elements in the game come through in its stages, which are varying sizes and emphasize wall combos. Pokkén’s base mechanics are fairly basic, but there’s a surprising amount of detail in every other system at play.
I’m curious about what other people’s first reactions to Pokkén will be like. I was surprised by how at first glance Pokkén looks a lot more complicated than it actually is. A lot of its mechanics seem built for newcomers to fighting games, but I don’t think the Pokkén system is nearly as intuitive as watching most other fighting games can be. The tutorial is helpful and the ideas behind the mechanics are simple, but I’m not sure that will be enough for people to understand it. I think the best way to learn how to play Pokkén is simply to get a feel for it, by playing a lot of matches yourself and learning from experience.