I’m always kind of surprised by how many people care about the single-player modes in fighting games. I play them and usually have fun, don’t get me wrong, but they’re clearly not the meat of what a fighting game is, or even really how they’re intended to be played. Playing against an AI is not even close to the same thing as playing against a human being. Fighting a challenging AI is usually at best exploiting the way it was programmed to achieve victory or at worst blatantly unfair as the game reads your inputs in order to figure out how to best dispose of you. As a result, there usually ends up being two kinds of fighting game single player modes: a mode of pathetically easy punching-bag AIs, and a mode of extremely overpowered cheating AIs. Pokkén Tournament’s single-player fits neatly into the former category.
The structure of the single player is surprisingly involved. In order to become champion of the Ferrum League, I need to climb the ranks of four separate ranking leagues. Each league has a set of pools to play in before I can become one of the top eight players. Once in the top eight, I need to fight in a three-round tournament against the other players to become number one. Finally, I get my shot at fighting the League Champion, and once he or she is down, I can move on to the next league.
If that sounded exciting, I’m sorry to say that it’s not. Going through the pools is a total slog of pounding down brain-dead AIs. Fighting in the eight-man tournament feels exactly like fighting in the pools except there’s less fights to play through. Fighting the Champion is even easier than some of the Pokémon you fight in the pools. I’m not just describing the first league you enter, by the way. I’m describing all of them. I went completely undefeated in every single league in the game.
Pokkén Tournament is definitely a tricky game to balance for single-player, even compared to other fighting games. Its rock-paper-scissor mechanics are the driving force, and without any human psychology involved increasing the difficulty of the AI only makes things more random. There’s nothing to really figure out in that sense, so making everything super easy is only the natural solution. The problem with that solution though is that it’s coupled with so many fights that need to be played that the experience just feels tedious more than anything. That’s not to say that the tournaments are the entirety of the Pokkén Tournament single-player, but they are the overwhelming majority of it.
Occasionally a side plot involving a mysterious Shadow Mewtwo will pop up at the end of a league. There’s a sparse bit of dialogue, a brief battle with the Shadow Mewtwo, and they you move onto the next tournament like nothing happened. Eventually the plot briefly takes center stage, which leads to three easy AI fights and one mildly interesting one.The Shadow Mewtwo stuff technically qualifies as a story, but there’s so little to it that I can’t use it to justify the experience. It’s a limp experience and honestly feels thrown together in a short amount of time.
What will probably justify the experience to most people is that key features of the game are locked behind the single-player mode, including playable characters, assists, and stages. That kind of thing isn’t unprecedented even in an era where most fighting games don’t do that, but it’s a shame that the mode is such a chore to get through and that it’s mandatory for features of other modes that you may be much more likely to enjoy.
The post-launch reaction of Street Fighter V’s lack of an arcade mode shows that there’s definitely demand for single-player content in fighting games. Personally, unless something more interesting like a legitimate story or unique scenarios get thrown into the mix, I don’t think the investment is necessarily worth it. Pokkén Tournament certainly has single-player content, but unfortunately it’s quantity over quality.