The Obvious Idea Done Right Award: Pokken Tournament
It’s Pokemon fighting. I don’t know why I’d even have to explain any further, I mean shit man, IT’S A POKEMON FIGHTING GAME. LIKE A FIGHTING GAME. WITH THE POKEMANS.
It seems like one of those ideas that they would have done years ago. In the anime and various other non-gaming productions, Pokemon battles are shown to be far more dynamic than the slower, more strategy-heavy combat implied by the mainline games. And although lord knows I love those main games to death (as a certain later entry on this list will show, hint-hint), there was always that slight craving to be able to play a balls-out, fast paced showdown between two fully mobile, fully fight-ready Mons. And it is into this fantasy that Bandai Namco enters, with their Tekken team as the craftsmen of your dreams.
And that really is the most important part of the equation: the fact that the team making it has such profound experience with making 3-D fighters, and the accompanying understanding of the trials and tribulations of navigating a 3-D space. Most people, me included, would have thought that you could just make it a 2-D fighter, albeit a highly polished one, and spent the rest of your time counting your money. But those wacky Bamco guys, they just had to go and make something more ambitious, and thus we have the fusion of arena battler and traditional one-on-one fighter that is Pokken Tournament.
The cast is small, but incredibly varied. The gameplay is tight, responsive and deep, but not so complex as to turn off the less experienced or reflexively inclined, which is very important when your license is the darling of younglings worldwide who might not know how to activate infinites or comprehend priority moves. It’s a game of distance in the most literal sense possible: fighting in close to your opponent gives one a typical highly-polished fighting experience, while distance fighting plays more like a spiritual successor to Virtual-On, but with a more pulled in camera. It’s a great structure that allows for solid gameplay variety, and learning how each fighter performs at different ranges is one of the keys to playing successfully.
But all the technicals can only mean so much in what is, essentially, a licensed fighting game, and as a longtime series fan, I can tell you that the devil is truly in the details. It’s how Gengar animates for his mid-air juggle. It’s how Braixen flourishes her wand, or how Chandelure shakes off his arms(?) after a particularly fierce exchange. It’s the look of concentration on Machamp, or the constant Tekken allusions in Pikachu’s moveset. What could have honestly been a half-assed realization of a highly bankable idea is instead a finely honed love letter to fans of the franchise who skew a little older and a little more violent in their tastes. It is, in essence, everything you didn’t know you wanted in a Pokefighter, but will now be incredibly glad that you have. Sure, the single player is a little thin, and there’s not much in the way of original modes. And fuck that announcer chick. But for something that could have been so mediocre at so many steps, this is a truly wonderful product.
Music Choice: Being a Tekken game in all but name (and aesthetic, and battle system, but you get my point), it’s only fitting that the music would be up to snuff with that series’ classic mix of high-energy techno and bouncy, catchy beats. And boy does it come out swinging…
The Fine Wine For Psychos Award: Dark Souls III
A little context for this one; I didn’t get into the Souls games until Bloodborne. I had played Demon’s Souls back when it came out, but didn’t love it that much. Maybe I was a less challenge-thirsty gamer, or maybe I didn’t like the aesthetic or maybe I didn’t like dying in the first three minutes of a game, but for whatever the reason, I was generally indifferent to the existence of the first three Souls games. But when I found a copy of the special edition of Bloodborne for 20 dollars off on Amazon back in May of 2015, I casually snatched it up and in doing so surrendered myself to the same obsession that has gripped millions of others. Bloodborne was an absolute phenomenon to me, a convergence of everything I had been missing in my pure, bloodlusting action games for almost a decade and for reasons too numerous to list here, it quickly ascended to become one of my absolute favorite games of all time. I highly doubt any game will give me exactly the same rush of adrenaline-fueled frustration, atmospheric and thematic tension and sheer wanderlust that perfect jewel gave me.
So, now that I’ve established just what kind of love I have for its immediate predecessor, let me say that Dark Souls III is an immaculately crafted, fantastically challenging and hugely enthralling adventure through seven types of hell and just as many heavens. It’s crashing lows followed by incredible highs. It’s learning an enemy’s pattern enough to conquer it, but never feeling easy enough to let your guard down. It’s accidentally finding a new path through a level or a hidden NPC that you kept missing. It’s a dark catacomb and dead villages and beautiful, desolate landscapes. It is medieval, gothic fantasy and horror of the highest grade smacked into a blender and turned to the frappe setting.
Truth be told, I probably didn’t get as much out of it as most. The game is rife with callbacks and plot allusions to the first two games, and like I said, I haven’t played them. So although I know enough about the lore to survive a discussion or two, that barrier of attachment threatened to block my enjoyment of the game from the outset. And yet the game is remarkably newbie friendly setting-wise, establishing just enough to let Dark Souls freshmen get a strong bearing in the universe, but leaving enough plumbable depths so that those who are in the know can have their own continuity feast to dine on. And with that barrier gone, they’re free to enjoy the perhaps predictable but still sumptuous parade of horrifying environments, melancholy and challenging storytelling and pitch-perfect combat that has made the series a darling of dyed-in-the-wool gamers the world over. The bosses are awe-inspiring, the weapons are amazing and the death-to-success ratio is…worrisome.
Did it do for me what Bloodborne did almost a year before it? No, no it didn’t. It lacks the intricacy of Bloodborne’s setting, the innovations in the combat system (a few of which were actually cribbed for this game, incidentally) and sheer submersion in the macabre and the surreal that made that game unforgettable. But if I am to penalize a game for not being a different game, then I’m kinda missing the point of playing games in the first place. Dark Souls III is, in or out of its cousin’s shadow, a wholly fantastic and worthy experience and if it is indeed the last of From Software’s Souls-style games, then they certainly went out on a brassy, deafening high note.
Music Choice: I was originally tempted to put the battle theme of Aldrich on here, what with its oozing menace and ties to past games. But the grandiose yet mournful battle theme of the Abyss Watchers, likely to be the first Lords of Cinder you fight, hits home more the idea of battles as experience that makes the Souls games special. You can feel the tragedy of these men’s fates seeping in those long violin notes, and it makes the battle feel almost like a mercy killing for men who lost themselves long ago.