Tekken 7 Review – Great Mechanics, Barebone Presentation

They just don’t make 3D fighters like they used to. In fact, they don’t make them at all – the medium’s practically dead. Post-Street Fighter IV and the Mortal Kombat revamp, 2D fighters have been the order of the day for almost a decade, with very little in the way of alternatives. Which is all well and good, considering I count Mortal Kombat X and BlazBlue (insert complicated subtitle here) to be among the cream of the fighting game crop. Yet, I definitely miss the days of hammering away at the local Tekken 5 machine, the long nights spent mastering Soul Calibur II, basking in the new console glimmer of Virtua Fighter 5 not to mention the embarrassed instances of houseguests catching me unlocking the stupidest costumes of Dead or Alive 4. That’s why I was so jazzed about the prospect of Tekken 7. Here was my favourite type of fighting game, back on a beefier console eight years after the spectacular sixth entry.

Unfortunately, Tekken 7 bears much more in common with Soul Calibur V than it does its last main instalment. Much like that egregious misstep, Tekken 7 has traded in its wealth of content for a barebones story, two or three modes, and an emphasis on a lacking online component. Due to a lack of competition in its own particular niche, Tekken 7 is a game content to rest on its laurels and not do much else. It’s a game banking on brand recognition to get by, and the warm fuzzies generated by nostalgia for better days.

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Nowhere is this clearer than the story mode, which is an embarrassing piddle in comparison to Injustice 2’s ambitious epic. Even as somebody who considers himself pretty knowledgeable on silly Tekken lore, this story was a bunch of inscrutable nonsense featuring characters that barely acted like themselves, and told from the perspective of a journalist who’s the very embodiment of gritty man pain. Yet at every possible turn, it trots out plot points from the first few Tekken games, as if to say, “remember how good this was, guys?” Yes, I do, and no, this isn’t anywhere close. That said, these complaints don’t apply to the last thirty minutes, which I thought were pretty spectacular. It reframes two of the franchise’s most important characters in a way that shakes up the lore in an interesting fashion, and despite this two-hour swan dive into the landfill this particular installment takes (which includes a very stupid guest appearance by Street Fighter’s Akuma,) I’m interested in where things go after this. It will be hard to stay interested in it if it’s delivered in this dull, hackneyed, low-effort way again. At least the bonus chapters unlocked after finishing the story mode are fun little jaunts, even if they only tack on about thirty minutes to an hour of extra content.

Outside of the story mode, unfortunately, there really isn’t much going for people going at it alone. Now, I understand that the ease of access to online consoles means that developers can slack on the single player front a bit, but Tekken 7 is lazy even by those lowered standards. The standard arcade mode is shorter than previous entries. The only other mode is a glorified grind for silly hats and in-game currency – a neat way to play around with different modifiers, but ultimately a waste of time outside of jacking up your rank and getting new costume bits. The VR mode is just the training mode but with camera control, and it’s very, very bad. That’s about it, and if you never plan to play online in a regular capacity and don’t have friends you regularly play fighting games with, that’s the first major knock against Tekken 7. That’s not to mention that it has fewer characters than even the 3DS spin-off, and even snubs longtime fan favourites like Anna Williams.

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At least, though, Tekken 7 isn’t a disaster on the gameplay front. Bringing up the Soul Calibur V comparison again, Harada et al didn’t make that dumpster fire’s mistakes of throwing four games’ worth of progress out the window in favour of new chicanery. If you’ve ever played a Tekken before, you’ll feel right at home here. Picking up Marshall Law, Lili, and Asuka again felt almost exactly like it did all those years ago, to the point where muscle memory took over and I was able to bust out some old combos. There are some new bits of flair, such as the combo-creating screw attacks, but it’s mostly the same. While a bit more innovation would’ve been appreciated, one can’t deny there’s something to be said for solid consistency.

That is, with one notable exception – the Rage system. Rage was introduced in Tekken 6, but it plays a bigger part in its follow-up. When players’ health dips below a certain threshold, they become enraged and gain access to two types of attacks. The biggest departure is in the Rage Arts, which are devastating but easy to pull off special moves which can easily knock off over a quarter of an opponent’s health. On the other end of the spectrum are Rage Drives, more complicated moves that players can string into combos for devastating impact. It’s an interesting response to Tekken 7’s contemporaries, which are practically all experiences driven by stringing specials together.

Interesting, however, doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” While it thankfully doesn’t sink to Soul Calibur V’s depths of changing the way you play the game, it still disappoints in how few ingredients it adds to the pot. Each incarnation of Tekken has arguably brought some major variation to the table, from Tekken 4’s introduction of walled stages to Tekken 6’s breakable environments and novel Bound system. After seven or eight years of development, one would hope that Tekken 7 would do a bit more than throw up its arms and say, “we have supers now.” Some might say this is a testament to how few places the series has left to go, but I’d point to all the innovation between each entry of Dead or Alive as a counterpoint. DLC missteps aside, Team Ninja managed to keep the formula fresh from the moment Itagaki uttered “Tekken sucks” to 2015’s stellar Last Round. At one point, both series one-upped each other year after year, prompting a constant competition which in turn inspired other franchises to make their own unique takes. It seems that Harada has finally lost the mojo to make a proper response. Tekken 7 is a game with much in the way of consistency, but little in the way of actual innovation. In a time when the fighting genre is booming with options, from Mortal Kombat’s return to prominence to Guilty Gear almost being a household name, there’s not enough here to recommend it over other, better games.

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I certainly couldn’t endorse it over the competition on the presentation front, either. While far from an ugly game, its animations lack a certain fluidity and its textures are feel bereft of key details. Characters’ facial expressions are oddly static, on top of the physics engine often rendering clothing and hair with a chunky, plastic aesthetic. The franchise’s signature explosive effects have also gone comically overboard, and the emphasis on slow-mo close-ups just feel like window dressing to hide a shallow product – a far cry from Mortal Kombat’s X-Ray moves. On top of that, a large percentage of the music in this game is very, very bad EDM and dubstep, to the point where some songs don’t have actual melodies, and are just the same bass drop strung together repeatedly. While I was all for the series’ historical blend of Eurobeat, power metal, and traditional Japanese instrumentation, and even enjoyed Snoop Dogg’s contribution to Tag Tournament 2, this new direction feels concocted by a thirteen-year-old who unironically wears Monster Energy hats and shills for his SoundCloud. From a visual and auditory standpoint, Tekken 7 especially can’t compete.

And really, it can’t compete in any department. The only thing Tekken 7 has going for it is that it’s a new 3D fighter at a time where new 3D fighters are a novelty.  In the genre’s heydey, this would’ve been considered a lackluster entry in the face of bigger, better competition. Had this been the franchise’s response to Dead or Alive 3, Soul Calibur II, Virtua Fighter 4, or hell, even to Mortal Kombat: Deception, it would’ve been KO’d before the match even started. But because it’s only 3D fighting competition is a two-year-old port of a five-year-old Dead or Alive entry, Bandai Namco will likely be able to get away with it. I suspect that a lack of competition will look kindly upon this game, and certainly, the solid mechanics won’t hurt matters – even if those mechanics feel antiquated when held up against its 2D competition.

But as somebody whose first arcade experience was Tekken 3, who haunted his local arcade to take on anyone who wanted to kick him off the Tekken 5 machine, who wore out his PSP with Dark Resurrection, whose 2009 Christmas was a headache-inducing binge of Tekken 6, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed because I know how good this series can be, and taking my fanboy blinders off, I know that Tekken 7 is a very poor entry in a very good series. It’s far from a terrible game – it’s mechanics are rock solid, and I can see myself playing online from time to time. But it’s a terrible Tekken game, because there’s practically nothing else going on here outside of online and a compost pile of a story mode. No amount of unlockable costumes, customizable portraits, and grindable in-game currency can hide the lack of substantial content, the mechanical stagnation, and the lacklustre presentation.

Tekken might be one of my all-time favourite series, but Tekken 7 is an all-time low for the former King of the Iron Fist. While some diehards might be willing to overlook these glaring flaws because it’s a new Tekken game, this longtime diehard will be spending more time in Injustice 2 and BlazBlue: Central Fiction than I will ever consider giving this game.