Apologies to Soul Calibur, but Bandai Namco's finest punching bags are now back to once again beat each other to a pulp ...
What an incredible fighting year we've had, with Street Fighter 6, Mortal Kombat 1 and now Tekken 8 being released in the space of nine months. And to top it all off, the first two have been really good, and now you're probably wondering how Tekken 8 stands up to these giants? The answer is; perfectly fine.
Tekken 7 was actually released in arcades back in 2015, although the home versions only came two years later. Thus, a lot has happened since then, not least on the technical front where Bandai Namco actually changed the graphics engine from Unreal Engine 4 to Unreal Engine 5. In addition, they have greatly updated their online offerings and once again deliver a meaty campaign.
Moreover, there are a lot of other things like the game mode Tekken Ball and individual small campaigns for all fighters and a game mode called Arcade Quest that makes it a little more meaningful to fight against the computer, and can best be described as a training campaign (more on both these later). Like so many other developers, Bandai Namco has also experimented with lighter game controls to make it easier for newcomers to get into the fights, among other things.
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But as usual with fighting games, they're never more fun than taking on friends in hard-hitting prestige matches, whether locally or online. So I thought I'd start on this particular end. I actually had the privilege of meeting Tekken veteran Katsuhiro Harada just under a year ago and talked about Tekken 8. Something he pointed out was that Bandai Namco wanted to make Tekken 8 more aggressive than before, which may sound strange considering that it is a fairly aggressive series.
It doesn't take long from the time I start delivering punches before I understand what he means. The whole system is designed to get you quickly into a clinch with your opponent and deal out blows. Key to this is the new Heat system, which rewards beating the crap out of your opponent really fast, because for a limited amount of time you have an enhanced version of your character, with both the ability to do more damage and some special attacks. Heat can be activated with either a button press (called Heat Burst and lasts for 10 seconds), or woven into a combo with the Heat Engager, the latter providing an extra 5 seconds of Heat.
The difference gives an intensity that I, who have played almost every fighting game worthy of the name in the last 35 years, have never seen before. Those who have activated their Heat naturally want to make the most of this, and are thus encouraged to really go at the opponent, who will also take a beating even if he blocks. New is that you can also more easily get back some life in Tekken 8, as some damage leaves a "shadow" in your life meter, which can then be refilled. But even this requires jaw slapping and neck kicking and in the end we have a formula that just encourages you to play furiously.
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I personally mourn the absence of Bob (may he show up as DLC character sooner rather than later), and have tried to focus on Paul Phoenix, Lili De Rochefort and newcomer Reina - who also have an important role to play in the story, represented by her being in the middle of all selectable characters in some sort of place of honor. I normally love to use mind-games and unexpected throws when I play fighting, but Tekken 8 forces me to rethink this strategy. The Heat approach makes it too slow, so it's been a bit like rediscovering the series for me.
To train, I've been spending a lot of time in the new Arcade Quest game mode, which is a kind of light campaign where you have to fight your way through Japanese arcades to become the best in Tekken and beat a douchebag gamer (who, of course, has a edgy attitude and plays Kazuya Mishima). Not only is this a good opportunity to unlock a lot of cosmetic items, but it's also really cozy, and above all, it provides a good opportunity to have the basics explained to you by other nice NPC arcade visitors and to try out everything in a controlled environment. In short, one of the best training modes I've seen, with less of a sense of ramming information down your throat and more of actual entertainment.
Another draw for Tekken 8, which can also be used to get into the new game system, is of course the campaign. Along with Mortal Kombat 1, Bandai Namco is the market leader in this area and the Tekken series has a long continuous history that has been going on uninterrupted since the first game. The campaign is perhaps not something I would buy the game for alone, but for a fighting game I think this is very impressive in all its extreme cheesiness. With no discernible self-irony, we see the Tekken characters running around trying to deal with the growing world problem of Kazuya (avoiding talking about the story details for spoiler reasons), but because Bandai Namco takes its campaign so seriously, it just works. Katsuhiro Harada seems completely uninterested in trying to modernize Tekken or add more self-irony, in a way I perceive both Capcom and Netherrealm Studios doing with Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Unfortunately, I think the campaign is treading water towards the end where it could have been shortened, but overall it's still very impressive, even if Mortal Kombat 1 is still better in this area.
If you've played Arcade Quest and the campaign and still feel like you haven't quite figured out how to best play Tekken, Bandai Namco has done as many other fighting game developers have done before and tried to deliver an alternative control scheme called Special Style. This can be activated (and deactivated) with a quick press of LB during matches and thus works for more than beginners, such as those who don't master Air Juggles. If you've got a good launcher, there's nothing stopping you from activating Special Style and then ripping off a good combo by just pressing the Y button a few times in a row. The system is not as flexible as playing in the standard way, but still makes Tekken more beginner-friendly, which has been something Tekken has been perceived as for a very long time. The downside is that this system makes pretty much every character play like everyone else, thus losing a lot of variation.
The game controls are otherwise incredibly good with a very clear sense of what each button does in the battles. It feels precise and fast and there are few times I feel that I have not been in control of the situation, where every win is satisfying and losses are something I only have myself to blame for. The fights are intense and even intimate, an effect of two pugilists trying to maximize their Heat period by delivering as many blows as possible in the shortest possible time. There are more than a few times I've been almost out of breath after a completed battle, thanks to the intensity.
So far, the game is a real highlight, but there is still one thing I am not completely sold on, and which Bandai Namco has talked about a lot, namely the change of game engine from Unreal Engine 4 to 5. While this on paper gives the opportunity for incredible leaps, I do not think Tekken 8 makes the most of this upgrade. While it's certainly better looking than Tekken 7, by a good margin, there's no doubt that I perceive both Street Fighter 6 and Mortal Kombat 1 to be better looking (although the comparison isn't necessarily fair as they don't have a rotating camera). And all the artificial lighting effects to highlight things like Heat make it lose even more visual flair. While it's still very nice, one could have hoped for more from a technical perspective. Otherwise, however, it runs perfectly and loads very quickly.
Finally, I want to mention that there are also three other game modes worth knowing about. One is the above mentioned Tekken Ball, which originally appeared in Tekken 3, as well as the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and now Tekken 8. While it's not something you'll want to play for hours, it has a "just one more match" dimension in the right company. It's kind of like a lighter volleyball concept where it's more like beating up a beach ball. It feels like the balance between different characters isn't great (big, sweeping attacks are very effective), but it's fun and Tekken Ball will surely provide many hours of laughter and entertainment. Then there are Super Ghost Battles where you and your opponents create AI versions of themselves that you can train against. If you have a friend who plays a certain way with a certain character, use the AI to face him/her and train whenever you want. The idea is that you will also be able to meet the best professionals in the world, developers and others. A fun concept in theory, although I need to see more AI ghosts created over a long period of time before I can answer exactly how good the AI is at imitating its real-life counterparts.
The third is that each character (some of which require you to complete the campaign first) has their own mini-story to play through. These consist of only a handful of matches, and then reward you with a charming ending sequence that isn't necessarily story canon, but still entertains with feelgood, humor, a dose of hate and good action. I've often played through such a campaign as a diversion, and because there are so many of them, there's a lot of fanservice to be had here.
But all in all, there's no doubt in my mind that Street Fighter 6 and Mortal Kombat 1 should bow to the king. They were both really good games where great attempts were made to modernize and vary the concept. Tekken 8, however, is built on a different foundation, where Bandai Namco loves its series and wanted to optimize and build the best possible Tekken installation without the pressure that there must be something new just for the sake of it.
Therefore, I dare say that Tekken 8 is the winner of these three games almost no matter how you look at it, where only the graphics and the campaign in Mortal Kombat 1 can measure up to what Bandai Namco has to offer. Fighting simply doesn't get much better than this, and the utterly furious and hyper-excited Tekken 8 will be my main fighting game for years to come.
9 / 10
Great controls, Heat system adds intensity, extreme amount of content, well done campaign, great selection of characters, flows perfectly, Arcade Quest is great training mode
Graphics worse than expected, campaign loses pace towards the end