Hands-On with Tekken 7: Slow down and enjoy the punches

Bandai Namco recently invited us to their New York City summer showcase to get a taste of what they have to offer in the upcoming year. There, we got to spend a ton of time with the PC version of Tekken 7, their flagship fighting game. Before I even got my hands on it, I could already tell they put a lot of effort into perfecting the PC port. It ran at a constant 60FPS in brilliant HD graphics without a single hiccup. The Xbox One controller, legacy PS3 controllers, and generic USB controllers are all going to work just fine. It’s going to have all the modes the console version has, and there might even be cross-platform play. As of right now, the PC version is easily looking to be the definitive version of Tekken’s latest installment.

But a fighting game has to do a lot more than just look pretty to be worth playing. Any fighter will live or die on its mechanics. So I spent hours playing the demo, picking apart mechanics, and trying out new characters, and am happy to report that I was delightfully surprised. Fans of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Tekken 6 might be surprised that Tekken 7 seems to be going back to Tekken’s roots by focusing on fundamentals, but that was exactly what made it so much fun.

Core Mechanics

Tekken 7 feels like a direct response to player feedback on the fast-paced, high-damage, combo-centric gameplay of Tekken Tag Tournament 2. The controls are just as responsive as ever, but characters move slower. This makes moves easier to see coming and combos easier to pull off. It gives battles a more calculated feel and opens up a relatively complicated fighting system to novice players.

Combo mechanics have been changed so that combos are much shorter and deal far less damage. The system is still built around juggles, and simple juggles are easier to do. Opponents fall slowly after the first launcher in every combo, making it easy to connect with a follow up. Each subsequent hit makes gravity quickly increase, making it difficult to do prolonged damage-heavy strings. On average, a competent player can expect to do 20-25% damage on a clean hit and far less on a random jab. Even newbies will be able to come up with easy 10-15% combos as long as they know a string or two.

Combo mechanics have also been vastly simplified. Most of the special hit-states of the game have been taken out. The most notable one is “bound,” which allowed you to bounce an opponent off the ground but only once per combo. To compensate, many moves that acted as combo extenders now generate more normal hit-stun. The special hit-states that still exist, like spin-out or crumple, can now be activated in the middle of a combo when previously they only activated on first hit or counter-hit.

Rage Mode makes a return, giving you a bonus to your damage when you are reduced below 25% health. However, the damage bonus is far less pronounced in Tekken 7. Instead, a number of new mechanics allow you to trade your Rage status in for one special attack.

If you are looking to deal damage, then you’ll want to use your character’s Rage Art. Activated by a simple two button press along with a direction, Rage Arts are the equivalents of supers in other fighting games. They do a substantial amount of damage alone, have invincibility on start-up, and don’t scale much when used in combos. They also deal more damage the less life you have, making them the best come-back move in your arsenal.

If you are looking for flexibility, you’ll want to use Rage Drives, which will likely be the main way competitive players use their Rage Mode. Rage Drives give special properties to your character’s existing moves. They can be used to extend combos, penetrate defenses, and extend pressure. Think of them as the Tekken version of EX moves. Rage Drives deal far less damage than Rage Arts, but are also far easier to hit with. They are also harder to execute, only being activated after a very specific string of hits.

The last new mechanic is the “power crush.” These are moves that can absorb a couple of hits before executing. Think of them as a beefy version of Street Fighter IV’s focus attack. The key difference here is that power-crushes can be broken through the use of specific moves, usually lows. This makes them hard to abuse in neutral game but fantastic as reversals. In fact, more power has been given to prone characters in general. They have a variety of new get-up options and the number of attacks that can hit an opponent on the ground has been significantly reduced.

Overall, Tekken 7 is a much more defensive Tekken game. It feels more like Tekken 5 or even Tekken 3 than Tekken 6 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. You aren’t going to find people crouch dashing or backdash canceling much. Instead, the focus is on footsies, mix-ups, and creating opportunities off of short combos. Fundamentals are going to be very important.

And if it sounds like Tekken has “borrowed” quite a bit from Street Fighter, that’s because it has. However, I wouldn’t call this a shameless rip-off. Each new mechanic is very well thought out. They complement the new defensive battle system and give players more options to both set up and penetrate defenses. Arguably, these mechanics work better in the Tekken system than they ever did in the Street Fighter system.

Speaking of something that works better in Tekken than Street Fighter

Akuma

In case you’ve been living under a rock that was thrown into a volcano by a bigger rock and also is part demon (haha… plot), Akuma from Street Fighter will be guesting on the Tekken 7 roster. In my opinion, he is both the most fun and most powerful character that I got a chance to play.

Like most Tekken characters, he is controlled using only 4 buttons: right punch, left punch, right kick, and left kick. However, all Tekken similarities end there. Everything else is pure Street Fighter.

Unlike Tekken characters whose primary method of attack is short combo strings, Akuma focuses on single-hit normals. While Tekken characters have to deal with gravity scaling making juggles difficult, Akuma’s single hits knock the opponent higher and floatier than most. This allows him to string together long combos of single-hits which feels very Street Fighter-esque, but doesn’t do much more damage than any Tekken character’s combo strings.

Akuma still has use of all his special moves, from fireball to dragon punch to hurricane kick. He even has a super bar, which allows him to use actual EX moves and supers. Unlike Tekken characters, he doesn’t have access to a Rage Drive, and his Rage Art – the raging demon – requires both Rage Mode and a full super bar. His power crush is literally a Street Fighter IV focus attack, and can be used to FADC out of his normal and specials. He even jumps higher than any Tekken character, which empowers his Street Fighter-style high-low mixups.

The reason why Akuma feels so much fun to play is because of Tekken 7’s underlying combo mechanics. The high hit-stun and focus on juggles makes combos that were difficult to land in Street Fighter accessible in Tekken. Fireball spam is nowhere near as much of a problem in Tekken due to its 3D nature. Even the 4 button layout makes him easy to play on a pad. I’d say that he’s more fun to play here than he is in Street Fighter, and Street Fighter pros seem to agree. The competitive Tekken scene has seen a huge influx of Street Fighter players, picking up Akuma even though they’ve never played a Tekken before! It’s a shame that development of Tekken X Street Fighter has been put on indefinite hiatus because this more than proves that the formula works.

Single-Player

Akuma is a center point of Tekken 7’s new story mode, which is one of the deepest and most involved single-player modes the series has ever had. It takes a page from titles such as Mortal Kombat in that the majority of the story is told through fully voice-acted cutscenes that transitions seamlessly into fights. But Tekken 7 spices things up by extending the cinematic storytelling to the fight itself.

For example, characters will routinely throw witty combat banter back and forth as they fight. At times, a particularly strong hit will cause a character to stumble backward in a short cutscene before the fight continues. Characters will sometimes clash or lock-up, struggling against each other as blow after blow is blocked. There are even stereotypical “anime power-up” scenes where your opponent stays in place, screaming and charging up a special technique. Keep in mind that all of this happens in the middle of battle and is triggered by the moves you use. This makes the storytelling feel organic, despite the plot being the same “throw your demon son into a volcano” wackiness we have come to expect from the Tekken series.

Plans for the Future

Bandai Namco is putting a lot of support behind Tekken 7. We will likely see the game release alongside brand new tournament-quality fight sticks. New characters are constantly being considered for the roster. A new training mode is going to allow players to dive deep into the frame data and move properties of each individual string. Balance changes will routinely be pushed out for arcade and console versions alike. In fact, a new arcade balance update was pushed out just a few days ago.

Bandai Namco has also said they are looking to support the fighting game community and e-sports scene. While official plans have not yet been made concrete, we can look forward to a number of Bandai Namco sponsored tournaments, both online and off. They want to build upon the strong Tekken 7 arcade community that already exists by providing a solid console release. I was assured that post-release support will be offered primarily online, and that Tekken will not fall victim to the yearly re-release treadmill that fighting games like Guilty Gear and Blazblue seem to be stuck on.

Tekken 7 was fun to play, plain and simple. I can see why Street Fighter pros are converting - because it’s easy to. It takes no time to learn Tekken 7, yet the game still feels deep. Easy to learn, hard to master – the exact sweet spot any competitive game should be looking for. Its focus on fundamentals and core mechanics will make it a hit with fighting game newbies, while the slow, calculating, almost chess-like nature will appeal to pros. It feels significantly different from Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Tekken 6, a substantial sequel rather than just another balance update. If this is the model that next-generation Tekken games will follow, I have high hopes for the series, especially if Bandai Namco ever does decide to go through with the Tekken X Street Fighter project.

Tekken 7: Fated Retribution will release in early 2017 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

Read more of our impressions of Tekken 7 in our E3 preview