Tekken always felt like it had an answer to the question of longevity. Keeping a fighting game alive for over twenty years has run Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters, and Street Fighter through peaks and valleys. In Tekken’s field of 3D fighting, Dead or Alive barely qualifies and Virtua Fighter is missing in action. Tekken, however, persists in popularity and presentation by obeying an unscripted model of innovation and iteration.
It’s simple; Tekken operates in parallel generations. The original Tekken was a spirited answer to Virtua Fighter. Its sequel blew out and balanced the roster. Tekken 3 was (probably) the most impressive PlayStation port from superior arcade hardware, and easily one of the best fighting games ever made. Tekken Tag Tournament was a collective summery of the past three games buoyed by a popular tagging mechanic.
And then it felt like Namco started over. Tekken 4 brought radical changes to Tekken’s roster and basic rules, introducing Just Frames and walls to Tekken’s trademark boundless arenas. The ultra flat-topped Paul let his hair down and allowed Tekken 4 to slide into a jazzy new century. Later, Tekken 5 corrected balance mistakes and Tekken 6’s entangled Bound mechanic electrified basic operation. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was a celebration of the franchise and included every character short of the perpetually unavailable Gon. On model, Tekken 7 is timed for a revolution.
Tekken 7 is not a revolution. It’s debatable whether or not it’s even an improvement over Tekken 6. There are certainly new elements to Tekken 7’s operation—a fresh signature mechanic, fiery updates to the roster, and another stab at creating a dedicated story mode—but with it comes an off-the-shelf texture that makes Tekken 7 feel assembled rather than created. Tekken used to lead the way in character presentation, oddball modes, and cheeky easter eggs. By comparison, Tekken 7 is either afraid or unwilling to step outside of basic “fighting game” obligations.
The latest attempt at creating a story mode is emblematic of Tekken 7’s obvious naiveté. It’s smart to restrict the larger, fifteen-chapter story to Tekken’s Mishima-centric plotline. Throwing family members into volcanos, possessing the ability to turn into a devil, casual immortality, and a sprawling family tree are evergreen topics for Tekken’s chaotic lore. Previously teased in Tekken 2, Tekken 7 properly introduces Kazumi, Hehachi’s (maybe??) long dead wife, mother to Kazuya Mishima, and grandmother to Jin Kazama. After mining half-brothers and estranged fathers, this was the only logical path to further layout why in the world this family is constantly trying to kill each other, or annihilate planet earth, or turning into a literal devil.
As a concept, Tekken 7’s two-to-three hour story mode is passable. Kazumi is interesting and her character design is rad as hell. In execution, however, god Tekken 7 is a bewildering mess. The ordeal is framed from the perspective of a nameless journalist who seeks to investigate Hehachi’s Mishima Zaibatsu and Kazuya’s G Corporation after Jin’s lunatic earth war kills his wife and child. This is separated into chapters, focusing on true-blood Mishimas like Kazuya, Jin, and (kind of) Lars along with periphery but connected characters Lee, Alisa, Nina, and newcomer and World’s Most Powerful Exorcist, Claudio Serafino.
What follows is a mixture of visual novel narration and in-engine action sequence. Aggression always builds, leading to some kind of inventible face off. Sometimes this manifests in the current character annihilating low-health and low-intelligence hordes of Jack models or generic G Corporation goons one by one. This creates a battle arena of bodies, each easily dispatched and functionally allowed to give the player something to do in between cut-scenes. The rate at which this happens is predictable and kind of hilarious. For some reason the story mode also makes use of ready-made one-off action sequences, such as the instance when Lars has access to a machine gun.
Most conflict is attempted to be resolved through direct confrontation. Fights begin normally, but usually when the player achieves victory the opposing character will get especially angry and refill their own life bar (after a bit of conversation your life bar is usually refilled too). After that you have to win the battle again. Occasionally the follow-up battle is fought against an opponent in a slightly altered form, which seems normal for a family cursed with the devil gene.
It’s hard not to see Tekken 7’s story mode as a response to the heat generated by recent Mortal Kombat and Injustice entries. NetherRealm Studios’ work changed and challenged expectations from a fighting game’s story, creating cast-spanning narratives punctuated by climatic battles. Tekken 7’s construction either doesn’t have the organization or skill (or budget) to match the modern standard. It’s a shame; Tekken’s roster isn’t any more goofy or ethereal than Mortal Kombat’s collection of eccentric bruisers, but at least it’s better than the perfunctory mess Street Fighter V launched with last year.
If nothing else, the mechanics behind Tekken 7’s story mode are welcoming to newcomers. A variety of difficulty options can be accessed between chapters, and the game also creates one-button shortcuts for otherwise complicated moves. Combos are even simplified on the easiest difficulty, ensuring some polite mashing is enough to guide inexperienced players through most sequences. I can’t imagine the story making any sort of sense if this is your first Tekken game, but it’s comforting to know some concessions were made to ease the total process.
The remaining cast members all have extremely short individual chapters. They begin with a brief in-engine intro, a fight, and then a short outro. Some of these carry Tekken’s penchant for cheekiness—Lucky Chloe recruiting Eddy Gordo as a back-up dancer is pretty good—and most pit different outcomes for each pair of opposing characters. Most sequences end up repeating familiar themes; Paul is a big idiot, Bryan is a psychopath, and Steve has unresolved maternal tension. There isn’t much new ground here.
The new characters represent Tekken 7’s most aggressive attempt at breaking different ground. Shaheen’s Arabian decent adds much need representation from the Middle East, Gigas fills the insane monster quota, and Katrina packs a deceptive amount of kick-friendly power. I still don’t know what to make of Josie or the aforementioned (and mash friendly) Lucky Chloe, other than to see their aesthetic fits neatly inside Tekken’s unlimited energy. The aforementioned Claudio and Kazumi are the stars of the show, which, of course a tactical magician and Kazuya’s mother are going to feel the most satisfying (it’s also worth mentioning that Master Raven and Jack 7 are technically new characters, but also familiar to their evolutionary counterparts).
Akuma’s in Tekken 7. From Street Fighter. Cynically, this is probably a make-good from Bandai-Namco on the disappearing act Tekken X Street Fighter has been pulling for the last decade, but it’s hard not to smile when you see Akuma throwing fireballs and delivering dragon punches. His implementation actually works well inside Tekken’s tapestry—since Tekken 2 the series has maintained a loose relationship with projectiles—and, aside from a visible EX meter and imposing presence, Akuma doesn’t seem especially overpowered. It’s a nice surprise, one undoubtedly aided in the months to come from additional guest characters.
Tekken 7’s signature contribution to the discourse is the expansion of the Rage system. When a character’s health has been significantly reduced, he or she will glow red and become enraged. From there they can execute a simple, time-slowing Rage Art that will unload a string of combos on the opposing player. The can also execute Rage Drives, slightly more complex moves absent of the slow motion effect but buoyed by their ability to fit neatly inside combos. Screw attacks are another new addition (intended to replace Tekken 6’s Bound system) and create additional combo vulnerability when an opponent makes contact with the floor.
The expanded Rage system is Tekken parlance for the declaration “Tekken has Supers now.” It’s not exactly a novel concept in the fighting game world, and it’s slightly disappointing to see Rage Arts and Drives as the Big Thing™ for Tekken 7. It isn’t so much complacency as the simple admission that Tekken really has nowhere left to go. Of course they added Supers. What else were they going to do without breaking the game down and starting over?
A wealth of customization options wash over every single character on the roster. Ghosts floating over Eliza’s head, giant pizzas affixed to Yoshimitsu’s gear, a huge unusable sword on Lars’ back, and a guitar for Marshall Law. Lovely. There’s some overlap across all characters, of course, but Tekken 7 isn’t one to skimp on clothing details. Additional options, like different styles of health bars, ranks, and player names are also widely available.
Unlocking all of the custom items is kind of weird. A majority have to be earned across Tekken 7’s various modes and then bought with in-game currency. I did most of this through Treasure Mode, which rewards players with a progressively better items and performance-based currency. Treasure Mode even makes room for the occasional special battle, a kind of in-game dip switch that can make a damage multiplier or double the game’s speed. You can also use Treasure Mode to rank up offline, which is nice for player’s who want to measure advancement without getting smoked by strangers.
That’s kind of it? The remainder of Tekken 7 is composed by what you would expect of a modern fighting game. A nice practice mode with a ton of options, Tekken 7’s proper arcade battle, and serviceable (at least with my connection) online battling. The former contains a tournament mode, though I can’t imagine it seeing much use outside of groups of faraway friends.
Jukebox Mode is a significant letdown. Inside are music selections from every past Tekken game, even the ill-fated Tekken Revolution. There are options for custom playlists, but accessing them only presents options for Tekken 7’s pulsing suite of original tracks. As best as I can tell, you can’t make playlists from the wide range of Tekken’s history. Past games only offer “preset” and “shuffle” options, and only one can be selected at a time. This seems like a tremendous oversight, and I can’t imagine proper functionality not being patched in at some point. Tekken’s had a long history of amazing soundtracks and it’s crazy they’re not customizable.
There’s also a VR mode which I can only describe as profoundly disappointing. It’s like a busted down practice mode with one CPU opponent inside of a single stage. You’re still observing the action from the side, but now you can change the camera angle and zoom distance and nothing else. I have no idea why this is here other than someone spent time making it and, technically, it’s another menu option. VR Mode isn’t worth the time it takes to put on the headset.
Tekken 7 is largely a spartan release. Seemingly obvious inclusions like a survival mode are nowhere to be found, and silly diversions like Tekken Ball or Tekken Bowling have no modern peer inside of Tekken 7. Downloadable content plans featuring a “new game mode” are in the works, but even those look kind of thin. I doubt that repeating Treasure Mode and buying loot will sustain any kind of long-term engagement, outside of the obvious fans in the fighting game community.
Tekken 7 sure does look nice. Its shift to the Unreal Engine smooths the edges of every surface, and going back and forth between Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Tekken 7 really did emphasize how much further Tekken’s visuals have come in the last six years. I don’t think the art direction is as strong—there doesn’t seem to be as much background activity or unique details—but it’s fine. Engaging in slow motion at end points in the battle basically a party trick, but it succeeds in adding frame-specific tension to the inevitable climax.
It’s weird and disappointing to see Tekken 7 emerge in such a bewildered state. I loved—loved—Tekken 3, Tekken Tag Tournament and Tekken 4. It’s hard not to see Tekken 7 as the beginning of a downward trajectory. The actual fighting, the raw combat that technically composes the heart of the game, is as fast, fluid, and accessible as it’s ever been. Much of it also feels the same as always, albeit with a few modifications and accessories. For the hardest of the core, this will be enough to sustain engagement. For others, it would be tough to pick Tekken 7 out of a lineup that also contains Tekken 6 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.
Tekken 7 has to carry the weight of twenty years of history. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe these characters and their systems weren’t meant to span decades into the future. Maybe changing seemingly inconsequential details would throw the whole thing into an unrecoverable spiral, or upset a legion of diehard Tekken fans. Pushing Tekken into 2017 is a balancing act of enormous difficulty and responsibility, and the very fact that it finally came out is no small accomplishment.
And who else is left? There aren’t any other 3D fighters on modern platforms worth mentioning. Tekken, as of this moment, outlasted them all. Until (if) Soul Caliber comes back, it’s the last man standing. “Well, it’s better than nothing” isn’t the most compelling argument but also, shit, Tekken 7 really is better than nothing. Its complacency is evidence of that. With enough dedicated friends or a vibrant online community, I can’t imagine dedication not being rewarded. Even if Tekken 7 isn’t a stellar entry in the series, it’s still a new Tekken game.
Tekken 7 is institutional progress and austere form cloaked in spectacle and absent of risk. Its periphery can’t keep pace with 2017 and its core feels like it’s running the same race Tekken already won almost a decade ago. This doesn’t stop Tekken 7 from being the best 3D fighter on current platforms, but it’s easy to stand atop a podium unchallenged by legitimate competitors.