There was no question of what to do first in Tekken 7. Straight to Arcade Mode and fight as Akuma, the demon-like Street Fighter II behemoth that we have used to make life a lot harder on so many players over the years. For those who grew up with Street Fighter II and followed the series thereafter, it is of course fascinating to see how he measures up against Bandai Namco's fearsome roster, headlined by fighters like Heihachi, Eddy Gordo, Marshall Law and King.
Our first encounter would take place on the aptly named Arctic Snowfall stage against the newcomer, Gigas, an absolutely terrible thing, who ranks among the best-designed power characters we've seen in a fighting game complete with tentacle-like cables hanging from the back.
Turns out there was good reason to be weary. Gigas is brutally strong and worryingly fast with his air juggles, but Akuma controls just as we'd hoped. It's really a Street Fighter character that has almost seamlessly been fitted over to the Tekken universe, and it actually works. Attacks where Gigas rushes against us are easily handled with Goshoryuken (dragon punches), combos are followed up by Tatsumaki Zankukyaku (tornado kicks) and there are even the ever trusty Gohadoken (fireballs) in his arsenal of attacks.
As if that wasn't enough, Akuma even has his EX meter from Street Fighter IV allowing him to perform more powerful attacks when needed, and his Rage attack is nothing less than Messatsu Gohadou. The first impression of Tekken 7 is very good, it feels smooth and has that fluid speed we associate with the series, and the graphics are a proper update since last time we saw the series, which was actually half a decade ago with Tekken Tag Tournament 2.
Something Bandai Namco always succeeds extremely well with compared to other developers of fighting games is making it fun to learn the game mechanics on your own. Creating entertaining training modes is clearly difficult and the only game that can really challenge this Practice Mode is Killer Instinct. But here there is a lot more than that. As usual, Tekken 7 offers a single-player mode that completely crushes everything the competition has to offer (with the possible exception being NetherRealm's most recent games). It's difficult not to draw parallels to the launch of the almost embarrassingly empty Street Fighter V; it's like comparing Doodle Jump with Super Mario 3D World. The difference really is that big.
The storyline allows us to play as and against the Tekken 7 gang and also many lifeless enemies who act as cannon fodder. The Story Mode doesn't include a stellar plot, but Bandai Namco is well aware of this and tells a cheesy and ultra-Japanese story with plot holes big enough for Bob to dance the jitterbug through them. It doesn't really matter, though, because it's still fun to see their excuses for beating each other up, and how cocky individuals seem to change during the course of a world war by delivering some roundhouse kicks. Sure, the cutscenes are sometimes way too long and often can't be paused, but still... it's an ambitious single-player mode that will definitely entertain Tekken veterans and teach beginners the game system and familiarise them with all the various characters.
However, as far as we are concerned there is nothing in a fighting game more important than regular versus multiplayer. Everything comes down to whether the game will be fun for years to come with friends and acquaintances, and that it offers nerve-shredding matches where the smallest of mistakes lead to nasty losses. That's why we invite over fellow fighting enthusiasts we've played fighting games with since the dawn of time. This way we get hard, but comparable opposition from people that know the genre.
The biggest news for the average player's in Tekken 7 is something called Rage Art. A tremendous attack that you can use when you are about to die, a bit like Critical Edge from Soul Calibur V for those who remember it. There, however, it often felt misplaced, but Bandai Namco has got it perfect this time. The attack is strong enough (taking less than a third of your opponent's life) that it often results in a clear loss ending up as a tight victory, a wonderful chance for a comeback, where the underdog and their opponent are down to the wire, and one good connection could settle the match either way. It works out great.
These Rage Art attacks are activated fairly quickly and are relatively easy to block, so preferably you put them in a combo when your opponent doesn't have a chance to recover. At a beginner's level or when panic sets in, however, it becomes easy to desperately try it out as a last attempt to win the battle. The system is intuitive, easy to understand, and does not require an extra meter/gauge that easily confuses those who are not so used to fighting games, and this is an addition that will likely be appreciated by the vast majority when they get the chance to try it out properly. Also, the attacks look spectacular, which helps give the game some extra shine.
A new feature that, most likely, will be used by those who know their Tekken is Power Crush. A counter move that allows you to absorb medium and high attacks and then hit back at your opponent instead of getting caught in a combo. The Power Crush does not work with low attacks and failing to time it leaves your guard wide open. Those who play Tekken the same way as they play Track and Field, by hitting all the buttons as fast as they can, will be easier than ever to defeat. Now it's important to know what you are doing and make sure you have a varied play-style.
We were forced to experience this ourselves with our Tekken homeboy Bob, who has a couple of combos that we could probably deliver while sleeping. Never has it been so easy for our opponents to deal with this as it is now, and we had to be extra careful and pay more attention to what we were actually doing. Playing Tekken 7 does feel a little bit like riding a bike, it's a faithful old friend we've played diligently at more or less regular intervals since the first part released on the original PlayStation in the mid-90s.
It's quick, it's smooth and it is obvious that Bandai Namco has made small improvements all over the place. Enough for us to feel that it's a new game, but familiar enough to embrace it fully. Among the newcomers, we find the above-mentioned Gigas, a wonderful addition. He has that cruel and completely brutal style we've previously seen in murderous characters such as Fulgore and Goro, but there is also the opposite with Lucky Chloe, a happy Otaku girl dressed as a cat who dances around and kicks serious butt. Then there is obviously a Jack-7.
More normal new additions are fighters like Shaheen, a Saudi Arabian with good power in his kicks and the savate-practicing Katarina Alves who reminds us of Miguel Caballero Rojo in her gameplay. The new stages are also well-crafted and very varied and take us from ultra-coloured kindergarten environments at the Kinder Gym, to the lively Arabian square on the Souq stage.
Overall, however, the graphics are not as impressive as we had hoped for. Tekken 7 has been in Japanese arcades for over two years, and although much has been completely reworked and it's incredibly well-animated, it's age sometimes shows through with some poor textures and slightly flat lighting. But switching to Epic's Unreal Engine 4 does not seem to have taken away any of its flow and Japanese feel; this is still a great game.
For those who want, there are also seemingly endless opportunities to dress and decorate the fighters to suit any taste. If you think that Alisa needs a huge froghat to get even cuter, Bandai Namco has you covered, and if would you rather have a big skull mask, you have that as well (or why not opt for make-up instead so you can have both the look and the froghat). Hairstyles and hair colours can also be changed and you can choose what the characters should wear and decide if more or less clothes are needed.
A lot of this gear costs money to unlock, which you earn by playing. There is also a Treasure Battle mode with loot boxes for those who want to want more stuff faster. This isn't something we really cared about, but there are people out there who certainly do (and we do like to customise the dogtag that appears when we play online - we quickly unlocked a fancy one with pixel versions of Alisa and Xiaoyu on it). There is so much that can be used, altered and designed in this respect.
After a week of frenetic fighting, we still want more. Complaints that the graphics could be more advanced technically fall a bit flat in a genre where people still play Street Fighter II on a high level and enjoy it, like they do with countless other fighting games that have sometimes even more primitive graphics. The addition of Akuma is a stroke of genius that also makes it easier for Street Fighter players and fans of 2D fighting to get into the Tekken world.
Bandai Namco has hit a home run here and has created a game that is easily accessible in the same way Tekken has almost always been - something that has made it so popular - but at the same time it has managed to bring about a lot of changes and added depth to make it appealing even to the pros, likely for years to come. "May I have a rematch?" has been the most commonly spoken phrase around these parts for a while, and will likely stay that way, because this is an excellent game.