[Note: Tekken 7 is currently a review in progress, as we have yet to be able to fully test the online functions or any version other than PlayStation 4. We will update this review to include impressions of the online performance shortly after launch, and our score may change to reflect that.]
Tekken 7 is a love letter to this long-running franchise and its staggering complexity. Yet somehow it still manages to be accessible to just about anyone wanting to mash buttons, and its huge amount of customization unlocks constantly give you something to strive for beyond its silly and slightly cliched story. In a pretty good time for fighting games, with Injustice 2 knocking it out of the park, Killer Instinct continuing to give us quality content years after its release, Street Fighter 5 hitting its stride after a rocky start, and a new version of Guilty Gear Xrd air-dashing our way, the King of the Iron Fist Tournament will not be outdone.
On the surface, Tekken 7 is familiar, taking place on the series’ signature three-dimensional stages which allow you to move to your opponent’s sides as well as forward and back. Attacks are inspired by Asian martial arts and other fighting styles from around the world, placing most of the emphasis on strikes and very little on the projectiles you typically find in other fighting games. Movement is more deliberate, and carelessly jumping or dashing can be disastrous.
The introduction to Tekken 7’s pace comes from The Mashima Saga, the ambitious new story mode created for the console and PC versions (as opposed to the arcade). The Mashima Saga explores the healthy and emotionally stable relationships within the Mashima clan, where sons are obsessed with murdering their fathers and fathers can’t help but throw their sons into the nearest lava pit. Heihachi, his son Kazuya, and his grandson Jin all maneuver trillion-dollar corporations with militaries more advanced than most industrialized nations while trying to take each other out. While The Mashima Saga does attempt to portray Heihachi in an understanding light by giving motivation for his infamously chucking Kazuya into an erupting volcano decades ago, it is hard to find sympathy for any of the scions of the Mashima family.
However, there is a certain charm to the entirely over-the-top nature of Tekken’s lore and its embracing of anime tropes, and the short character-specific chapters included in The Mashima Saga help lighten the mood while also serving up nostalgia. When King battles Jack, Jack uses its artificial intelligence to adapt to King’s fighting style, so the famous luchador uses maneuvers borrowed from his long-time friend Marduk and from his rival Armor King. When Yoshimitsu attempts to infiltrate the Mashima Dojo, he finds Leo and battles the young boy before having a change of heart and catching a knee in the groin for his troubles. While it certainly isn’t sophisticated, I feel no shame admitting watching Yoshimitsu crumple to the ground had me chuckling while smiling and shaking my head.
The Mashima Saga takes an approach similar to the story mode in Injustice 2, changing points of view between Heihachi and his progeny, Tekken Force rebel Lars, and special guest Akuma – yes, that Akuma. I found this approach to the story slightly frustrating in Injustice 2, as being thrust suddenly into the boots of a new character meant I had to stop to learn them, and the same could be said of Tekken 7 and The Mashima Saga. However, Tekken 7 does offer the ability to use simplified inputs while playing The Mashima Saga to perform a handful of pre-selected attacks, easing the transition into playing a character with whom you might not be familiar. Also, while there are multiple points of view, there are a manageable number, so I didn’t need to spend a huge amount of time learning moves in order to progress.
At the same time, The Mashima Saga’s short, three-hour duration and slimmer cast made the events of the story feel important only to the Mashima clan itself, rather than all the fighters in the King of Iron Fist Tournament. Other fighters are given a brief time in the spotlight with optional side missions contained within Mashima Saga mode. While I found some of these, such as Yoshimitsu’s ill-fated excursion into the Mashima Dojo, entertaining, I was slightly disappointed to see so little focus on anyone other than Heihachi, Jin, and Kazuya and their struggle for power over the Mashima Zaibatsu and one another.
Where Tekken 7’s content does not disappoint at all is in its character customization options, which put it truly in a class unto itself and sets the new standard for letting you express yourself. Cosmetics are modifiable on an unparalleled level, going beyond thousands of individual fashion pieces to include attack effects, colorful auras, portraits and tile backgrounds, and multiple alternate costumes whose top and bottom pieces can be mixed and matched. You’re even allowed to choose from hundreds of options for the frame art around your health bar; it’s something so simple, yet it adds another cool way to make yourself unique when playing online.
Extra content is unlocked by completing matches in online Tournaments, Treasure Battle, or by spending Fight Money, which you earn simply by playing. The sheer amount of content in character appearance alone would give a completionist a hell of a lot of fights to finish in order to collect all the hats, shirts, accessories, costumes, and alternate artwork. Hwoarang starting up the Superkick Party in a Bullet Club t-shirt? Too sweet.
These alternate looks partner up with an often-overlooked element to the Tekken characters, which Tekken 7 delivers: even old faces look new, rather than sticking to the tried-and-true costumes and designs from previous games. Hwoarang has an eye patch. Lars wears new armor. Heihachi sports a samurai-inspired look. King looks heroic in a cape. While characters like Street Fighter’s Ryu and Sagat, King of Fighter’s Iori, or Guilty Gear’s Slayer and Sol have classic, iconic looks, I appreciate that Tekken takes a chance by reimagining the visual design for even their most veteran names. When I see Yoshimitsu wearing armor that looks like it was designed by H.R. Giger, I know I’m playing Tekken 7.
Underneath the excellent cosmetics, some tweaks have been made to the combat mechanics that should encourage newbies. (If you’re a newbie you might not understand this – but that’s okay, you don’t need to benefit from these changes). Relative to the phenomenal Tekken 6, sidestepping here is slower and not as useful for baits or defense, while forward and back movement is improved. This places more emphasis on short and middle ranges, which feels more comfortable for those approaching Tekken from experience with spacing-focused games in Street Fighter or King of Fighters. While sidestepping is slightly less useful and no longer a universal weapon against certain characters who lack strong tracking attacks, careful and expert usage can still open up opportunities to capitalize on mistakes. It also helps characters with traditionally slower sidesteps like King or Paul to not feel so disadvantaged in defense.
New damage scaling has reduced the amount of damage longer combos do, with launcher damage down from Tekken 6 and total damage dropping sharply from the fourth hit of a juggle onward. However, continuing to practice combo execution is a must, as wall-carry combos are still crucial even if they aren’t doing as much damage. The changes are slightly more forgiving for the newer faces among us who might throw out a poke only to whiff and find themselves getting severely punished. The movement and damage changes are a smart way to encourage people to learn Tekken 7 without sacrificing the complexity that is the series’ trademark.
Rest assured that this is still, pound for pound, the most technical fighting game on the planet. While the combo system has been changed to be more streamlined by replacing traditional Bound bounces from previous versions with Screw Attacks, there is still ample opportunity to get lost exploring the artful flow of each match. Scaling changes mean most of a combo’s damage is front-loaded, forcing difficult choices. Do I punish with a down-forward 2-leading into a longer combo which will carry me closer to the wall, or do I get in some damage with a shorter combo off an up forward 3? I found optimizing my performance to be a near-zen exercise of evaluating conditions, making changes and choices in mere moments accommodating distance, scaling, positioning, health, and even the stages themselves. No other fighting games master imparting a feeling of each fight growing organically, living and breathing like Tekken, and Tekken 7 is the best the series has ever been.
Perhaps most admirable of all, despite the ultra-demanding execution required to master Electric Wind Godfists or to visually recognize frame advantage and know the difference between a 12-frame and 14-frame punish, Tekken 7 still manages to be something you can pick up, press buttons, and play. No matter who you are or what your skill level, you can always just pick ole’ Eddie and start tapping away at the kick buttons. It’s the push to take your skills to the next level that requires you to immerse yourself in Tekken 7’s intricacies.
The action goes down with a soundtrack of drum-and-bass bangers so awesome it left me disappointed when I fired up Spotify and came up empty-handed after a hopeful search. The main menu theme, “Solitude,” sets the mood from the moment you fire up Tekken 7. “Empty Your Mind” from the Dragon’s Nest stage, “Metallic Experience” from the Mishima Building stage, and heck, even “The Motion” from the Warm-Up Space had me nodding my head along with the beats and beatdowns. Quality music would be enough, but Tekken 7 takes it an impressive step further by including the soundtracks to every single Tekken ever released (including both Tekken Tag Tournaments) and allowing you to substitute in any of your favorites or to create a custom playlist of your favorite songs from old Tekkens and the new one.
Including all the Tekken music is a cool touch and marks a reoccurring theme within Tekken 7 of celebrating Tekken as a whole. You can use your Fight Money to purchase marketing and concept pieces, original art, and all the video cutscenes for every Tekken. This is a nostalgia motherlode, and viewing some of this material quickly pulled me back in time to memories of years spent with Tekken, whether hours of matches of Tekken 3 with friends in high school, countless quarters sank into Tekken Tag Tournament machines, or getting destroyed repeatedly by the Bay Area Tekken scene when other Street Fighter players and I tried to transition into Tekken 6.