Tekken 8’s greatest challenge is building on a fighting game experience that has been refined to close to perfection over the course of eight-plus years, without feeling like it retreading old ground or needlessly upending the foundation laid by its predecessor. Thankfully, it’s a challenge that developer Bandai Namco meets by introducing an improved fighting system focused on aggression, an impressive roster of 32 fighters, and one of the most rock-solid online experiences I’ve ever seen in a fighting game.
The main draw of Tekken 8 is the Heat system, which represents a new wrinkle to an already-satisfying set of brawling mechanics. Certain moves in each fighter’s repertoire emit a burst of white energy on contact which, in turn, activates an aura of that same energy around the character’s limbs. While in this state, characters can inflict more damage when blocked, gain access to a quick Heat Dash or powerful Heat Smash, and receive a few unique perks depending on the character. Claudio, for example, gets access to enhanced and powerful Starburst attacks while Heat is active, while Leroy can add time to his Heat meter whenever he uses one of his unique parry or reversal attacks, which keeps him powered up for longer. Heat can only be activated once per match, and it’s only active for a short period of time, which promotes more aggressive tactics. Although it can be easy to think of this as a comeback mechanic, it has much more strategic utility and versatility which can mean it’s used for an aggressive offense or a Hail Mary.
This makes every battle feel like a slugfest, which I find to be a refreshing change of pace for the franchise. Tekken has always been good at getting the adrenaline pumping during a match through the basics of trading fists, but the swings in momentum that a perfectly timed Heat activation can cause significantly amp up the excitement for both players and spectators. Importantly, the new Heat system doesn’t pave the way to mindless mashing of buttons to brute force the aggression. While it’s certainly possible to win a bout or two by smashing buttons, players who prefer to wait for the opportune moment to strike will often come out on top, and in brutal and cinematic style, they may just need to make some adjustments to account for the unpredictability of mashers. The new Heat System offers a lot to new and returning Tekken players, and the threat of a drastic turn in the tide of a battle at the touch of a single button press makes for tense moments and satisfying flourishes when successful.
The Heat Smash attacks are some of the flashiest in the entire game. They’re similar to Rage Arts–the one-time-use super move only available at critical health–but they no longer require waiting until you’re near-death to use them, so they can be strategically employed at any time rather than being akin to a comeback mechanic employed in desperate and dire moments. They also inject more of Tekken’s personality into each match; one of my favorite Heat Smashes belongs to Kuma, the massive brown bear, who bludgeons his opponent with a comically large fish, only for said fish to then hopelessly flop around the arena for the remainder of the round. It’s a powerful move with funny execution at the end, and I’ll always appreciate that.
Kuma is but one member of a robust character roster that is available upon starting the game, and there’s enough variety among the 32 characters that each one stands out both visually and in gameplay in their own way. Kuma and Panda stick out immediately–they’re both giant, bipedal bears, which is hard to miss–but the android Alisa and her removable head, the mysterious Safina’s spider-like attacks and movement, and the samurai Yoshimitsu’s glaring red eyes and amazing blue armor are some of my favorite new designs for returning characters.
Joining the roster are three brand-new faces, and all three are incredibly fun to play in different ways. Azucena is always moving, which is befitting of her “Coffee Queen” persona. She can deftly dodge attacks and strike while an opponent is exposed to dish out damaging retaliatory attacks. Victor is a calm and collected special agent who wields an arsenal of futuristic weaponry as he teleports around the ring. My favorite of the three, however, is Reina, who not only calls back to one of the patriarchs of the franchise–the now-deceased Heihachi Mishima–but also adds a new layer of intrigue to the story mode. She hits like a truck, with flashy spinning kicks and electrifying punch combos that pack a wallop.
While the new characters offer unique ways to fight, the returning roster has plenty of new moves for you to learn as well. Tekken veterans will find fun and interesting abilities and combos that weren’t there before, which means everyone on the roster has a fresh learning curve to explore. I’ve mained the pro wrestler King since Tekken 2, and I’ve already found a new favorite move: Rapid King Onslaught. If you’re familiar with pro wrestling, take one look at the first three letters of each word in the move’s name, and you can guess what happens. Discovering that move was a delight, and I’m always looking to unleash it on an unsuspecting opponent. Better still, everyone on the roster has similarly thrilling moves like that, and they’re very fun to figure out and implement into your strategies from previous games.
Every fighter also has a suite of customization options to choose from, which let you tweak your favorite fighter to your liking. T-shirts, jackets, hats, and more can be fitted onto a character or purchased with in-game currency–which, thankfully, is in bountiful supply. While there are a finite number of items for each character, mixing and matching provides more creative freedom than I expected, and I came up with some really cool looks, as well as a few goofy ones. The idea of Kazuya Mishima, the game’s fearsome main villain, entering battle against Jin in a Freddy Krueger-style shirt while wearing a traffic cone on his head never fails to make me laugh.
Tekken 8 offers an impressive mix of modes, which range from standard battles to some off-beat variations. Online play will be the bread-and-butter of the game, and the Tekken Fight Lounge is the central hub for all of it. Here, created avatars meet in a lavish arcade setting, sit at arcade machines, and do battle against one another in Quick, Ranked, Player, and Group Matches. I love the vibe of the place; it really gives off the feel of being in an arcade like when I was young. At the time of writing, the servers weren’t as populated as they will be when the game is available, but the atmosphere was no less engaging because of it, so I can only imagine how energetic it will be when the fighter floodgates open.
Of course, none of this matters if online matches don’t have stable connections, and I’m happy to report that for the majority of the matches I played online–29 of my 30, to be exact–I experienced zero lag, stuttering, or technical issues. Only once did action come to a halt, but it quickly resumed and never hitched again. Rollback frames are easily visible in the bottom-right of the screen as well, so I always know how my matches are performing in real-time. Online play was a key focus for testing for me coming into Tekken 8, and while I acknowledge this was a limited number of players, I’m still very happy with the results thus far. Testing will continue once online servers are available to the public on release and this review will be updated and finalized in the days following.
Those who don’t want to venture online have plenty of ways to keep fighting while offline. There are standard matches against the AI or against other local players, for example. Tekken Ball–a silly side game that mixes Tekken with volleyball–is a fun break from normal action, though the ball physics sometimes make the experience more frustrating than it should be. Training mode is neat as well, thanks to a robust suite of tools that expose frame data, detail movement, and explore other elements which deepened the player’s understanding of the game.
The weakest single-player mode is called Character Stories. Here, you choose a character, watch a brief introduction for said character, and then fight through five predetermined opponents, one after another, in the same stage. Once all five opponents are beaten, there is a cutscene featuring the character, and then you’re thrown back to the character select. The ending cutscenes are cool, but the entire mode feels half-baked, as if it were an afterthought. This is the closest Tekken 8 gets to a traditional “arcade” mode from previous games, and it leaves a lot to be desired.
My issues with Characters Stories aside, the leadup to Tekken 8 has focused heavily on the conflict between Kazuya Mishima and his son, Jin Kazama, and that conflict serves as the base for the game’s largest single-player mode, The Dark Awakens. This three-hour story mode plays out over 15 chapters, and while the Mishima family tree and the Devil Gene running through the narrative is the focal point, players aren’t limited to playing as Jin. A few missions let you take over other characters to mix things up a bit; one chapter even involves playing out an entire first round of a tournament bracket by picking one character in each matchup.
While I was happy to get those moments away from Jin and Kazuya’s quarrel, whether in cutscene or in battles with other characters, they never lasted as long as I wanted them to. I am not a Jin player–I’ve tried, but he and I haven’t clicked since he debuted in Tekken 3–so playing as him for the majority of the chapters, while understandable due to the subject matter, made it less fun for me. That said, the story takes some wild turns, which inspired me to push through and deal with my Jin shortcomings.
My lack of Jin expertise was helped by the Special Style mode, which is a format for new Tekken players to use in order to ease into the game. This is equivalent to Street Fighter 6’s Modern controls, where attacks and combos are accessed with single button presses rather than the normal format of successive, timed presses. Using them to get through story chapters I had trouble with was enough for me, but I can see the benefit for someone who’s not familiar with how the game works utilizing it beyond this. Furthermore, while it simplifies a character’s moves, it also limits the player to the preassigned moves, so when I encountered someone using Special Style online, I just needed to identify the move loops they were going through in order to effectively counter it.
Arcade Quest–a cute journey of Tekken fans playing the latest game at their local arcades–is also available as a complementary offering to the other single-player mode and, unlike the Jin-centric story, it lets players pick whoever they want. Not only that, but it teaches certain combos and tricks for the selected character while also throwing in moves to experiment with during each match, engendering a learning process. This is where I discovered Rapid King Onslaught; without it, I might not have found my new favorite move.
Upon starting Arcade Quest, you’re assigned an avatar. Each avatar can be customized from head to toe, too, with options for skin, hair, clothes, accessories, and more. I went for a simple look to start with, but before long I was wearing a bright red polka-dotted shirt and carrying around a trophy made of golden fists. Combined with character customizations, this gives a lot of ownership over the looks of the people I’m controlling when Tekken 8 to the player, which is a nice way to draw them into the game even further.
Arcade Quest serves as an expanded tutorial of sorts, both in Tekken 8 and the fighting game scene surrounding it. Granted, most of the dialogue between the avatars is more dramatic than you’ll hear at your local arcade–and a lot less explicit, if I’m being honest–but it does capture the essence of meeting up and playing in person pretty well. What’s more, when completed it takes the player right to the Tekken Fight Lounge where real-world players will be waiting, and it’s an excellent “training wheels are coming off” moment.
Eight years after its predecessor originally launched in arcades, Tekken 8 has arrived, and it has brought the heat to match the long wait. The Heat System is an exciting addition to the fighting mechanics earmarked by flashy moves and multiple ways to use them. The roster is deep and varied, and it offers something for everyone. Both offline and online players will find plenty of things to do, and the customization options all add a personal flair. Tekken 8 is poised for another near-decade of dominance, as it’s a Devil of a good time.