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Tekken 8 review: the difference is slight but we still like the fight

Tekken no prisoners

A headshot of Jin looking menacing in Tekken 8.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

When I am faced with Death, and that grim skeletal mouth asks me to choose the game we play to decide my fate, I have long believed I will pick Tekken. I'm not confident I will best the reaper in Iron Fist combat. But I cannot pass up the adrenally depraved possibility of successfully performing a ten-button airborne combo on mortality made manifest. It would be rad. It would be absurd and beautiful and I know, for a fact, that Death will play as Panda.

But will we play Tekken 8? Or roll back to Tekken 7? Hmmm. Let's find out.

Tekken 8 is an angry, nonsensical fighting game. Nonsensical in its flavour, you understand, its personality. In function, it is very sensical. Those acquainted with this long-running fury fest will recognize the one-button-per-limb controls with a kind of comfortable tension. You punch, you kick, you grab. You uppercut pink-haired robots into the air and juggle them around with all the recommended tippy-taps chronicled in your character's extensive movelist.

Kuma uppercuts Paul in Tekken 8.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

What makes this instalment different is the addition of a "Heat" meter. This is basically a tank of gas that you can activate once per fight, which makes your character fizz with a steamy blue aura and lets you dole out some especially painful blows. There are other benefits to the effervescent fury. Blocking a move in Tekken is usually safe and straightforward - no hit, no hurt. But when an opponent is in Heat (oh God I just realised how that sounds) even their blocked hits will result in chip damage. This means fired-up fighters can nibble away at a defending player's health even if the defender is judiciously blocking every strike.

This makes the fights somewhat angrier than in Tekken 7. There's also the ability to perform a "rush" (a teleporty lunge across the arena), and activating Heat puts you into an armoured state (your character can take a bunch of hits while the move starts up). On top of all this you can often scratch back a chunk of health with certain moves, provided you go on the attack in good time. Together, these additions prove that the developer's constant barking about aggression and forward momentum is more than a marketing talking point. It does feel, in my hands at least, more pacy and pressurised.

But do I like that? Well, I'm not sure yet. My body memory is upset with Tekken 8 on more than this account. I like to "play slow". Which is a Tekken player's way of saying "my hands get sore before my head does". The shuffling and guarding that precede the combo fireworks, to me, is just as compelling as the explosion of somersaults and tornado kicks that signal half of your health bar disappearing in a few seconds. There's less of that dance here. You've got to pile on the lashes and keep lashing.

I'm also one of the unlucky souls who lost all their favourite characters in the Great Ensequelizing. Bar room brawler Miguel, twirling mix-upper Josie, and wacky cop Lei have all been purged, along with others. (For now, that is. You can bet your penultimate pound that Lei will appear as upcoming DLC, at the very least (the very... Leist?)). In any case, my cult taste in fighting game weirdoes means much of my gut-based finger-twitching has been rendered obsolete. I am forced to learn new characters.

Azucena clocks Lili in the head with a powerful kick in Tekken 8.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

The new faces are sound, though. Cocky Peruvian punch artist Azucena hits heavy and bounces around in a gleefully infuriating stance, performing evasive parries, and talking non-stop about coffee. French superspy Victor is a John Wick-inspired close combatter who regularly uses guns in the middle of a fist fight. And the mysterious Reina is there to fill the hole left by a missing Mishima, embodying the moves and smirks of the headbutt happy Heihachi. They're neat additions in their own way. But I'm still sad my Drunken Master Lei is not in the opening line-up, preventing me from channelling the Chan. Eddy Gordo freaks will be likewise disappointed.

I'll tell you who won't be sad though. Jin fans. Tekken 8's story mode focuses heavily on the fire-trousered trauma victim, continuing the intergenerational saga of violent dads who yearn to throw their family members into a volcano. This will be incomprehensible hysteria to any newcomer, and the ludicrous Dragon Ball Z-ing on display rarely lets up for the four or five hours it takes to blast through everything. Battles often come with gimmicks attached. A monstrous unblockable move you must endure and overcome. A multi-step brawl against faceless guards and robotic Jack units. Quicktime prompts politely ask that you Press A To Not Deny Your Comrades And Your Bonds.

In short, story mode feels made for diehards. To its credit, it plays with Jin's mechanics as a character in some interesting ways. Setpiece fights contract and expand his moveset in unexpected directions. The impact of this - emotional and otherwise - will be lost on anyone who does not recognise when or why this happens. But to a long-term fan these temporarily borrowed moves can feel like a powerful boon, or a meaningful nod to a forgotten favourite.

A legally distinct Mii gets a hearty congratulations trophy in Tekken 8.
A look at Tekken 8's legally distinct Miis in Arcade Quest.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

For long-lost Tekkenistas or fresh-faced fisticuffers, the actually helpful mode is Arcade Quest. This is a tutorialised adventure through a Disneyfied ideal of the fighting game community, where nobody trash talks and everybody treats one another with respect. You play a legally distinct Mii dressed in Tekken-branded t-shirts and trainers. Aside from functioning as the place to learn Tekken basics, here you'll earn clothing and cosmetic items for both your doll-like avatar and the fighter characters themselves (this isn't the only way to earn such items, mind). A big part of Tekken remains playing dress-up to show everybody online that you are edgy, horny, or just plain weird. Tekken 8 stands by that tradition, and I approve.

As far as online battles go, server time was limited during review. Which is a shame, considering this is where most of everyone's time will be spent. I squeezed in a bunch of battles against the same few opponents. The fights were smooth and silky and I survived a statistically satisfying fifty percent of the time, thank you very much. But like I say, my experience is limited, so I can't guarantee what it'll feel like come launch.

I'm not overly worried. There are detailed on-screen stats you can enable to monitor the latency and "tech-gap" between machines, and plenty to pay attention to if you want to filter out crossplay or those fighting via a wireless connection (you horrible snob). The developers have taken obvious measures to make things frictionless. I mostly ignore the statstuff and put my trust in the dark magicks of the netcode, but it's good to have the option to plainly see whether certain matches might be shonky wobblefests.

Hwoarang kicks Jin in the head in Tekken 8.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

When the final fist lands, I have found myself less excited by Tekken 8 than I expected. But much of that dispassion comes solely from not having any characters that I truly love and have immediate familiarity with. I feel like an outlier here. All the classic contenders are present, after all, your Kings, your Pauls, your Kazuyas, your... Zafinas?

Whatever. My point is: YOUR favourites are probably still here. And if they are, you'll be content to kick and/or punch. There isn't anything revolutionary happening aside from the Heat meter and all that it entails. But a lot of the quality of life improvements and subtle design tweaks stack up. Practice mode alone has become an excellently robust training zone that clearly displays a lot of handy info about frame advantage and move properties. For pros, streamers and rank-chasers, the transfer to this sequel is therefore a no-brainer. And since little else quite like Tekken exists in the fighting game niche (don't listen, little Soul Calibur 3) the rest of us pugilistic rubes will only get FOMO if we don't follow. So when I face Death, I guess Tekken 8 it is.

He'll be pleased Panda is on the roster.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by developers and publishers Bandai Namco.

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