Let me be honest: When I reviewed Tekken 4, I thought that it was the end of the line for a series that I had known and loved. It was dark, claustrophobic, and everything about it rubbed me the wrong way. I found myself unable to get into the game or even enjoy it very much. I was sad to see the franchise sink so low, and I wondered how it could feel so lacking in every respect. With the announcement of Tekken 5, I was prepared for a by-the-numbers sequel only adding a few new faces. Now that it's here, I'm quite pleased to say that unlike its predecessor, Tekken 5 is anything but uninspired.
For those not familiar with the game, Tekken 5 is a 2.5-D fighter that uses 3-D characters. The combatants face off in traditional 2-D fashion, but there are sidesteps and maneuvers which utilize the third dimension. Each button on the PlayStation 2 dualshock controls one limb—the square handles left punch, the triangle handles right, and so on. All of the traditional Tekken elements are here like the ultra-flashy attacks, long combo strings, and the sometimes-infuriating juggles. People familiar with the series will feel right at home. However, the magic of Tekken 5 is that it completely avoids overfamiliarity. In a nutshell, everything about the game pulses with vibrancy and energy. You can almost feel the impact of every hit, and the pace and intensity couldn't possibly be any higher. Though most matches are over in only a matter of seconds, each one feels like an epic. The tight controls and spot-on timing mean that every dodged blow is a victory, each successful attack an Apocalypse.
Building upon the solid-as-granite combat engine, each character in the game's large cast feels very fresh and reworked. I found myself excited to explore old favorites like senior citizen Wang Jinrei and lovestruck sumo Ganryu even after I thought they had dried up and worn themselves out. Each of the thirty combatants have a wealth of new moves and animations, becoming even more individualized than they were in the past. The often-heard gripe that the second-tier characters are just one-offs of the main cast simply doesn't apply anymore.
Additionally, the three new faces are all great, each featuring very dynamic and entertaining mechanics. Raven's ninja magic and hulking Chinese bruiser Feng Wei's aggressive Kenpo are great flavors enriching the buffet-like selection of fighting styles available. Asuka's rendition of fan favorite Jun Kazama's (Tekken 2) moves were different and engaging, yet familiar enough to draw me right in. I liked all three of the newcomers very much, and I think it's interesting that out of the entire cast of Tekken 5, the characters I found least appealing are the ones who debuted in Tekken 4. (Craig Marduk, go away.)
Though many of the animations have been reworked, there are very few obvious jerky-motion holdovers from the past. While a few moves are still in need of a touch-up (Bruce Lee's emulator Marshall Law jumps to mind) I very much appreciated the work that was done. I still think it's clear to see that Namco does the best 3-D fighting game animation hands down, and seeing Bryan Fury landing a wicked hook punch to an opponent's midsection, doubling them over, and slamming them overhead to the ground with one hand is just one of the many reasons why.
It's taken for granted that fighting games skimp on storyline and characterization, but it's amazing how just a few lines of dialogue can turn something from being complete nonsense into something fairly compelling. (Compelling in terms of the genre, anyway.) Tekken has always had a very deep and involved plot, and we saw the first real signs of this emerging in Tekken 4. Now, Tekken 5 has taken it to the next level by putting much more effort into telling it. The dramatic threads intertwine between the characters, and by finishing the game with each one, relationships and pieces of history are revealed—-and not always in the expected way, either. Of course, quite a few parts of the script are obviously comedy, and that's OK too. After all, it's hard to take a game which features four generations of a family fighting each against other completely seriously.
Besides being one of the finest fighting games out there, Tekken 5 is jam-packed with peripheral content. For example, I loved the graphic customization options for each character. By earning points through combat, items and new clothing can be bought that change the appearance of each fighter. It may not be as deep and as varied as the competition, but it's a generous first effort. The 3-D beat-'em-up minigame Devil Inside was also a neat bonus, even if it's not very interesting. But, the crown jewels of the options menu are the complete arcade versions of Tekken 1, 2 and 3. This trio is an incredible bonus, and when you take into account everything else that's there, this is one fat package.
Tekken 5 is a totally lush and vibrant experience.There's a palpable sense of energy in the game, and it shines so brightly it's impossible not to see. The developers clearly recognized something was wrong last time out of the gate, and although it's not a revolution of the formula, it is a successful resuscitation—in other words, the patient has made a full recovery and is now cracking skulls in the waiting room. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that Tekken 5 is the best game in the series. It may not win over players who already know they don't care for the Tekken style, but no one can deny that this is a fighting game of the highest caliber, and one of the PlayStation 2's finest games, period.