Tekken 8 review: Return of the King (of Iron Fist)

Tekken 8 review: Return of the King (of Iron Fist)
Images via Bandai Namco

Written by 

Dave McAdam

Published 

23rd Jan 2024 14:00

The last year or so has felt like a victory lap for the resurgence of fighting games. The genre has had incredible highs and crushing lows over the years, but with Street Fighter 6, Mortal Kombat 1, and now Tekken 8, it feels like a new golden era is upon us.

Tekken has the dubious honour of rounding out the big three fighting game releases of the past few months. Can it keep this momentum going, will it go down in the final round, or could it come out on top?

GGRecon Verdict

It almost feels clinical to say, like it's a technicality, but this is the best Tekken game I have ever played. Tekken 7 was the best, and this one is better. It gives you more of everything, bigger, louder, and better. I don't say that with one ounce of begrudgery, I am wholeheartedly in love with Tekken 8. It earns the top spot by being undeniably brilliant.

Ready for the next battle

Tekken has been on a roll in recent years. The void left by the disappointing Street Fighter 5 made room for other fighting games to grow and have their overdue days in the sun. Arguably none benefitted more from this than Tekken 7.

It was incredible timing that, in the wake of one of the worst-received Street Fighter games, Bandai Namco would release one of the greatest Tekken games ever made, the only one to surpass the sales juggernaut, Tekken 3.

To say Tekken 8 has massive shoes to fill barely covers it, and the job that this game must accomplish is enormous. Not only does it need to improve upon its predecessor, but it needs to do so while bumping elbows with the other giants of the genre.

Worse news still for Tekken, as the other games are also on the up. Street Fighter 6 has righted so many of its past wrongs, and Mortal Kombat 1 continues to meet the exceptionally high standard the franchise has become known for.

Fighting for first

Hwoarang and Steve about to fight in Tekken 8
Click to enlarge

So, in the face of daunting adversity, what does Tekken 8 do? Well, it does what Tekken does best. Fast, aggressive, smash-mouth fighting game action. Over-the-top characters and ridiculous stories. Tekken 8 encapsulates everything that makes Tekken, with some interesting new features to broaden the scope of the game.

When compared to Tekken 7, the fighting in Tekken 8 feels noticeably more intense. Tekken has been the leader in hard-hitting fighting games for a long time, nothing feels quite as satisfying as landing those big hits and air combos in a Tekken game. That factor is turned all the way up in Tekken 8. The sound and visual effects that accompany your attacks are massive. Not so much that it becomes overbearing, but enough that previous games almost feel tame by comparison.

Aggression has been a keyword associated with Tekken 8 from its earliest reveals. With new abilities like Heat Dash and Heat Smash, you have all the tools you need to stay on top of your opponent at all times. I can't speak for everyone's main, but the characters I play feel much more frenetic and impactful than they did in Tekken 7.

Jin and Kazuya clashing fists in Tekken 8
Click to enlarge

The meat and potatoes gameplay does not attempt to reinvent the Tekken wheel. Most of the significant gameplay changes are subtle, with an extra move here and there and some combos moved around. Tekken characters stay fairly consistent with their moves between games, so no shockers there. These changes will matter to the hardcore players, not so much to the casuals and first-timers.

The new Heat system slots nicely into the existing Tekken ecosystem. The abilities are unobtrusive, flowing with the gameplay rather than pulling it in a different direction. More often than not, these new Heat abilities guide you toward the moves and combos you should use, or add a new weapon to your arsenal. If you had a favourite combo in Tekken 7, there is likely a way to use the Heat abilities to augment it in Tekken 8.

Speaking of unobtrusive, the Special Style is something I was prepared to hate, but have to say it works well. Much like the Modern controls of Street Fighter 6, the Special Style system is a feature that simplifies the inputs and gives newer players a way to hit some more advanced moves with ease. The concern for Special Style was how it might give players an easy win button, but that couldn't be further from the case.

Paul on his motorcycle in the desert in Tekken 8
Click to enlarge

Instead, it is exactly what it was intended to be, a tool that helps the uninitiated play Tekken with a higher level of competence, and get a feel for how these difficult to master systems should be used. It is great to see fighting games become more accessible to more people, and Tekken has found an effective way to do so.

Truly the biggest changes are in how the game feels, and that is where Tekken 8 proves its worth as a sequel. It takes what was great about Tekken 7, presses the accelerator, and presents it all in a much prettier package.

Now, it may seem like a backhanded compliment to praise the game for adding flash and little substance, but this was exactly the right call. Tekken isn't broken, so Tekken 8 wisely avoids trying to fix it.

Mishima family values

Devil Kazuya announces The King of Iron Fist Tournament
Click to enlarge

The gameplay is as good as ever and presented even better, and there are more ways to engage than ever before. Tekken 8 has two separate story modes, as well as individual episodes for each character. The "main" story mode is The Dark Awakens, the next chapter in the Mishima saga.

Fighting game story modes have become near-ubiquitous, as the high quality of Netherrealm Studios' story modes has put pressure on the entire genre to step up. This has led to some wildly varying results, including from Tekken games themselves. Following the death of Heihachi in Tekken 7, Tekken 8 promises a dramatic conclusion in the battle between Jin and Kazuya, an ending to this devil-blooded conflict that has fueled the franchise since the very beginning.

Xiaoyu and Jin reunite in Tekken 8's story
Click to enlarge

To have such a definitive framing on the story of a Tekken game is strange and new, the story until now has been so dense and unwieldy that even Brian Cox struggled to make sense of it. Tekken 7 had a similarly linear structure to its story mode, but it was presented second-hand through the perspective of a third party because nothing can be normal in Tekken.

Does that mean that this more orthodox approach in Tekken 8 has managed to wrangle all of the madness into a straightforward presentation? Of course not. The events of The Dark Awakens are structurally sensical, but the characters and events are just as baffling as they have always been. The story mode wears the clothes of a sleek, modern fighting game story mode, but underneath it is full-on Tekken wackiness to the core.

Panda being interviewed after winning the Tournament in Tekken 8
Click to enlarge

Honestly, anything less would have been a letdown. Tekken is at its best when it is camp and ridiculous, all this story mode does is manage to point that madness in a straight line long enough for us to take part in it. The plot takes itself entirely seriously while being the most beautifully silly thing I have played in years.

This is everything a Tekken storyline should be, a complete refusal to change from its wacky roots. If you were hoping for more depth or more grounded characters, this is not the place for that.

Character Episodes return from Tekken 7, and take the place of the traditional arcade mode endings. Some of these exist to fill in the blanks of what happened alongside the main story, but since unlocking them usually means winning the tournament as your chosen character, most of them are not canon and contradict the main story.

This is ideal to be honest, as it means we have room for some of Tekken's classic gag endings. If you want to flesh out the story, learn more about the characters, and have a few laughs, the Character Episodes are more than worth doing.

A coin-op campaign

Max and the group talking about Tekken in Arcade Adventure
Click to enlarge

If that wasn't enough single-player content, we also have Arcade Quest. This is an interesting and fresh idea from Tekken 8, an out-of-universe story mode where you play as a Tekken player. You create your avatar, then begin your journey to becoming a top-level Tekken pro.

This starts at your local, the Gong Arcade. Here you meet a gang of other Tekken players, each with their own styles and strengths. The leader of the bunch is Max, a Tekken expert who has taken you under his wing to learn the ropes of the newly released Tekken 8.

Arcade Quest might be the most impressive new feature in Tekken 8, a similar idea to the Battle Hub in Street Fighter 6 but taken much further. The concept alone is a lot of fun and a great way to add single-player content, something fighting games generally struggle to do. However, the real strength of Arcade Quest is how it solves an even more pressing and difficult issue that most fighting games fail to address.

Jun and Kazuya playing Tekken Ball
Click to enlarge
Also, Tekken Ball is back!

Fighting games have tutorials and practice modes, but few can successfully prepare new players for the realities of playing against other human players. Fighting games are complex, in ways that fighting against an AI opponent really cannot express. You can spend dozens of hours practising your combos, but it will mean very little once you are faced with a living, breathing opponent.

What Arcade Quest does, is it teaches you the mechanics and how to apply them. Each arcade you visit has lessons for you to learn, like performing air combos or using lows and grabs. There are multiple players for you to fight, each bringing something slightly different to the table.

Make your way through Arcade Quest, and you should be fairly well prepared to take on real players online. However, this is just the beginning of your training.

Ghost in the arcade machine

Jin hits Kazuya with an uppercut
Click to enlarge

The real game changer here is the Ghost system. As you play through Arcade Quest and online against others, the game learns your style and records it as an AI opponent. The more you play, the more it learns. You can then go into Super Ghost Battle and fight against your own Ghost to see how you stack up. I was sceptical initially, but once I tried this my eyes were opened.

After just one training fight, the AI had picked up on so much of how I play. In the second fight, I could see it doing things I would do, and suddenly I found myself having to counter my own moves. From just a handful of Ghost matches, I felt like I learned so much, and the more you play, the more the Ghost learns and improves.

The Ghost is your ultimate sparring partner, learning the game just as you are. What's more, you are not limited to fighting your own Ghosts, as you can download the Ghosts of other players to practice against.
This might be the greatest teaching tool any fighting game has ever had.

There has always been a gulf, between learning the mechanics of a fighting game and learning to play it against other players, where many nascent players are lost forever. With this Ghost AI system, players can take on a human-like opponent in a low-pressure environment before jumping online. We might finally get new players into the game without throwing them straight into the deep end and expecting them to swim with the sharks.

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Return of the King

King flying through the air performing a crossbody attack
Click to enlarge

Improving on greatness is a delicate operation to pull off. When anything is at its peak, the expectation is for the next attempt to fall short. Beyond some tiny gripes, (character customisation seems slightly less extensive than before), it is hard to see any way that Tekken 8 isn't an improvement over Tekken 7. The single-player offering is extensive, the online play is solid as a rock, and it has some of the most impressive training features ever seen in a fighting game.

Of the big three fighting games, Tekken is the one that has changed the least coming into this generation. It isn't easy to go back to the drawing board as Street Fighter 6 did, nor is it any less risky to reboot a beloved franchise like Mortal Kombat 1. That said, I cannot help but be most impressed that Tekken 8 deftly takes everything that made the previous game such a success and builds upon it without cracking the foundations.

The Verdict

It almost feels clinical to say, like it's a technicality, but this is the best Tekken game I have ever played. Tekken 7 was the best, and this one is better. It gives you more of everything, bigger, louder, and better. I don't say that with one ounce of begrudgery, I am wholeheartedly in love with Tekken 8. It earns the top spot by being undeniably brilliant.

Tekken fans rejoice as some kind of miracle has occurred, we have had two great Tekken games in a row.

5/5

Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review code provided by the publisher.

Dave is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon, after several years of freelancing across the industry. He covers a wide range of games, with particular focus on shooters like Destiny 2, RPGs like Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, and fighting games like Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 8.