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Kasuyz slams his fist into his hand while lightning courses through his body in Tekken 8 Image: Bandai Namco

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Tekken 8 is a great Tekken game, but that might not be enough

Smart new mechanics combine with a lackluster cast

Patrick Gill (he/him) has been making serious and unserious videos for Polygon since 2016. He also co-hosts & produces Polygon’s weekly livestreams on Twitch.

Tekken 8 is the next installment of the nearly 30-year-old fighting game series. Its mere existence is enough to delight a lot of returning fans — myself included. I have no doubt that my cabal of Tekken-faithful friends will have hundreds of hours of fun sparring in online matches and local tournaments. We’ll have growing pains, quibbles with character balance, and opinions, but Tekken 8 is going to give us what we want, and what we want is gaudily dressed weirdos juggling one another through the air with gorgeous attack animations, all to the thumping beat of maximalist electronica.

I’m less sure that Tekken 8 will be the game that turns fighting-game-curious button-mashers into frame-counting die-hards. It is the most accessible entry in the series to date, with the best tutorials and training mode, simplified control options, and two whole single-player campaigns. That’s all good stuff! But it has the unenviable privilege of following the most complete, feature-rich, and joyous fighting game on-ramp ever.

But before we get bogged down in comparisons, let’s talk about what’s in the box.

Coming in hot

In marketing materials and in-game tutorials, Tekken 8 encourages “aggression.” That might seem like an obvious mission statement for a fighting game, but the Tekken series has always had extremely strong defensive options. Tekken uses auto-blocking, which means you’re safe from most strikes unless you’re actively pushing forward or hitting an attack button. Traditionally, you’ve also been safe from chip damage (a small amount of damage that passes through a successful block).

Depending on whom you ask, that defensive focus can make high-level Tekken unbelievably tense, or a little boring. Opponents dash and dance around one another, using safe, measured pokes until they find (or create) an opportunity for flashy combos.

Law and Steve duke it out in close quarters in Tekken 8 Image: Bandai Namco

Tekken 8’s emphasis on aggression doesn’t throw that defensive approach away, but it does encourage players to take big swings more often. “Heat” is the new universal mechanic, and the means to Tekken 8’s “aggressive” ends. Once per round, a player can initiate Heat using a single button press (a Heat Burst), or by completing certain normal attacks (Heat Engagers). While Heat is active, some attacks have enhanced abilities and will deal chip damage. Before the Heat timer runs out, the player can cash out with a combo-extending dash or a high-damage special move.

For higher-level players, Heat is another tactical layer — a resource to be deployed at just the right moment to turn big damage into massive damage. For new players, it’s an invaluable “get off of me” button. Heat Burst moves are uninterruptible and have frame advantage, so even if your opponent blocks, it’s still your turn. That means that if an opponent is in your face and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s almost always a perfectly fine idea to smash that Heat button in order to catch your breath.

Tekken 8 also introduces “recoverable health.” After taking damage from certain attacks, you can earn health back by going on the offensive — landing attacks or forcing your opponent to block.

We won’t really understand the full depth of these systems until we’ve seen high-level competitive play, but I appreciate the addition. The changes are enough to encourage fast-paced gambits, but not so strong that they trivialize defensive play. Here, Tekken 8 sticks the landing on a fancy trick. Combat is still measured and methodical, but it looks flashier and more frenetic, with more frequent bursts of impressive violence. That could make it more appealing to new players.

I wish I could say the same for the game’s cast.

Beefy but lackluster cast

Tekken 8 is launching with 32 playable fighters, which is one hefty starting roster. Most are returning from Tekken 7, some are reappearing after long absences, and others are brand-new. I main King, the jaguar-headed pro wrestler. He’s back, and looking absolutely yoked. While I’m happy Tekken 8 has treated my dude well, I’m a bit disappointed with the overall cast.

Pretty often, fighting game rosters are built from archetypes and stereotypes. The pursuit of creating immediately clear characters can lead to enduring, lazy caricatures like stretchy yoga gurus or clownish fat guys. But moving away from the broadest stereotypes doesn’t have to result in milquetoast characters. Street Fighter 6 newcomer Manon is one of my favorite fighting game characters in recent memory. She’s a ballerina and judoka, and everything about her — costuming, proportions, play style, and movements — is all there to sell the beautiful harmony and dissonance of her disciplines. You look at her, and you understand what she’s all about.

King points to an enemy fighter in the middle of an octagon in Tekken 8 Image: Bandai Namco

Meanwhile, Tekken 8’s characters are a bit mushy. While it can be gratifying to see returning characters evolve, it’s frustrating to see them become less iconic. The flamboyant Lee Chaolan has traded in his silken violet trench coat for a suit of generic Iron Man battle armor that does very little to reflect his roguish personality or fighting style. Paul Phoenix’s improbable mess of hair has collapsed into an unfortunate bob. Steve Fox, the cast’s resident boxer, no longer wears boxing gloves. Overall, the character designs don’t do much to convey personality or purpose.

This mushiness extends to the new characters as well. Victor is a French secret agent ninja super spy. He looks like Colonel Sanders, and he brandishes a karambit, kukri, katana, and tactical pistol. It’s a whole lot of something, and I’m not sure what.

Azucena is a Peruvian coffee farmer and, according to flavor text and cutscenes, an MMA fighter. It’s an interesting contrast, but it doesn’t really come through in her costuming or fighting style, which is appropriately energetic but mostly focused on shuffle dance techniques.

Faces (especially women’s faces) are pretty indistinct, and there’s a disappointing lack of diversity in body types. While Street Fighter 6 seemed to take joy in rendering all kinds of exaggerated, athletic silhouettes, Tekken 8’s men all share a handful of bodies on the spectrum from “shredded” to “very swole and also shredded,” while every woman is toned, slender, and petite.

None of this is to say these characters aren’t fun to play. They most definitely are — and with time, their unique play styles and strengths become apparent. But if I were a brand-new player browsing the character select screen, I think I’d have a tough time determining what makes each fighter distinct and appealing.

A tale of two Tekkens

Tekken 8 has two story modes!

The game’s main storyline is a four-to-five-hour sequence of battles and cutscenes that lead the player through the latest chapter of Tekken’s long-running Mishima family melodrama. The story centers on Jin Kazama’s quest to stop his megalomaniacal father and end a generations-long cycle of parental violence — but it’s not really that deep. It mostly comes down to some ancient demons and a lot of yelling and punching your dad, and, finally, the power of friendship. You’ve probably seen the same themes handled more effectively in a dozen shonen series, with more appealing protagonists to boot.

It’s totally predictable, but it’s still a fun ride. Pre-rendered cutscenes transition seamlessly into fights in ways that made me go, Oh, neat! There are even a few segments that break from the traditional 1v1 combat systems. There’s enough handcrafted stuff here to make it feel like time well spent.

A wide shot of a colorful landscape in Tekken 8’s Arcade Quest mode Image: Bandai Namco

Arcade Quest is a brief but charming story about learning to love Tekken. Functionally, it’s an extended tutorial. In a series of matches and training modules, you’ll learn about Tekken 8’s new systems, along with some fundamentals like throws, sidestepping, and block punishing.

Over the course of the breezy story, you’ll travel from arcade to arcade to arcade, challenging and learning from the locals. Each local boss will extol the virtues of their unique approach to Tekken, but the moral is always stated plainly: Whether you’re shooting for a Tekken World Tour placement, just playing with your friends, or spending your time customizing your character’s outfit, no one way of playing is better than another. It’s a sweet sentiment, and it made me happy to hear it said loud and clear in the part of the game intended for newcomers.

Unfortunately, there’s not much here to keep you playing after you wrap up the brief story, and the tutorials still leave a lot of important fundamentals unexplained. It’s not bad, by any means, and its inclusion is a net positive. Not every fighting game needs to be painstakingly crafted to be the perfect first fighting game, but it’s still hard to shake the recent memory of Street Fighter 6’s joyous, deep story mode and comprehensive tutorial systems. Tekken is my favorite fighting game series, and I wish Tekken 8 had the beginner-friendly appeal needed to pull all my friends into its orbit. But I don’t think it’s quite there.

Thankfully, training mode has seen some helpful upgrades since Tekken 7. Frame data is visible by default, and accessing your character’s move list no longer unfurls a context-free list of inputs. Instead, you’ll see a small selection of key moves for your character, along with notes on why those moves are useful. In a game where characters have hundreds of moves to learn and memorize, this bit of curation makes learning a whole lot easier.


A big chunk of Tekken 8’s audience may skip the story and tutorials and hop right into online play. I know that’s where I’ll be spending most of my time. Unfortunately, access to multiplayer servers was limited during the review period, so it’s hard to say how online play will hold up once the game is out in the wild, or whether its lobby structure will lend itself to group sessions and tournaments.

I participated in closed beta tests ahead of launch, and was able to get a handful of matches in with my review copy before servers went down for maintenance. In both cases, the netplay felt a bit snappier than in Tekken 7, which saw continual improvement over its own life cycle. Without counting milliseconds, its hard to say how much better it feels, or if it’s achieved the nearly lagless rollback experience offered by games like Street Fighter 6 and Guilty Gear Strive. What I can say for sure is that load times and rematch speeds are way, way, way faster than they were in Tekken 7. That is a blessing.

Azucena poses in a rural landscape in Tekken 8 Image: Bandai Namco

Get ready for the next battle

I’m excited to play more Tekken 8. I’m excited to see how it continues to evolve over the course of its life span. Modern fighting games evolve and (usually) improve as the fighting game community pushes mechanics to their breaking point and developers respond in turn.

There is a lot to love here. Satisfying mechanics, gorgeous combat animation, flashy presentation, and a killer soundtrack. That said, I don’t know if my own excitement will be enough to win over friends who are on the fence about the unremarkable story, incomplete tutorialization, and aesthetically dubious roster.

Tekken 8 will be released Jan. 25 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Bandai Namco. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.