The video game industry is changing faster than a Tekken character’s costume. The digital era has ushered a flurry of new distribution models for publishers to exploit, and that’s left major firms like Namco Bandai juggling dozens of ideas in the hope of happening upon a critical hit. Tekken Revolution, one of the first free-to-play titles to pick a fight with the PlayStation 3, attempts to shoehorn the silliness of Katsuhiro Harada’s madcap martial arts series into the cutthroat microtransaction market – but does it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Mishima clan, or wallow in the woodland with Mokujin?

This is far from a traditional entry in the familiar fighting franchise. Despite being built upon the foundations of Tekken Tag Tournament 2, the title is tuned towards the tastes of a more casual audience. For example, bound manoeuvres – which allow you to chain devastating attacks – have been yanked out like the majority of Heihachi’s hair, giving the gameplay a more accessible flavour. Furthermore, command lists have been simplified, with new Critical Arts – simple button combinations – taking centre stage. It’s a move that, much like a Christie Monteiro combo, is certain to agitate series aficionados – but there’s a sense that this release isn’t for the hardcore fans anyway.

Rather, this feels like a ploy to rejuvenate interest in the once world-beating brawler – and it’s actually fairly well constructed. There are two main modes available: Versus and Arcade. The former consists of Ranked and Player match playlists, which allow you to showcase the sturdiness of Paul Phoenix’s tubular tresses online. Meanwhile, the classic coin-op mode allows you to pummel your way through increasingly challenging computer-controlled opponents, culminating with an old-fashioned face-off against the globe’s greatest Jabberwocky impersonator, Ogre.

You can download the client for free, but there’s naturally a catch. In order to play, you’ll need coins, of which there are several flavours available. Arcade coppers allow you to enter the aforementioned, er, Arcade mode, while Battle pennies can be invested into online scraps. Fortunately, your stocks of these important faux trinkets will be refreshed over time, so you can technically keep playing without opening your wallet. However, if you’re engaging in a lot of fights, you’re going to need to stump up some real money in order to properly restock your supplies.

And that’s where the microtransactions come in. In addition to Premium Tickets – which you’ll unlock during general play – you can purchase Premium Coins, which allow you to enter whichever modes you like for a small fee. If you’re planning to spend a lot of time with the game, it’s the only real way to stay engaged without sitting through huge breaks in play, but fortunately the pricing – at £3.99/$4.99 for 30 of the precious galleons – is unlikely to break the bank. Smaller packs are available, however, if you’re on a tight budget.

There’s more, though. As you progress, you’ll be able to power up your characters. Skill points and in-game gold can be invested into three distinct categories: Power, Endurance, and Vigor. These augment your chosen protagonist with attack, health, and critical hit buffs, giving you a serious advantage online. You’ll be able to upgrade each of your fighters independently, allowing you to build a library of tanks, hard-hitters, and good all-rounders. As of the game’s latest patch (v1.01), these abilities can be reassigned by purchasing drinks, allowing you to experiment with each star’s statistics until you happen upon a build that benefits your playstyle.

The roster right now is slim, but it’s expanding slowly. Characters include veterans such as Marshall Law and Jack, as well as some newcomers like Alisa and Lars. Gift Points – which are accrued as you play – allow you to add new fighters to your library, giving you fresh personalities to power up. It’s a slow but compelling loop, designed to keep you pumping quarters into the release. Periodical events augment you with opportunities to increase your in-game earnings, but are restricted to specific timeframes. And while you can’t outright purchase new brawlers at the moment, you can splash out on fresh threads – of which, cunningly, the swimsuits are the most costly – and special effects.

It’s convoluted, but it’s all smartly implemented. A timer counts down to your next free coin while you’re sharpening your skills in the recently added training mode, while the online options allow you to filter your opponents by level, alleviating the odds of a battle against a seriously buffed adversary. The netcode is slick, limiting lag to a rarity if you’ve got a good connection, and you can even spectate other battles in the Player match lobbies. Furthermore, the visuals are impressive for a free-to-play release – and the main menu theme song upholds the franchise’s penchant for truly incredible soundtracks.

Conclusion

Tekken Revolution is more experimental than Combot, but solid execution on some admittedly controversial ideas ensure that this free-to-play fighter is worth a bash. Franchise fans will feel more frustrated than Devil Jin upon witnessing the watered down gameplay mechanics, but casual combatants may find themselves lured back into the wacky world of the King of Iron Fist Tournament on the back of the digital download’s inherent accessibility and free entry fee.