Pokémon Unite came out recently and I decided to give it a try, mostly because of its free status. I largely don’t know jack about jack when it comes to Pokémon these days (I fell off after Gen 3), but I know a decent amount about MOBAs. And the main takeaway from Pokémon Unite is a remarkably fun, if lopsided experience.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t do my due diligence and talk about the way that Pokémon Unite monetizes itself. It has several different, hyper-specific currencies, all but the premium currency being earnable as in-game rewards for challenges. This would be at least acceptable if they also didn’t have a battle pass system with its exclusive rewards on top of that, which locks off the cosmetics if you don’t fork over the dosch or a gacha system that also has character skins. While I’ve managed to get at least 18 of the 100 levels on the battle pass by just casually playing, there’s no denying that this is just Nintendo testing the waters to see what they can get away with when Pokémon Unite releases on mobile platforms in the future. While I don’t have an issue with it personally as the game even gives you coins used to unlock Pokémon you unlock if they were free rewards and gives more than a decent amount of currency, cosmetics, and even playable Pokémon as freebies, it is, to paraphrase the Jimquisition, a clear cut case of a publisher trying to have their cake and eat it too.
Now that I have my mini-rant about the game’s monetization out of the way, let’s get to the reason you all clicked on this, to begin with. Pokémon Unite is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) that’s set up like a stadium sanctioned 5 on 5 Pokémon battles to see who can catch the most Pokémon and dunk on the opposing team’s nodes the hardest. To facilitate this, the map consists of two bases with two lanes (pathways) each and a massive jungle (the non-lane parts of the map with neutral bonus objectives and Pokémon to catch) in the middle. As of the first major update/balance patch, there are 20 playable Pokémon with OGs like Venusaur, Charizard, and Pikachu (because mascot), fan favorites like the newly added Gardevoir, Greninja (a sick looking ninja frog), and Alolan Ninetales (apparently regional variants of Pokémon are a thing and yes please, that’s a banger of an idea), to even some of the more recent additions like Cinderace (a soccer-playing rabbit thing?) and Eldegoss. It’s a nice variety of Pokémon from different eras and aside from some outliers (the recently nerfed Gengar being a prime example), it’s relatively well balanced.
The way abilities and evolutions are handled are to be commended. You start with your chosen Pokémon’s base for and as the game goes on and you get more experience from catching Pokemon, you get your evolved forms and a choice of moves to select as alternatives to what you initially have selected. But if you don’t like that, you can just upgrade those existing abilities to make them more powerful. And while that doesn’t sound like much, these evolutions can potentially change the tides of entire games because the final stage is when the Unite moves are unlocked. These are your ultimate attack if you’ve played other MOBAs and give each Pokemon its way of changing the flow of a team fight.
There’s some relative mechanical complexity like being able to weave attacks and movement together in a relatively painless manner (referred to as Orbwalking) and while you can manually aim your abilities for different uses of these abilities, the game’s aim assist is generous enough to make it feel like you can still land your abilities while also not making it feel super unfair for the enemy getting hit with those same abilities. It’s a nice balance to strike that most console-based MOBAs have struggled with in my experience, so it’s nice to see it done well here. But the general way that the game is designed, as well as the target audience being, you know, kids; leads to some of the results in the games I’ve played being hilariously one-sided. I’m talking so in favor of one team that you have these massive points discrepancies. I understand that it’s meant to be a more casual experience, but in the game that I’m winning in it feels like I’m Charlie and Mac in one of the more recent episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia where they’re beating up a gang of kids for stealing their bikes.
Pokemon Unite is a game that I can appreciate, but ultimately have a hard time recommending because of the way that the game goes into business for itself. But if you can find yourself getting past the monetization schemes, there’s a fun game in there. Just get ready to either trample or be trampled because there’s no middle ground here.