The multiplayer online battle arena style of games has been around for decades now and Pokemon Unite, a free-to-play title, is the franchise’s first foray into the competitive MOBA genre. The title is developed by TiMi Studio Group and published by The Pokemon Company, and has players controlling Pokemon to fight for victory in 5-on-5 battles.
Though playing as Pokemon and engaging in massive brawls is an explosive spectacle, and while the simple design of the game might be appealing for newcomers to the genre, it can lack a certain layer of complexity often found in titles like League of Legends or DOTA 2. While free-to-play games like Pokemon Unite invariably feature microtransactions, this one unfortunately has a pay-to-win system, which ultimately prevents Pokemon Unite from being something truly great.
Prepare for battle
Right from the start, Pokemon Unite presents itself as an approachable MOBA. Unite takes players through a tutorial that introduces some of the basics of the game, including the fundamentals of the genre and an explanation of the various Pokemon archetypes.
There are five archetypes to speak of: Supporter, Defender, Attacker, Speedster, and All-Rounder. A Supporter will have lower health than the others but can heal allies, an Attacker has better damage output but lower health, while a Speedster features higher mobility for better map control. Having a good mixture of these in your team of five players will ensure a better team composition than say a team full of Attackers.
The flow of the 10-minute matches is fairly simple: players work together to defeat smaller AI-controlled Pokemon to collect Aeos Energy, which is then dunked into the opposing team’s goal zones. The team that deposits the most energy wins the match.
While this is the overarching objective for a match, further strategy is found by defeating opposing players, controlling the various elements of the map, and otherwise working out powerful metas and build options for your selected Pokemon.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Even as someone with copious amounts of hours spent in League of Legends and other mouse and keyboard MOBAs, Pokemon Unite still managed to retain my interest. Though it does feel a bit “My First MOBA”, there’s enough going on here with just enough complexity to make newcomers feel challenged while giving MOBA fans an experience that might almost be considered relaxing.
Each of the Pokemon is controlled using the thumbstick, shoulder buttons are responsible for the two primary abilities and the Unite move (think: Ultimate), the A button handles the basic attack, and the Y button activates your Trainer’s item – which is basically the Pokemon Unite equivalent of a Summoner Spell in League of Legends.
There’s a simplicity to this that extends to the management of resources within a match. For example, each of the abilities only functions on a cooldown system – which means there’s no need to track mana or plan out attacks with too much precision. It can tend to feel a bit spammy as players try to throw out moves as quickly as possible with little regard to other extraneous factors.
Complexity can be found in how you build your Pokemon throughout the match. Each Pokemon features a binary choice of abilities at set levels. At one level you’ll choose between abilities A and B which then gets upgraded throughout the match and at the next level threshold you’ll choose between abilities C and D.
Further build customization is found in the Held Item system. Pokemon can have three items, which provide passive buffs like increases to health, attack damage, or even some that provide a boon upon certain conditions. These can be leveled up outside of a match.
Unfortunately, what’s missing here is an in-match shop, which means creating new and exciting builds is limited to the above. Granted, the 10 minute time limit doesn’t really leave much room for in-depth tinkering of builds. There’s some build complexity here, but nowhere near as many options as other titles in the genre.
Speaking of time limit, the 10 minute limit means matches feel fast and easy to pick up. You won’t be stuck in a 40 minute stalemate against another equally skilled team where each side is looking for that single opening that will tip the scale. It’s this short time commitment that makes it significantly more approachable than other MOBAs.
This simplicity also extends into Pokemon Unite’s other design elements. The map is clean and offers a lovely visual art style, allowing players to figure out the laning mechanic that comes with the MOBA genre. And while there are a couple of maps on offer, I found myself gravitating to the Ranked/Standard map as opposed to the 3v3 or 4v4 maps – perhaps I’m old fashioned like that, just give me one, well-crafted map.
Read the Pokedex
Pokemon Unite also features a wealth of things to do outside of a match. The main menu is positively packed with icons that blink at you after every match or so. There are beginner challenges, daily missions, events, battle pass missions – it feels like there are constantly markers on the screen telling you to check in and claim rewards. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it didn’t feel so laggy trying to navigate in and out of the various menus.
However, once you get accustomed to where everything is and what you need to check, there’s plenty to keep players hooked. Features are unlocked slowly as you upgrade your Trainer, which means there’s always a goal players are working towards, be it another one of the games copious number of currencies, another Held Item or Battle Item, or even a new Pokemon.
The entire game is designed to keep you hooked and playing, and it does a great job at that. However, there are some issues to be found at launch that extend beyond Pokemon Unite’s simplicity and its cluttered menus.
Go get Nurse Joy
Firstly, there is the rather innocuous problem of roster size. There are only 20 Pokemon to use at launch. League of Legends featured 40 characters at launch and it didn’t have three decades’ worth of history to draw upon. It would have been great to see a much larger roster of Pokemon, because there’s a good chance your favorite isn’t included just yet.
I’ve also banged the drum about the game’s general simplicity, but it’s worth repeating. There isn’t that complexity here that you will find in other keyboard and mouse MOBAs. There’s no strategy to managing the creeps in your lane, there’s no in-game shop to create rich builds during a match, and the short time limit means there’s not going to be too many times where massive team fights breakout – which are by far the most thrilling moments. In saying this, it’s still a bit of a laugh.
Now, there is one element that really soured my thoughts on the game. At launch, I was under the impression that Pokemon Unite featured no pay-to-win elements. As it turns out, the pay-to-win mechanic is hidden. All items in the shop show what currency can be used to purchase them. One item that is used to increase the effectiveness of your Held Items (which directly boost your Pokemon’s power) shows it can only be bought using in-game currency, that is until you run out of said currency and the game prompts you to spend real-world money.
The short of it is that someone who pays with cash can max out all the Held Items, significantly increasing their Pokemon’s survivability, damage, and more. For hardcore players, it is going to take a long time to acquire the necessary in-game currency to do this. The game all but encourages players to skip the grind by paying cash. Regardless of the fact all players will eventually max-out their Held Items, this is a pay-to-win mechanic and one that seems to be purposefully hidden.
A conflicted battle
For long-time Pokemon fans, Pokemon Unite will be an enjoyable, if simple, adventure into the world of MOBAs. Even those who are intimately familiar with MOBAs may find Unite’s quick and approachable matches to be a nice palate cleanse. Unfortunately, at launch, it’s limited roster, simplicity, and hidden pay-to-win nature leaves it not being the very best.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch copy of the game. Pokemon Unite is out now on Nintendo Switch with a planned release for mobile devices later on.
- Playing as Pokemon is great fun
- Lots of unlockable items and customization
- A good entry into the MOBA genre
- Limited roster
- Could be simplistic for long-time MOBA fans
- Hidden pay-to-win mechanics
- A glut of menus
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Pokemon Unite review: A divisive battle