Pokemon Unite is Nintendo’s first try at the MOBA genre and it’s been very well received. This is a 5v5 battle, with MOBA light mechanics, and the key to all of this is the 10 min timer on matches, so it’s a very easy game to dip in and out of. The Pokemon franchise has been begging for an update when it comes to the battle system, and given Pokemon Unite is free-to-play, The Pokemon Company and Nintendo may have just stumbled across a rare gem of a game.
Unite was originally announced back in 2020, amongst all of the other announcements with Pokemon’s anniversary information. Fans initially seemed concerned, given everyone wanted the Diamond & Pearl remake (which did eventually get announced). Pokemon Unite has been developed in partnership with Tencent and TiMi Studios, and you can certainly see their expertise on display with the free-to-play mechanics. Now that the game has come out there’s a high level of polish on the game and it’s actually very fun, and the barrier to entry with the game being free, plus the HUGE popularity of the Pokemon franchise could add up to a very bright future for the game.
When you first start the game you make a Trainer character and then jump into the action immediately through the tutorial. You learn about the rules of the game which is essentially a mini-MOBA, where you have to level up your Pokemon through battling other Wild Pokemon in the arena, collect the Pokeballs that drop and then dunk them into goals to score points. It’s 5v5 and the team with the most points at the end of the ten-minute time limit wins.
If you are not familiar with MOBAs, let’s have a look at what that means. Multiplayer online battle arena is a subgenre of strategy video games in which two teams of players compete against each other on a battlefield. Each player controls a single character with a set of distinctive abilities that improve over the course of a game and which contribute to the team’s overall strategy. The ultimate objective is for each team to destroy their opponents’ main structure, located at the opposite corner of the battlefield. Popular games in this genre include League of Legends, DOTA, and Heroes of the Storm. Pokemon Unite does a great job of simplifying down the rules and keeping things very simple, within a defined time limit of ten minutes.
Unite used the MOBA framework as inspiration, but Pokemon are already suited really well to this type of game. When you first start outmatches you’ll be in the original form of the Pokemon, for example, a little Charmander, then as you progress, gather points then you will level up and evolve into another iteration of your Pokemon, for example, Charizard.
The combination of battles against computer-generated ‘wild pokemon’ and human opponents is a great combination and feels very natural. You’ll start out with a regular attack, and as you progress you’ll get two other special attacks and then an ultimate attack that is designed to inflict maximum damage on opponents. This in-match progression adds excitement to matches, as you are trying your best to gather as many points as possible to level up as fast as you can while trying to take out your opponents at the same time.
The map is split into 2 lanes; the top and bottom. When you start out you’ll split the team into two, and try to gather the points to dunk some goals and level up your Pokemon. If you encounter other human opponents they will be trying to take you down, and if they do, or you take them down then you’ll remove their stored up points stopping from gaining an advantage. There’s nothing more satisfying than taking down an opponent who has about 20-30 points stored up. If you get knocked out, you’ll have to go back to your starting position on the map, and it’ll take time to get back into position. If you take a few hits you’ll want to retreat to regain some HP, which you can do by either picking up health items on the map or by sitting in your goal which will slowly restore HP.
As you progress through the game a powerful Pokemon will spawn on the map, worth many more points, and if you can team up and take this one down then you’ll gain a major advantage over the other team. You battle it out until the timer runs down, and I have also seen a few teams wave the white flag and give up too.
It shouldn’t be understated how fun this feels. We’ve been asking for improvements to the battle system over time from GameFreak, however, they keep delivering a similar style of Pokemon mainline franchise game. Pokemon Go took the world by storm when it was first released, and this has the potential to do something similar because it blends the Pokemon franchise with the competitive nature of a MOBA. The battles feel great, it’s easy to pick up and it’s likely to please younger fans who just want a Pokemon game, and also older fans who may have grown up with Pokemon and have played other MOBAs.
It’s definitely not as intense as other MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA, which ha the reputation for being very toxic once you get into the upper echelons of the game. Personally, I haven’t experienced this toxicity, however, I think it’s pretty much accepted and well known at this point. Players don’t have the opportunity to chat in-game at the moment plus the matchmaking is quick, easy, and simple. I would imagine in the early stages of the game teams are probably filled up with bots given the easy nature of the first few games, but this will likely change when you get to ranked modes.
To get you ready for the action there’s a decent practice mode in Pokemon Unite which allows you to play as any Pokemon on the roster. In the regular team-based modes you have to own and unlock characters, which you can do so by playing the game and buying the Pokemon from the in-game store. Given this is a free-to-play game there are significant micro-transactions, although you don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to.
There’s a depth to Unite which is welcome. Rather than the tired old mechanics of the Game Freak Pokemon games, here the battles can range from easy to super hard depending on who you are playing. You can unlock up to 16 held items, which can boost your Pokemon stats in battle and can really swing the outcome of matches. Customization in Unite is detailed too. For example, you can unlock clothing items and other styles for your trainer. Pokemon Unite’s version of skins is called Holowear, which acts as a digital projection on the Pokemon to change their appearance. There are classic outfits and outrageous ones too, plenty of styles to mix it up and really personalize your Pokemon.
There’s a battle pass that has 90 levels, plus it’s free too. There is a paid premium version, as with other free-to-play games, but the free version comes with a bunch of cosmetic items to allow you to personalize your Pokemon and level up their stats. This is a tried and tested formula within the live-service game model and always incentivizes ‘just one more match’. There are events too including daily, timed, and special events, and no doubt later we’ll see seasonal events tying into real-life seasonal activities, as these have been a big hit in games like Call of Duty, Fortnite, and Destiny 2.
At launch, there are 20 Pokemon to choose from with plenty of room to add more down the line. There are five team roles including Attacker, All-Rounder, Defender, Speedster, and Support and each of these roles plays really differently. Pikachu feels particularly powerful and Gengar too, although I’m a massive fan of playing as Charizard. When you first start up you are given access to a starter Pokemon plus there are also five other Pokemon you can get for free including Slowbro, Cinderace, Snorlax, Venusaur, Alolan, and Ninetales. You can also get access to other Pokemon through leveling up your trainer and Daily Login rewards. With 900 total Pokemon available, there’s plenty of opportunity for expansion and I have a feeling Tencent, Nintendo, and the Pokemon Company are about to make a whole lot of money from this one.
The reason for this is the whole swath of microtransactions in the game. This isn’t a massive surprise given the company behind this game, Tencent has huge experience in making this kind of game. Holowear is expensive plus the clothes for trainers are fairly mind-boggling, but there’s always going to be players out there wanting to take up these opportunities. Personally, I don’t really get sucked into these financial traps and have successfully managed to avoid microtransactions – unless it’s a company I support, or a game I am playing for the long term. I’ve skipped all microtransactions here and I don’t feel like my game time has been impacted just yet.
One of the major flaws of Pokemon Unite from a player perspective is that not all Pokemon are available initially, and if you want to unlock them you have to pay. You can earn the Pokemon through playtime, but realistically it’s going to take a huge amount of time and there’s always the bait on the hook of buying your way to arguably better Pokemon. The Held Items, that can boost and manipulate stats for Pokemon Unite players are also available for purchase, so there’s an argument here that you can indeed pay to win. It’s a term thrown around in games, often as an insult, but it’s hard to argue against the evidence here.
Taking into account the game’s flaws, it’s worth noting the context these flaws are presented in. The game is free, it’s good fun, and you don’t have to interact with the microtransactions if you don’t want to. The production value of Pokemon Unite is top-notch and you’ll have plenty of fun whether you are playing solo or with a group of friends.
Pokemon Unite is introducing a whole new bunch of players to the MOBA style of games, and if the early success is anything to go by then this could be a massive hit for all developers and publishers involved. Pokemon needed a kick up the rear in terms of the battle system, and this mixes things up nicely. The opportunity for expansion with the number and range of Pokemon we have available is huge. If you have a Nintendo Switch and you are remotely interested in the Pokemon franchise, I’d say download the game and give it a try.