The initial reaction to the announcement of Pokémon Unite in 2020 was one of general excitement — especially amongst the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) community. MOBAs are strategy games in which two teams compete on a board to destroy opposing bases. This was the first Pokémon game of its kind, one that would drop the RPG-roots of the mainline series for real-time attacks in a capture-the-flag-style competition. It would allow Switch and mobile users to compete alongside each other in a five-vs-five format, using some of the series’ most iconic characters. And it would be free-to-play.
However, that anticipation was quickly tempered by the game’s initial growing pains. In a survey released by the game’s developers, players were quick to voice their concerns about the seemingly ‘pay-to-win’ structure of Pokémon Unite. Where free-to-play games like League of Legends and Fortnite have no real advantages to be gained by microtransactions as add-ons are cosmetic, the prevalence of legal tender as a means to victory can harm the competitive efficacy of the game.
I entered this game from the viewpoint of a diehard MOBA fan who had never played more than ten hours of a Pokémon game. As a League of Legends player, my perspective is colored by my hours of grinding away on Summoner’s Rift, with very little nostalgic attachment to Pikachu and pals.
One of the key issues I’ve always had with MOBAs is the time commitment required. An average League game can be up to 40 minutes long, which is a large ask for many. Pokémon Unite is seemingly the solution to the grind faced by the MOBA format — games that finish, regardless of game state, at ten minutes.
Gameplay-wise, Pokémon Unite has been a pleasant surprise. What initially felt slow, clunky and somewhat unfinished became more and more enjoyable with each game. It’s fun, if a little forgettable, and the perfect ten-minute MOBA hit during a lunch break. As a casual player, the controversy surrounding pay-to-win and microtransactions has not affected me to any great degree, but it’s undeniable that the game’s item levelling systems will need some overhauls if its ranked mode remains
Pokémon Unite review: Gameplay
Unite handles very much like a traditional MOBA. Games take place in a five-versus-five arena, and points are scored by catching wild Pokémon across the map. When a wild Pokémon is captured, you earn points of Aeos energy for your team, which can then be used to score ‘goals’ in one of the scoring zones on the opposing side of the map. You can also enter into combat with opponents, and defeating an enemy player will cause them to drop points that you can then use to score.
The map consists of two ‘paths,’ reminiscent of the lane structure in games like League. The scoring zones are located on these ‘paths,’ and the middle of the map is populated by a wild area containing AI Pokémon that can be captured to earn Aeos.
Standing in one of your team’s scoring zone heals your Pokémon, and scoring 100 points in an enemy zone destroys it, meaning it no longer heals them. Upon loading into a game of Pokémon Unite, it’s instantly recognisable as a condensed version of the MOBA format, with limited time and space to allow its ten-minute win condition to still feel rewarding.
The game currently has twenty playable Pokémon, with more confirmed to be coming to the game as early as July 28. Unite eschews the previous Pokémon format of elemental types, instead using a battle type system in which Pokémon are categorised by playstyle rather than damage type. There are five battle types in Pokémon Unite: Attackers, Speedsters, Defenders, Supporters and All-Rounders.
As with many other MOBAs, each class has its own unique traits that make it suited for its role, and there’s enough variety between each Pokémon to keep things interesting without too much variation in gameplay. While Unite’s gameplay isn’t groundbreaking, its developers have successfully condensed the MOBA format without losing the core battle-arena feel of the genre.
Pokémon Unite review: Controls
Currently only available for Nintendo Switch, with plans to come to mobile in September 2021, Unite’s controls were one of my main initial gripes with the game upon playing the tutorial. For those who are coming to Unite from traditional MOBAs, specifically League, it’s definitely a learning curve, but not an insurmountable one. The lack of precision control that comes from no mouse and keyboard is circumvented by the fact that a lot of abilities in the game are area of effect (AoE), meaning the need for pixel-perfect aim is lost.
With only a few games played, I’ve also had trouble with how slow this game feels. Even on the game’s ‘Speedster’ class, the controls and movement of the game feel glacially clunky. Navigating the map feels cumbersome, even with the occasional speed boosts the game provides you with when leaving base.
For those used to Pokémon gameplay, this shouldn’t prove too jarring, but it’s something to note if you’re coming to Unite from a MOBA background. I had a few issues with jumpy FPS and minor lag, but nothing insurmountable. The game’s graphics were surprisingly smooth, and queuing up for a match was easy.
Pokémon Unite review: Verdict
The pay-to-win controversy is something that TiMi, the game’s developer, will need to address. Already YouTubers have demonstrated that spending lots of money can completely obliterate opposing teams. The item enhancement system allows people to pay for stat bonuses that would otherwise take hours and hours of game time to achieve, which has a significant effect on the game’s ranked mode.
Controversy aside, though, Pokémon Unite is the perfect introduction to the MOBA genre for younger players and Pokémon fans. MOBAs are often perceived as challenging to break into, and not without reason. But Unite takes all of the complicated concepts of the genre and breaks them down into an easy-to-digest ten minute parcel.
However, there is easy potential for Unite to be a game that burns bright and quickly dies if its developers do not continue to add variety, whether in the form of new maps or new playable Pokémon. The short games and small map mean that some of the ‘every game is different’ fun of the MOBA genre is lost here. I personally found myself getting bored after a few games. Even with the colorful characters and digestible short bursts of play, I doubt I’ll be grinding my way to Rank 1 on the Unite leaderboards any time soon.