Admittedly, I was part of the gang that responded with pessimism when Pokemon Unite was announced last year. MOBAs run kind of counter to the whole Pokemon experience- where one’s an IP about hanging out with your favorite creature, the other’s a genre associated with the worst of the esports community.
That being said, the Pokemon IP has a pretty warm touch, turning otherwise complex genres into manageable chunks whenever it gets a Pokemon spin-off. You only need to look at Pokken Tournament, which does a pretty good job of distilling Fighting Game fundamentals with Pokemon flair. With that, could Pokemon Unite be the same thing for MOBAs?
Moment-to-moment, Pokemon Unite is a lot of fun. The game changes a lot of the MOBA staples- with each team having a 5 Pokemon a piece, and no creeps to help you push, instead you’re farming points off of Wild Pokemon which you then deposit at goals to capture them for your team.
What was meant to be a way of simplifying the genre actually creates an interesting skill floor for the game- sometimes you absolutely won’t be able to eliminate an entire team before scoring in their goal, but sneaking past them is totally an option. Similarly, sometimes even the most hardened brawler could get all the kills, but bad luck could keep them from ever having scored a goal at all.
Meanwhile, your Pokemon has your typical array of MOBA skills, all named after actual moves from the Pokemon RPGs. As you level up you’ll get to swap these out, always giving you two main skills, an auto attack and, when you unlock it, a “Unite Move” Ultimate.
I actually really like how Pokemon Unite has decided to handle its skills- having two main skills feels pretty easy to not get overwhelmed, and works well with the Switch button layout. My one gripe, however, is the actual physical layout of the UI- the top skill is assigned to ZR, which is the lower of the Switch’s shoulder buttons while the bottom skill is vice versa. It’s a minor nitpick that’s become less relevant the more I play, but still annoys me looking at any kind of still image of it.
On top of that, there’s a bit more depth to the skills than I previously expected. Characters like Garchomp actually reward you for comboing your skills into each other, which adds a nice layer of depth to it. You also have Battle Items which can be used on a cooldown to give buffs like a burst of healing, or extra stats. So even though the gameplay is much simpler than titles such as League of Legends, there’s still depth to it as you decide on good builds for your team.
Matches are also pretty quick, lasting about 10 minutes a piece. I really like the faster pace of Pokemon Unite as a result, since bad matches rarely ever last too long and if you’re on a roll, you can get pretty high off your winner’s rush in an hour with room for so many matches.
On a related tangent, you can also check out our Beginner’s Guide if you want to know even more nitpicky things about the game’s gameplay.
No Room For Points
I do have one major gameplay gripe with the game, and that’s what it’s chosen to do about its score- currently, there’s no way to actually check your score during a match. I can kind of see the rationale behind this- it would supposedly stop people from quitting when they’re on a losing streak, and let more anxious players focus on doing their best without seeing how much they need to catch up.
On the other hand, I feel like it doesn’t work. I’ve had at least one flat-out rage quit, as a player disconnected mid-game while we were losing and at least two votes to surrender. Aside from turning off text and voice chat (which the game has off by default), you can’t really stop this kind of whiny behavior- it’s inherent to the genre. All you get instead is the players who want this kind of information to play better being left in the dark instead.
Still, it’s not like you’re completely in the dark. The game gives you these pop-ups telling you the approximate score, such as if you’re close to the enemy team, or in the lead, or massively behind. It’s not bad, but I feel like giving us a physical tally would have been better. At present the “We’re massively behind!” bubble really does nothing more than mimic annoying teammates.
One interesting thing that Pokemon Unite’s done is that they’ve done 3 different game types, including one Quick gametype that turns the game into a 3v3 with centralized goals instead of towers. It’s a really nice change of pace, especially if you just need your quick MOBA fix for the day.
My one gripe though, is the standard match map. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, it’s your pretty standard MOBA map layout. And that’s kind of the problem- it’s too safe. Maybe it’s just because I cut my teeth on Heroes of the Storm that I actually quite liked that game’s map rotations and unique objectives, and it actually played a role in keeping me coming back to it for as long as I did.
With Pokemon Unite it runs into the same problem every MOBA does- eventually you’ll just get bored of the map, and since you have no delusions about being sponsored by Redbull, it just gets boring, since you’re playing the same Pokemon and the same build on the same map ad nauseam.
The Pokemon Flair
I’ve got to give it to Pokemon Unite, its current roster of playable Pokemon is pretty impressive. Aside from the usual culprits like Lucario, Greninja and Pikachu, there’s some great Pokemon D-listers in the game as well. Pokemon like Cramorant, Slowbro and Mr. Mime are all present, giving the roster a nice feeling that GameFreak actually remembers the rest of their 800+ roster of creatures.
As the number one Pokken Tournament shill though, it’s hard to not notice some of the cut corners. Pokemon who were also from that game have some pretty similar animations, such as Garchomp’s Dragon Rush looking straight-up identical to its fighting game counterpart. It’s not a bad mark against the game in any way, but it’s just a fun thing to notice.
One thing I wish the game would implement, however, is some sort of shortcut for selecting your favorite Pokemon. The Pokemon Selection screen isn’t the most responsive, and the fact that you can’t double up on Pokemon means that it’s a frantic scramble to make sure you pick up your favorite Pokemon before someone else does.
I can totally understand the reason to not implement this, but it’s one of the downsides of working with the Pokemon IP- everyone will want their favorite Pokemon. Only proper MOBA players are going to think about things like team comp, so I feel like which direction the game swings is gonna be highly dependent on what kind of audience you want for this game.
One excellent implementation of the Pokemon IP, however, is the use of evolution. Pokemon that can evolve start as their basic forms and level up at key levels. It really helps track the progression of each Pokemon, and definitely helps alleviate some common blunders like dying to Wild Pokemon. Obviously not every Pokemon uses this system (Pikachu won’t evolve into Raichu, for what I assume are branding reasons) but letting them use this system at all is a great way to make it feel like a Pokemon game.
Of course, no game is ever truly free-to-play, and the same applies to Pokemon Unite. Thankully the game lets you outright buy the Pokemon you want via the Gems premium currency, with the current roster of Pokemon costing you 10USD at most. Alternatively, you can also buy them with the free Coin currency, and the game does also feed you free Pokemon as progression rewards, as well as a rotating roster of free ones.
I’m glad the Pokemon pricing isn’t too bad- it’s a Pokemon game, price gouging the Pokemon is egregious. But unfortunately there’s more to Unite’s monetization than that. The real kicker comes in the form of the game’s Held Items- passive buffs you can equip to your Pokemon to improve their stats. Each one can be upgraded using Item Enhancers, which can be bought via the tickets currency, or obtained as rewards. If you have neither though, the game very insidiously tells you you can always just buy them with Gems, and that’s where the problem lies.
Any MOBA fan can tell you how important items are. If you’re seriously playing the game, chances are you’re going to want your item maxed out. Getting your items to level 20 is no easy feat, as the cost of upgrading it shoots up exponentially once you cross level 10, with some estimates being that you’d need about 5000 Item Enhancers to get to the max level per item, and your Pokemon having up to 3 items.
The worst bit is is that these items matter. You’ll absolutely notice when the opposite team has a decked out kit, because even when you’re the same level you’ll notice they’re hitting way harder than you. While I’m glad they simplified the gameplay part of buying items, it absolutely sucks that it’s been turned into a monetization route for the game, because it absolutely will hurt games in the future, especially once Mobile players get access to the game with crossplay and realize that everyone’s leagues ahead of them.
On the more fun end of the spectrum of course your Pokemon have skins that you can buy from the shop, though for now the pickings are kind of limited. Some get pretty fun options though, like Hawaiian shirts and snorkel gear for a beach theme. Outside of the summer theme we don’t really have much of an idea of where they’d go for costumes, but rest assured the infrastructure *is* there for those who don’t like running around with naked Pokemon.
Detached from everything else, Pokemon Unite is a fun MOBA. The controls and gameplay are simple enough that you could play this in a junkfood way, and with a good content update plan it could very much keep fans entertained for the forseeable future. I mean, considering my own distaste for the genre, the fact I’d played it all weekend says something.
What it all hinges on, however, is how The Pokemon Company plans to treat the game going forward. If they suddenly decide Pokemon Unite is a grown-up esport to be taken seriously, the monetization issue is going to be a much larger problem than it currently is. For as long as the average player doesn’t care about levelling their Held Items, it’s actually a lot of fun. But knowing that anyone who treats the game with any modicum of seriousness is going to be billed hard makes it a much harder sell.
There’s also the Pokemon roster itself. While new Pokemon are all but confirmed to be coming, we have no idea when they plan to do this. While the game’s fun now, the aforementioned flaw of using Pokemon means being able to decide who the next Pokemon on the roster is going to be, and how long until the next one after that.
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