Free-to-play games are still the subject of ire a lot of the video game community. While the free-to-play model is one that, when done well, can greatly increase the shelf life of a game while generating piles of cash, it can sometimes verge on predatory, and at worse, straight up lock the game away behind paywalls.
Thankfully, free-to-play games have evolved from their less-than-honorable origins and are some of the most popular games on the market thanks to their availability. So what happens if you take the popular free-to-play model, an uber-popular brand like Pokémon, and throw it in a bowl with one of the most popular genres in gaming? You get Pokémon Unite, a new free-to-play MOBA now available on the Nintendo Switch.
Revealed last June, Pokémon Unite was met with fan backlash. I, myself, wasn't blown away by the reveal, but I was cautiously optimistic, and maybe that's why I've been enjoying Pokémon Unite so much. Pokémon Unite draws clear inspiration from other popular MOBAs like League of Legends and Arena of Valor. It also manages to be simple enough for Pokéfans unfamiliar with the genre while being deep enough to hook players looking for a challenge. However, the game starts to falter under the weight of its own microtransactions.
Bottom line: Pokémon Unite is a surprisingly fun introduction to the MOBA genre, but it has microtransactions that verge on unacceptable.
- Fun and competitive gameplay
- Simplified controls and gameplay are easy to learn
- A surprising amount of gameplay depth
- Lots of gameplay and cosmetic customization
- Cross progression and cross-play with mobile versions
- Microtransactions border on ridiculous
- Presentation and performance leave something to be desired
- First wave of cosmetics are sort of lame
Relearning the rules of Pokémon
Pokémon Unite: What I liked
For those familiar with MOBA games, you'll quickly notice that Pokémon Unite bears more than a passing resemblance to most in the genre. That's because it's developed by TiMi Studios, developer of Arena of Valor and subsidiary of Tencent Games, the very same studio that owns League of Legends. Most MOBAs, or multiplayer online battle arenas, share the same DNA: Two teams of five fight to score points by invading the enemy team's base while defending their own. Each player is a given a role based on their character choice and must coordinate attacks with their team to make it out with the most points.
|Developer||TiMi Studio Group|
|Genre||Multiplayer Online Battle Arena|
|Game Size||928 MB|
|Players||Up to 10 players|
The premise is, of course, wrapped in the colorful Pokémon skin you've come to expect. While the story is virtually nonexistent, it's not super necessary (and let's be real, you've probably never played a Pokémon game for that). In short, you're a trainer brought to an island to participate in Unite Battles, massive stadium events that set the stage for every battle.
Pokémon faithful should forget everything they know about Pokémon. Types don't matter in Pokémon Unite, only roles. On the field, your choice of Pokémon determines your role in battle, and playing to your role's strengths is what'll help you and your team secure the win. There are 20 Pokémon available at launch, each one fitting in one of five roles: Attacker, Defender, Speedster, Supporter, and All-Arounder. However, with a roster of over 800 Pokémon, we probably won't have to wait long for new monsters to arrive.
No experience required
MOBA games have an intimidating reputation, and games like League of Legends and Arena of Valor have seriously scary learning curves that often scare newcomers off. Herein lies the beauty of Pokémon Unite. As someone with very little MOBA experience, it only took a few short tutorials before I was already in a game, dunking on opponents as they scrambled to defend. Battles are fast-paced and exciting as you deal with both hazards and wild Pokémon, collecting Aeos energy to score on the opposing team.
It only took a few short tutorials before I was already in a game, dunking on opponents as they scrambled to defend.
You begin each match with one simple attack, but as the game rages on, more abilities become available to you. Even the map becomes more complex as the battle ensues, almost as if it's shifting with the momentum of the match. Warp pads and jump pads open up, and even Legendary Pokémon crash the party, and defeating even one can flip a losing game into a winning one.
But while Pokémon types might not matter, levels and evolutions still do. One of Pokémon Unite's gimmicks involves leveling up your Pokémon so that they can temporarily evolve during battle. Earning experience points is as simple as battling wild Pokémon and other players. Once you hit a certain level, your Pokémon will evolve, complete with better stats and a better move set, just like the mainline games. Even if your Pokémon doesn't evolve, leveling up will boost their strength, unlock stronger moves, and help you gain Ultras, flashy special moves that'll make quick work of opponents. Throw in stat boosts given by held items and special wild Pokémon throughout the map that'll give you bonuses like shields, and the game becomes a lot deeper than initially thought.
In addition to Unite Battles, there are also Ranked and Quick matches, as well as a Practice mode. Ranked Matches are just normal Unite Battles with higher stakes, but quick matches drop the player count down by two for tighter, faster matches, and are an especially good option for those who want who don't have the time (or the patience) for a longer fight. Even still, regular fights are only 10 minutes long, so battles are quick and don't require a huge time commitment. The cycle of gathering Aeos energy, knocking players out, and dunking on them quickly became addicting.
What free really means
Pokémon Unite: What I didn't like
Now it's time to address the big, money-hungry elephant in the room. Yes, there are microtransactions in Pokémon Unite, and yes, they are just pushing the limit of what is acceptable. Most of the currencies can be earned in-game through battling and completing daily missions. However, the game puts a weekly limit on how many coins you can earn from battles, which means that the more expensive characters can require weeks of grinding. And with 20 characters available at the start, it cost a pretty penny to get a full set right away. Pokémon Unite will feature cross-progression, however, so your purchases will stay with you whether you're playing on the Nintendo Switch or your iPhone or Android, though the premium currency will not.
There's also a battle pass, which can be bought for about $8 and acts like any other battle pass in any other game, offering special unlocks for each battle pass level unlocked. Most of them are cosmetics for your trainer or your Pokémon, but you do occasionally get other currencies and Item Enhancers, an item that might sway how you feel about Pokémon Unite's microtransactions.
There are microtransactions in Pokémon Unite, and yes, they are just pushing the limit of what is acceptable.
Pokémon can hold items in battle like they do in the mainline games, and those items give the Pokémon buffs. You can equip up to three at a time, but you must level up your Trainer Level to 10 to enjoy the full benefit. However, you also can upgrade your items using Item Enhancers, and since you're more likely to get Item Enhancers when you buy the battle pass, you can feel start to feel the dial moving shifting towards pay-to-win.
Unfortunately, while there are balances in place, you still can buy items with real money. While the ability to even upgrade and equip items requires a high enough Trainer Level, once you've reached that level, you're free to buy your way to victory. And even if you didn't, it makes it pretty hard to not spend at least a little bit of money if you're serious about being competitive.
Don't expect a spectacle
From a presentation standpoint, Pokémon Unite is simple, and dare I say, as basic as they come. It doesn't look nearly as good-looking as New Pokémon Snap and has perhaps some of the worst Pokémon cries I've heard in the series history. It sounds like they ripped the cries from the Game Boy games and placed them here, and while some may see that as a nostalgic throwback, I heard it as mostly electronic noise.
Performance, however, is all over the place. The game targets 60 FPS in docked and it seems to get there most of the time, but there are noticeable stutters in the menus, and thanks to the FPS counter at the top of the screen, you can watch as your frame rate plummets down to below 30 during hectic fights. In handheld mode, it hits 30 FPS and stays there for the most part. Still, it never really affected gameplay and there's even an option to drop the framerate if you find it distracting, along with a slew of other unexpected customization options. I suspect the simple controls and visuals are meant to easily translate to the mobile versions when they arrive in September.
Pokémon Unite: Should you play
Despite some glaring issues in the microtransaction department, I found myself addicted to the gameplay loop, especially when playing with friends. Sure, it might not be a stunner, but it's one that I can see getting better over time, and hopefully with none of the toxic baggage that seems to follow other MOBA games.
If they can support Pokémon Unite with steady updates, characters, and ease up on the grind, Pokémon Unite is sure to find its footing as one of the best multiplayer games on the Switch. It's not for everyone, but it's simple enough to keep the attention of new users while being deep enough for more experienced players.
Pokémon Unite is a fun introduction to MOBAs, capturing the competitive spirit and strategy while cutting away much of the toxic underbelly and the ridiculous barrier of entry associated with other MOBAs. There's still a lot of room to grow, and I'm excited to see how the game improves, how the meta develops, and which Pokémon get chosen to take the field.