Pokemon Unite – A Surprising and Potentially Expensive Victory

Pokemon Unite Cover Art

Released on: July 21 2021, September 22 2021 (Android and iOS)

Available Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS

Price: Free (Has microtransactions)

Developed by: TiMi Studio Group Published by: The Pokemon Company

Around a year ago or so, the official Pokemon Twitter announced a special Pokemon Direct to show off a few upcoming games at the time. It was poised to be half an hour or so. Since the announcement came from official channels, I was bracing myself for a relatively big announcement. Maybe we’ll be getting remakes of classic Pokemon games? Or perhaps a new Pokemon game altogether? As it turns out, we got the latter. This was the Direct that announced the then-upcoming Pokemon MOBA, Pokemon Unite.

An air of disappointment swept the internet after the Direct. A lot of us were expecting something more… meaningful. As for me, I found its announcement more funny than disappointing. Since I failed to tamper my expectations, I felt like I walked into a practical joke. I started looking inwards when it comes to upcoming game announcements. Why was I even getting excited over an elaborate commercial? It was a farce that played in my head for a few days after I heard about it.

Fast forward to a month ago (at the time of writing this article.) Pokemon Unite finally releases. At first, I ignored it since I am not the biggest fan of MOBAs (like League of Legends or SMITE.) However, as I scrolled Twitter, I soon begin to hear that the game is a lot better than it seemed on the surface. Since the game is free, I decided to download the game to see if I shared my opinion with the consensus. Does Pokemon Unite score?

Pokemon Unite Splash screen.

On the island of Aeos, Pokemon battles take the form of what the game calls Unite battles. In Unite battles, two teams of five (or three depending on the game mode) fight to take out weaker minion Pokemon and the opposing team to collect points to score once the player reaches the opponent’s goal ring. The more points the player gathered, the slower the player will score those valuable points.

The scoring system is a welcomed mechanic that helps differentiates it from other MOBAs. It adds purpose to taking out the weaker surrounding Pokemon to gather experience points and game points. To those familiar with other MOBAs, the goal rings replace the defense towers. The rings don’t attack the player like the defense towers do, but if the player has a ton of points to score with and they rush the ring, they might find themselves stuck to the ring trying to score.

Pokemon Unite’s visuals, while nothing spectacular, do look good on an artistic level. The Pokemon look comparable to their main game counterparts, and there are no real blemishes in the environments. The frame rate, however, tends to suffer immensely in the menu. In-game, the framerate is acceptable, but navigating the menus, for whatever reason, is unnecessarily laggy. I appreciate the game maintaining a constant framerate, but how can one fail to optimize a menu?

Pokon Unite Main Menu
The Pokon and the trainer look fine, but what is up with the menu lag?

I touched a little bit on how Pokemon Unite plays, but basically, the team that scores the most points wins. The player scores points by putting the player’s hard-earned points into the opposing team’s goal ring. Knocking out non-player Pokemon and opposing players is how the player gathers points to score. If the player gets knocked out, however, they will lose a bunch of points. At the beginning of the game, the player begins at level one but gets stronger the more enemies they defeat. Throughout the battle, players will choose two moves out of a possible four. The player must choose carefully, as they can’t change their mind until the end of the battle. 

Building up my Pokemon is addicting and a big part of why I keep coming back to Pokemon Unite. I love gathering experience points to get stronger than my opponent. I also find it incredibly satisfying when a woefully underpowered opponent dares to challenge me, only to realize too late that they started an unwinnable fight, flee, then fall in battle. It’s strangely intoxicating. 

At the time of writing, there are twenty-three Pokemon to chose from in Pokemon Unite. Some Pokemon are better at specific roles than others, so Pokemon Unite separates them into categories. For example, Slowbro, Crustle, and Snorlax are defenders since they are slow but can take a lot of punishment, and they defend the goal ring like champs. Cinderace, Alolan Ninetails, Pikachu, and Venusaur are ranged attackers that deal with damage from afar but tend to be on the frail side. There are other categories for different strategies. Even Pokemon in the same category have different strategies for optimizing their role. Finding out what works best for the player is part of the fun. I tend to gravitate towards attackers since taking out enemies in Pokemon Unite is satisfying.

As if that wasn’t enough depth, the player can give each Pokemon on their roster three pieces of equipment based on held items from the mainline Pokemon games. Players can upgrade these items all the way to level thirty to give them an extra boost during battle. What’s more, each Pokemon can hold a useable item that can help in a pinch. A personal favorite of mine is X Speed: an item that increases my Pokemon’s speed which is ideal when the battle turns sour and I need to escape quickly. Equipment and items are another factor that players should consider when tinkering with their Pokemon builds. 

Pokemon Unite Triple Kill
Plays like these are where this game shines.

Multiplayer games always face the arduous task of keeping the game fresh for the player. Pokemon Unite feels like a miracle for me in this regard, as I always question whether I want to play a few rounds when I see the game icon on my Switch game list. Whenever I turn the game on, I find myself playing it for at least half an hour. Even if I can’t play for that long, each match is only ten minutes, which is perfect when I want to squeeze in just one more game.

Let’s talk about the microtransactions in Pokemon Unite. I know I always bring these up in free-to-play games, but this has been a point of contention in Pokemon Unite. In most cases, people are okay with cosmetic items being the only thing the player can purchase with real money. Where people start taking umbrage is when real money can buy items for the player that give them in-game advantages in multiplayer games.

Pokemon Unite does have cosmetics for Pokemon (which do look neat, I must admit), but it also has tickets that the player can purchase. At first, I thought that those tickets were only used to buy different kinds of cosmetics. As it turns out, players can trade those tickets for coins that can upgrade the equipable items mentioned above. I saw a Youtube buy tickets to the point that they could max out the items they were using. That, I feel, does go too far. It shifts the balance of the game enough to make people who want to play the game on a competitive basis spend a lot of money. To my unaware readers, the term that describes this phenomenon is “pay-to-win.” It is hard to deny that Pokemon Unite doesn’t fit in this category.

Even if Pokemon Unite wasn’t pay-to-win, I still think they go overboard with the monetization. The game has cosmetics, the aforementioned boosts for the items, a Battle Pass, and a lootbox/gacha system. Call me crazy, but I think the developers of Pokemon Unite want to sell me things…

Pokemon Unite was much better than I thought it would be. The gameplay is addicting, there are tons of customization options, and it is the most accessible game of the genre to get into. If the player can stomach the over monetization of Pokemon Unite, I would recommend it. However, parents should be careful with this one, as it is too easy to select items that could cause their kids to spend real money accidentally.

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