Review | Pokémon UNITE
The MOBA genre is a really interesting class of games, starting out as a StarCraft mod before evolving into something more. Some, like Heroes of the Storm or Marvel Super War, utilize well known characters to establish a following. Others like DOTA 2 and League of Legends made a name for themselves all on their own. Well now, it’s time for the ever popular Pokémon franchise to throw its hat in the ring. Pokémon UNITE is the new collaboration between The Pokémon Company and Tencent subsidiary TiMi Studio Group. Utilizing the popular monsters, they’ve managed to craft an addicting free-to-play game that stands out among the competition.
Pokémon UNITE takes players to the new Aeos Island region for a special battle known as Unite Battles. These Unite Battles involve teams of Pokémon competing for points by collecting Aeos energy and tossing it into the opposing team’s hoops. You’ll start with your Pokémon at level one and gain experience by battling CPU wild Pokémon to gain experience. As you level up, you’ll unlock new moves, and in some cases, even evolve into more powerful forms. This happens in colorful arenas that look right at home on the Switch, even running in up to 60 fps while docked.
At the time of this review, there are 21 available Pokémon to choose from, ranging from some of the most popular to some oddball choices. You’ll start off with one of six Unite licenses, and continue to earn more or even purchase them from there. This of course includes Pokémon like Pikachu or Lucario, but also includes Cramorant, Mr. Mime, and Crustle. You even have Charizard, Greninja, Machamp and more Pokémon that start in their base form before evolving to their full potential. The roster really reminds me of Pokkén Tournament, as it shares many similarities. More Pokémon will make their debut over time, as we already have some like Blastoise on the way.
Like most MOBAs, Pokémon UNITE will have multiple lanes to take on the map. For the standard mode, it will be a 5-vs-5 map with a top and bottom lane, as well as a center “jungle” area. As you follow the paths, you’ll find several Pokémon to be used as experience fodder, earning Aeos energy along the way. Some of these wild Pokémon can also grant special bonuses like additional damage against enemies with low health. In many cases, you’ll also come across the enemy team, which will either result in a fight, or a hasty retreat depending on the circumstances. This also carries over into quick matches, which consist of 3-vs-3 or 4-vs-4 maps.
Combat is pretty simple, as you’ll have a main attack button that can be automated. As you level up, you’ll earn new abilities, some being offensive while others can be more supportive or defensive. Abilities will vary depending on the Pokémon you select, and you even have options on some of them. Many of these abilities can be manually targeted using the right analog stick, allowing direction for strategy. Eventually, when you reach level nine, you’ll also unlock your Unite ability, which helps to potentially turn the tables.
Speaking of turning the tables, each map and mode has a sort of challenge in their center. When the standard match starts to wrap up, a Zapdos appears in the center. Defeating Zapdos will give all teammates maximum Aeos energy and weaken your opponents hoops for 30 seconds. It’s definitely a comeback mechanic, as it can easily turn things around for a losing team. It can be tricky though, as the opposing team can technically steal the kill and gain the advantage. This is actually pretty common in the game, as the final hit is the only part that counts. It does make it really frustrating to put in a lot of work, only for someone to run up and get the last hit and gain a huge advantage for their team.
Quick matches have their own variations on these center challenges, giving Pokémon like Regigigas and Avalugg the spotlight. They also have their own changes to the strategy, like defeating Avalugg freezing your own hoop, preventing opponents from scoring. Quick matches offer their own unique maps as well, with Auroma Park and Shivre City, making for vastly different aesthetics. They also have their own wild Pokémon populating them. Hopefully in the future, we start to see more new maps enter the rotation for both quick matches and standard ones.
Getting to the actual Pokémon you play as, while there is a great variety of representatives, it needs some balancing. A handful of Pokémon have some abilities that a bit too powerful. For example, Absol has Pursuit, which in the right hands, can make retreat impossible. Gengar also has the Hex ability, teleporting to opponents and dealing strong damage when they’re already dealing with status effects. Arguably one of the most powerful abilities is Zeraora’s Discharge, which can single-handedly take out teams. The damage on this attack when combined with Volt Tackle can sweep opponents with ease. There’s definitely ways to adjust these attacks, so hopefully TiMi finds a better balance.
On top of the balance, players can also equip items on their Pokémon. This allows for potions, X attacks, and various other items to help out in the middle of combat. There’s also hold items, which a Pokémon can hold up to three after the player reaches a high enough level. These items can increase stats, improve healing outside of combat, and more. Players have the ability to use item enhancers to increase these stats. This is where the “pay-to-win” controversy comes up with the game. Players can buy gems and use them to exchange for item enhancers. Despite this, you can actually do pretty well to earn these just by playing and completing missions.
Microtransactions find their way in other parts of the game as well. There’s several things to purchase, including Unite licenses, holowear to customize appearances, and clothes for your custom trainer. While it’s possible to earn currency in the game by simply playing, the temptation for spending real money is definitely there. With my time in the game, I have yet to spend a single penny, and I have a 57% win rate in 80 battles at level 13. While it’s not a flawless record, my experience tends to come down to my teammates overall.
Pokémon UNITE may have its weaknesses, but it definitely offers an addicting experience. There’s definitely room to grow and evolve into something greater, and it seems like that may happen here. Combining the Pokémon franchise with the successful MOBA genre seems like a hit, and it’ll likely be here to stay a long while. Even now, I still continue to move up the ranks online, enjoying my time as I advance my player level. With future Unite licenses becoming available and likely more maps and content on the way, this will surely be a huge success.
Final Score: 8 out of 10