Pokemon Unite impressions

Pokemon Unite is a free-to-play MOBA take in the Pokemon franchise, developed and published by Tencent. The obvious prediction there would be that the game would be a monetization nightmare and, surprising absolutely no one, it is! But, after a couple of weeks with it and more than a handful of hours spent, I was surprised to find out that I was willingly returning to it and could see myself return to it for weeks to come. Despite all the monetization issues, Pokemon Unite is a good, simplified MOBA and a decent choice for any newcomers to that genre or longtime absentees such as myself.

Unite has a setting (don’t know if its new or an existing one) and maybe has a story that explains the game and why it is the way it is, but I don’t care; basically, somewhere in the Pokemon universe there is a place where trainers use their Pokemon to play MOBAs. Pokemon are categorized in five categories: All-rounder, attacker, defender, speedster, and support. Depending on the mode, trainers pick either 3 or 5 Pokemon and then battle it out on the field, where the goal is to score more points than the opposing team; points are earned from defeating ‘wild’ Pokemon (found on the main routes or in specified instances in the middle of the arena) and the opposition, while said points need to be collected and dunked in the opposing team’s goal. The goals on the side have a limited health pool, while the central goal has unlimited health and can be scored on up until the 10 minutes are up. For MOBA fans, the parallels are pretty clear; ‘wild’ Pokemon are mobs; goals are towers; the middle is the jungle. That is pretty accurate, but different enough where even if you have no idea what any of those terms are or what the strategies for the MOBA genre are, you’d have no trouble getting to grips with the basics after one match. Unite even finds a passable solution to a lot of the issues newcomers have with the MOBA genre. For example, MOBAs have a pretty steep learning curve and require a bit of knowledge of the meta before new players get to grips with how the balance of the game works, but Unite is pretty simple: pick the Pokemon you want first, otherwise go with whatever seems viable. Sure the game wants you to pick a balanced squad and, for the most part, a squad of a defender and support/all-rounder alongside speedsters and attackers will fair better than an all-out attacking team, however it is still a viable option to just pick whatever you want regardless of what the other members pick.

Furthermore, while in the game, the mechanics are so simple that not having any good communication options is not really a problem, while also being deep enough where synergies and teamwork are surefire ways to victory. All Pokemon have a basic attack, two abilities, and an ultimate; those two abilities start off as a set move, then a variation is chosen, which in turn gets upgraded to a ‘plus’ version. Most categories are basically the same, such as defenders usually having a move that dashes them into an opponent or a form of barrier to soak up damage, but players have enough choice where they can customize and play a different style. It is worth noting though that, speedsters and attackers actually have quite a few differences between them and are thus the most sought-after characters, while support characters are really well balanced but don’t offer as much to the player picking them and are rarely seen. There are a few areas where the game oversimplifies the genre; for example, Unite’s version of a central, powerful spawn is too beneficial for any team to pass up, regardless if they are winning or not. Defeating Zapdos grants the player with the last strike 50 points and at all remaining goals, zero lead up for scoring and double points. This was a decision to make each game worth playing until the end, but it also made every game feel the same, where each team will go for Zapdos regardless of their position in the match and, even if there is an imbalance in the game, the winning team will have no problem getting Zapdos first or destroying the opposition before they have the opportunity to press their advantage. Overall, the balance of the characters, the casual nature of the game, and the great presentation that includes a great soundtrack and translating the Pokemon characters to that top-down MOBA look, make Unite a pretty great entry point for newcomers and nice variety for Pokemon fans; even loosing, excluding those few frustrations I’ve had with my own or my teammate’s ability, doesn’t feel like a waste (since the games are 10 minutes maximum) and winning feels great.

That’s only partly true, as Unite is a free-to-play game and half of the discussion on these titles is on the monetization of which Pokemon Unite – a Tencent developed and published title – fairs pretty poorly. The first question people will want answered is “is this game pay-to-win?” and the answer is, unfortunately, yes. There are quite a few currencies in the game that include coins (which can purchase Pokemon licenses, some cosmetics, and items), experience points for leveling up your character and a different experience measure for the battle pass, tickets (basically the same as coins), and Aeos gems that is the paid currency that gets you whatever you want and some exclusive skins; these are the main ones, but there are a few still to be mentioned. One of those currencies can enhance held items that give passive buffs to Pokemon; once the player reaches level 10, they can have 3 of these items on their Pokemon, and a fully upgraded item can make the difference between a decent player and a really good one. What I mean is that I will see opposing players using a Pokemon not as well, but will demolish the opposition regardless due to the overwhelming advantage given to them by those items; the item enhancer can be earned through the game, but the grind and time investment would be incredibly high. Is this a deal breaker? For me, no. I don’t mind losing in these types of games, even if I know that I lost because someone spent more than me, just as I don’t mind using the regular skin instead of a premium cool one; difference is that I would buy a skin to support the game, but I really don’t want to support these types of predatory practices where games are won and lost according to which team spent more.

Despite those issues, I still grinded out the current challenges, completed multiple levels of the battle pass, and played dozens of games where the majority were consisting of good casual fun; as with most people, I did get frustrated at the monetization and at the limited ways of communication, but I enjoy the simple and easy to understand loop of Unite, the charming presentation, and the quick and casual nature of the game. I don’t know if I’ll be around for the second set of challenges or max out the battle pass, but so far, I’m having fun and not thinking about the inevitable (if the game’s problems are not fixed) fallout I’ll have with the game; I’m just enjoying reconnecting with the MOBA genre after many years and proudly representing Mr. Mime, because he’s the best Pokemon. 

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