Outside of the core series of RPGs, we've seen many free-to-play Pokémon games released over the years that have seen various levels of success. The most popular of these, of course, is Pokémon Go which still continues to rake in millions every year, but we've also seen other worthwhile spin-offs such as Pokémon Quest and Pokémon Cafe Mix. The latest release to join this growing list of titles is Pokémon Unite, a MOBA developed by TiMi Studio Group, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Tencent. The game is out now on the Nintendo Switch and it is planned to release some time this September on mobile devices.
Before I break down its mechanics, I should note that I haven't played a MOBA before, so I won't be able to offer comparisons to genre staples such as DOTA 2 and LoL. Pokémon Unite sees two teams of five players go head-to-head to try and score the most points within a 10-minute time limit. To earn points, players must defeat wild Pokémon found within the battle arena and the amount of points received is dependent on how powerful the Pokémon you defeat are. To be able to cash in these points though, players have to deposit them in their opponent's goals. Scoring has a timer attached, however, and your opponent can block you from gaining points if they attack you at the right time (this can also be done in reverse).
On the battlefield, your Pokémon begins in their starter form and they will evolve and become more powerful as you level up and gain XP. Each Pokémon has their own move set and they have one basic attack, two special attacks, and a potent Unite Move. As well as evolving, your Pokémon will learn new and more devastating attacks when leveling up and you'll be given a choice between two separate attacks and these can range between more powerful versions of existing moves to completely new moves entirely. Having my creatures progress and learn new moves throughout the game kept matches engaging and at only 10 minutes long (shorter if a team forfeits) things never dragged on too long.
The selection of Pokémon here I found stretched across a variety of different generations and there were favourites such as Pikachu and Charizard and more obscure picks like Crustle and Eldegoss. Each Pokémon either specialises in melee or ranged attacks and they all fall under the banner of five different classes: All-Rounder, Attacker, Defender, Supporter, and Speedster and these have their own pros and cons. Crustle, for example, is a Defender and it has high stats when it comes to endurance and support, but its offence and mobility capabilities are pretty lackluster. Venusaur, as an Attacker, on the other hand, has a near-perfect offense stat, but it is disadvantaged when it comes to endurance and support.
There are 20 different playable Pokémon at present and more are set to be on the way in future with Blastoise and Gardevoir revealed to be joining the line-up. When booting up the game players have access to five different Pokémon (one for each class) and these rotate over time to allow players to experience more of the line-up.
I found Pokémon Unite's core gameplay loop to feel really easy to grasp and two hours just melted away when I was tasked with streaming it recently. Something that really kept me hooked was its risk for reward nature, as there's a sense of danger when trying to score. I was always torn between depositing points little and often, or just grinding for the most points and trying to sneak past the opposition. The feeling of being ambushed by my opponents right after grinding for a boatload of points was devastating, but it made things all the more satisfying when I was eventually able to evade my foes and pull things off.
With Unite being a free-to-play game, it was obvious that microtransactions would be making an appearance, but I was surprised by just how atrocious they actually are. To unlock brand-new Pokémon you need to purchase a license for them and these range anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 gold coins. After three hours of playing and completing in-game challenges I was able to amass 6,000 coins which was only enough to purchase one of the more inexpensive and less sought after characters. You can purchase these Pokémon with real-world money, but things get pretty pricey. A Pokémon for 6,000 coins will cost you 340 gems and these can only be bought in quantities of either 245 (for £3.99) or 490 (£7.99).
Surprisingly, this isn't even the most offensive part of the game's microtransactions. After you reach level 9, you can start upgrading stat-altering items by using purchasable Item Enhancers. These items can be upgraded as many as 29 times and they can make a significant difference if players decide to splash out and make the investment. A Scope Lens that improves your critical hit ratio can be made ten times more effective, for example, with it moving from 0.4% to 4% between level 1 and level 20. If you'd like to see how much of an impact this can have on gameplay, I'd encourage you to watch penguinz0's video here.
If Unite had drawn the line at its seasonal Battle Passes and cosmetic items then I would have let things slide, but I couldn't help but be put off the experience knowing that I was at a disadvantage for not paying up. For the record, these Item Enhancers can also be purchased with in-game currency, but just like with buying Pokémon, the grind to get these is an awfully long one when compared to just pulling out your credit card. I'm hoping that Tencent can reduce the grind required to obtain these items to make things more balanced.
Hiding underneath Pokémon Unite's greedy pay to win microtransactions is actually an addictive and highly accessible MOBA that has had its potential sadly slashed to pieces. Speaking purely about its positives, Unite has a cast of creatures that span across the entire 25-year-old series and its gameplay has a thrilling risk for reward nature to it. On the other end of the spectrum though, those who reach into their pockets the deepest will likely have the most luck on the battlefield and grinding to unlock Pokémon is a serious time sink.