Nintendo Switch – Pokemon Unite (for Nintendo Switch) Review
I’ll never forgive Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, or MOBAs, for all but replacing the real-time strategy genre. As a long-time fan of games like StarCraft and Command & Conquer, the MOBA genre comes off as a weird, glorified mod. However, millions of people disagree. MOBA remains one of the most popular genres, so popular that now Pikachu and friends are getting in on the action. Pokemon Unite is a free-to-play Nintendo Switch game (eventually coming to mobile) that uses the “pocket monsters” to make the infamously complex genre far more accessible. While MOBA masters may want something prettier and with more depth, Pokemon Unite is a fine jumping on point for beginners.
Gotta Jungle ‘Em All
Pokemon Unite’s 5v5, team-based battles recall Dota 2, League of Legends, and other MOBAs that dominate the esports scene. In fact, Pokemon Unite’s formula tweaks make each match feel more like a lighthearted sport instead of an abstract clash of armies. Each player controls their own partner Pokemon. You roam the map, battling both wild Pokemon and Pokemon on the opposing team. You accrue energy with each small victory, and you earn points when you slam dunk that energy into an opponent’s goal zone. Whoever earns the most points wins. You don’t see scores until the very end, so you’ll never know exactly where you stand in the match. I like how this keeps tension high and encourages you to give it your all until the end.
By ditching MOBA gameplay mainstays, such as defensive towers and creep minions, Pokemon Unite sacrifices some of the genre’s strategic depth. Maybe the game’s meta needs more time to develop, but I found early battles incredibly straightforward and a bit repetitive. League of Legends: Wild Rift simplifies League of Legends for mobile, but still requires lots of strategizing. However, if you, like me, often find MOBAs needlessly complicated, Pokemon Unite’s simplicity becomes its strength. I appreciated being able to jump into a few ten-minute matches without watching hours of tutorial videos.
That said, Pokemon Unite has many variables to consider. For example, you choose between multiple, three-lane maps. When you score enough points in an enemy goal zone, you destroy it, which forces you to move to a different target to keep up your offense. Destroying an enemy goal also lets you move faster in enemy territory, and during a match’s second half, you can use a Super Jump pad to more easily move around. Vanquishing an exceptionally powerful wild Pokemon, like the legendary Zapdos, empowers your team with a helpful buff.
The Pokemon you and teammates pick dramatically change how you approach battle. Each monster comes with its own specialty and difficulty level. Cinderace is a beginner-friendly, ranged attacker who kicks fireballs at foes. Zeraora is a melee-focused speedster for experts. The game tells you if your team lacks a key role. I’m sure there’s already a tier list.
Pokemon gain access to new moves as they win battles. Certain Pokemon also evolve into the stronger forms. Start a match with Bulbasaur, end up with Venasaur. Elemental attacks, from volt tackles to flame sweeps, feel distinct and true to the source material. The game also plays just fine with a controller, automating many actions to keep you from pressing one button over and over again.
Pay Up, Pikachu
Pokemon Unite is a co-production with Chinese mega-corp Tencent, in case you were wondering why the companies went with a genre as profitable as MOBAs for this Pokemon spin-off. Not long after this Switch release, the game will come to mobile phones. Thanks to crossplay, people on all platforms can play together, which is great. However, once you realize that Pokemon Unite is essentially a free-to-play mobile game, its other flaws make much more sense.
Just by playing the game you accrue in-game currency to unlock new Pokemon, and certain Pokemon are made available for free for a limited time. However, you must pay real money to quickly purchase permanent access to the Pokemon you really want. At launch, there are about 20 Pokemon available, and more are already on the way.
That’s not the only way to spend money. Pokemon Unite features a battle pass with rewards to unlock, alongside your daily log-in mission prizes. You can also buy new outfits for you and your Pokemon, as well as equippable items.
Some items, like the healing potion, operate on a cooldown. Other items, Held items, give your Pokemon perks, such as a strength stat increase or the ability to recover health with each goal. You must pay extra to unlock additional item slots or upgrade items. It still feels like paying for a leg up. A basic defensive item costs 1,000 coins. The maximum amount of coins you can earn in a week is 2,100. But if you drop $20 for 1,000 gems and buy 1,000 item enhancers, you can level up that item a great deal.
I also wish the game’s production value was a little higher. The visuals are pleasant enough; you can’t really ruin iconic Pokemon character designs. Still, the graphics feel like something from a mobile game, not the same console that brought us the beautiful New Pokemon Snap or the competent Pokemon Sword and Shield. Even the game’s flashiest attacks, the ultimate Unite moves, aren’t particularly impressive. According to the in-game FPS counter, the game runs at 30 frames per second in handheld mode and 60 frames per second when docked. I never saw those frame rates fluctuate, so competitive players shouldn’t worry about inconsistent performance. You actually change these defaults, but the game recommends against it.
The Very Best?
Thanks to its well-integrated Pokemon hooks, Pokemon Unite does a better job than, say, Heroes of the Storm, of arguing the merits of a kinder, simpler MOBA. You don’t need to know what “ganking” means to have fun pulling off an awesome Pikachu play. You may hit a wall, either from the free-to-play mechanics or your own desire to graduate to something more substantial, but there’s no better play to begin your journey toward MOBA mastery.
For more on Pokemon Unite, check out 7 Cool Pokemon Unite Tips for Mastering the MOBA Action. For more in-depth video game talk, visit PCMag’s Pop-Off YouTube channel.