Updated September 1, 2021
Multiplayer online battle arena games, or MOBAs, are very popular with a niche crowd. Games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends make tons of money every year, despite being free to play, thanks to their engaging gameplay loops and extremely steep learning curves. Gamers who love competition, team-based sports, and showing off their skills in a multiplayer setting often love MOBA games.
Pokemon Unite, a new game starring Nintendo’s extremely popular little creatures, is League of Legends with Pokemon. Depending upon your opinion of MOBAs, that might sound like the perfect blend of chocolate and peanut butter or the unholy combination of ketchup and ice cream. Reviewers are divided on the game, but generally agree that the core gameplay works. It’s the free-to-play concept and the execution of “pay to win” mechanics that have raised some eyebrows.
Let’s start with the good parts. Pokemon Unite lets you customize your creatures and give them various hats and such to make them stand out. These outfits are delightful but purely cosmetic. Other items are actually tied to your monsters’ stats and can offer a significant increase to your abilities, especially when you’re new to the game.
The core gameplay is downright fun. Zooming around the map as a flying Pokemon like Charizard or battling enemies as a massive Venosaur is a blast. For the uninformed, MOBA games consist of two teams of five players each facing off on a square map with three “lanes”, though in Unite’s case, the map is only broken into two lanes. In a normal MOBA, each of these lanes is dotted with “towers” which defend them against the ever-spawning “minions’ that populate the map and clash in the middle. In Unite, there are goals instead of towers, and there are no neutral minions in the lanes.
There are two bases on the map, one for each team, however, the same as a normal MOBA.
The teams in a regular MOBA are each trying to destroy the opposing team’s base. This is achieved by leveling up, in a manner similar to an RPG, though levels are reset between each match. In Unite, you’re not trying to destroy the enemy base, you’re trying to score more points by slam-dunking into your opponent’s goals. No, seriously! It’s as silly as it sounds.
Pokemon Unite isn’t perfect. It’s essentially a mobile game, despite being released on the Nintendo Switch eShop. The presentation, pay-to-win mechanics, and even the graphics smack of a game designed from the ground up for mobile phones. This is also felt in the game’s balance. While the gameplay is fun and punchy, it’s clearly not meant to be a deep or competitively balanced experience.
So, while there is a lot of fun to be had battling opponents and dressing up your monsters, the experience begins to feel shallow and grindy after a few hours. With any luck, the game’s developer, TiMi Studios, will make adjustments to the game’s balance to make it feel like a more robust arena game and not just an afternoon’s distraction.
The Bottom Line
Pokemon Unite is an interesting experiment that will keep you entertained for a few hours. If you’re the type of person who often falls for “freemium” games and will spend a lot of money on microtransactions, you might want to stay away from this title. Otherwise, you can squeeze a good bit of entertainment from this casual MOBA. For the low, low price of “free,” that’s a pretty good deal, even if the game’s execution is less than flawless.