‘Pokémon Unite’ is simple but appealing

The newest Pokémon spin off succeeds at a unique take on the MOBA formula

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The Pokémon Company

“Pokémon Unite” is a deviation from RPG titles to the MOBA genre. Photo courtesy of the Pokémon Company

Justin E Kim

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he Pokémon Company and TiMi Studios’ game “Pokémon Unite” released globally for mobile devices on Sept. 22, after originally debuting for the Nintendo Switch in July 2021. Unlike mainstream Pokémon games, which use a role playing game, or RPG model, “Pokémon Unite” falls into the multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA genre, inserting players into the tropical setting of Aeos Island as a Pokémon Trainer, who directs their Pokémon into competitions against other players.

To win a match, players must score points into enemy goals, with the winning team having the most at the end of the match. There are more intricate strategies and upgrades that become more significant as the game gauges your skill and matches are filled with better players, but the learning curve of “Pokémon Unite” gives the player the luxury to figure out play styles that fit them best.

The game’s greatest strength is its simplicity in design. Newcomers with no knowledge about the Pokémon franchise, MOBAs or even video games in general will not be punished for their lack of experience. “Pokémon Unite” takes the MOBA genre and breaks it down into the perfect balance, creating a substantially simpler, yet just as fulfilling gameplay as more complex MOBAs such as “League of Legends.”

Unlike other MOBAs, in which a single match can last for about an hour or even more, “Pokémon Unite” enforces a time limit on all games, with 10 minutes being a set maximum for standard matches. This feature makes games feel exhilaratingly short, offering alluring gameplay which makes every second feel significant. Match losses often feel hard-fought, and leave both an impression of invigoration and education.

Graphic by Justin Kim

“Pokémon Unite” also includes some of the magic that makes the franchise so popular, tying in some of the features of mainstream Pokémon titles into gameplay. A notable example is how popular Generation VI Pokémon Froakie will transform into second form Frogadier at level five, then finally Greninja at level seven. Pokémon evolve to reach their most powerful form in “Unite” by gaining experience points as they progress through a game, capturing the spark that makes Pokémon evolution so fulfilling in traditional Pokémon RPGs like “Pokémon X.”

In terms of design and quality, “Pokémon Unite” exceeds expectations. The user interface is striking with popping colors and a clean and modern layout. Pokémon and Trainers are rendered beautifully, and players are given an even larger variety of customization than the original Switch version to mix up their avatar’s outfits and Pokémon’s accessories, providing an incentive for stunning fashion as well as victory.

The Switch release of “Pokemon Unite” had a significant problem with microtransactions, as players could pay real money to upgrade their Pokémon’s items to the maximum, which created a “pay-to-win” bias in the game that discouraged players. However, this mobile release has eradicated the necessity to purchase item upgrade microtransactions by making item upgrades easier for players to obtain without money, putting the focus on having strong team coordination instead of monetization to succeed.

However, despite the game’s strengths, “Pokémon Unite” still has its flaws. It lacks a skill-based matchmaking pool, which means that those with experience are often on teams with completely new players, creating a frustrating and unfair disadvantage for experienced players whose level of success is decreased due to other players on their team. Microtransactions in other areas besides item upgrades are also still uncomfortably prevalent, though not as aggressive as they were in the Switch version.

Overall, “Pokémon Unite” is not a typical Pokémon game, but a step in a new direction that opens up the Pokémon franchise to a new audience and unique possibilities. Its newcomer-friendly combination of a simplistic and sporty take on a MOBA with the best aspects of mainstream Pokémon RPGs is a sweeping success despite its shortcomings, and lights the way for a bright future for the franchise.

Rating: 4/5