Pokemon Unite is Nintendo’s first jump into the MOBA genre. Despite some setbacks when it was announced, the free-to-play multiplayer by TiMi Studios is surprisingly addicting and the best Pokemon has been in years.
When Pokemon Unite was announced in June 2020, the surprise project was initially met with backlash from fans who had expected a Diamond & Pearl remake to be revealed instead. The debut trailer quickly gained over 100k dislikes in just under a day. So the hill for TiMi Studios to climb to get players enthusiastic about the free-to-play title was steep, to say the least.
Despite the rocky start to its unveiling, the Chinese studio has succeeded in making a MOBA title that will please even longtime fans of the Pokemon franchise. Unite is not only incredibly fun and rewarding, but it’s also easily one of Nintendo’s most enjoyable party multiplayers since Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released in 2008.
Pokemon Unite – Key details
- Price: Free-to-play
- Developer: TiMi Studio Group
- Release date: July 21, 2021 (Nintendo Switch) / September 2021 (iOS / Android)
- Platform: Nintendo Switch
Pokemon Unite trailer
While Unite is always centered around the MOBA framework, the genre is actually a perfect and natural fit for the Pokemon franchise. Trainers will feel right at home, defeating wild ‘mon across the map to evolve their character. The race to have your Pokemon earn its new and more powerful abilities before your opponents do adds a thrilling sense of excitement that has been missing from the mainline games.
For years, fans have been begging Game Freak to take larger leaps with the battle mechanics in long-running RPG series. While Legends: Arceus releasing in 2022 looks to do just that, Unite has given us our first glimpse of what is possible with the series’ incredible cast of characters. Iconic moves such as Volt Tackle and Close Combat come to life with unique animations and the ability to be used strategically.
It all comes together when players eventually clash on the map. Trainers are able to work together to use each of their ‘mon’s strengths to try to tip the battle in their favor. And there are losses. While it might seem strange to celebrate losing, it’s actually refreshing to play a Pokemon title where you aren’t guaranteed to win every battle by simply pressing a single button over and over again. When you win against an opponent, it feels earned – and this is where Pokemon’s formula finally gets to shine again. This is the best the series has played in a long time.
Accessible yet challenging for hardcore players
One of the biggest struggles the franchise has faced eight generations on is finding the right balance of appealing to both a younger audience and the adult fans who have been playing since Red & Blue. TiMi Studios has nailed it by creating a MOBA that is immediately inviting to all ages with its streamlined controls and charming interface, while also having a deep system to satisfy seasoned Trainers.
Casual players can ease into the experience with a pretty substantial practice mode that lets you play any character in the game – even if you don’t own them. This allows you to learn the ins and outs of the team-based fighter at your own pace without the stress of getting dunked on by more experienced users.
Unlike the Game Freak RPGs, however, Unite can be extremely challenging. Those that really want to dive into the game’s deeper meta can unlock one of the 16 Held Items which boosts characters’ stats in battle. The carried addons can even be upgraded further. Depending on the item, it can drastically change the way you play the game, and there are an incredible amount of combinations for users to try out.
Incredible customization options
From the very start, the team-based multiplayer offers a ton of customizable options. After creating a Trainer, players can unlock a wealth of clothing items and hairstyles for their in-game avatar. The MOBA has gone to great lengths to really allow Pokemon fans to take ownership of their character. And some of the clothes are absolutely adorable, such as the Snorlax outfit available in the game’s Aeos Emporium store.
Similar to other games such as Fortnite or Call of Duty: Warzone, Unite has its own version of skins called Holowear. Just like Dynamaxing from Sword & Shield, the digital clothing is a projection on top of the ‘mon. Whether it’s the ridiculous snorkeling vacation Garchomp or the swashbuckling Cinderace Pirate outfit, Pokemon cosplay has never been more ridiculous, which is perfect.
A MOBA that is continuously engaging & rewarding
TiMi Studios has created a robust game where rewards can be unlocked at every turn. The Battle Pass, for instance, has over 90s levels and is free. While the paid Premium version is substantially better, the free version offers players a ton of clothing items for their avatar as well as tickets and items to level up their characters’ stats. This constantly incentivizes Trainers to play just one more match so they can level up their Held Items.
The free-to-play title also has timed, daily, and special events which reward currency that can be spent in the game’s stores. All of this feeds into an addicting loop that is backed by gameplay that is insanely fun. Fans of the series will spend hours alone trying out various strategies from the items they have unlocked simply by just playing.
As if that wasn’t enough, the multiplayer rewards you each time you complete a match (win or lose) with energy, which can eventually be used to spin the lootbox mechanic called Energy Rewards. While the feature can only be used 30 times a day, it’s just another example of all the rewards the game gives out to make you feel like you are always progressing.
A great selection of Pokemon that feel different from the rest
Unite launches with 20 Pokemon to play as, and the iconic characters are the star of the show. I mean, how could they not be? But what really stood out to me in my hours of gameplay was just how different each ‘mon feels from the other. Despite there only being five team roles: Attacker, All-Rounder, Defender, Speedster, and Support, every character plays drastically different. For example, while Sinnoh’s Garchomp is a heavy tank that dives into action with its fierce Dragon Claws, Galar’s Eldegoss coats itself and opponents in cotton to absorb damage from enemies.
While also small, series mascot Pikachu absolutely tears through enemies with its fierce attacks, before zipping away in the blink of the eye. And when a certain ‘mon really clicks with you, it’s truly a rewarding experience. Because the characters are so fundamentally different in how they play, it’s not a bummer when a teammate with a faster internet connection than you picks the Pokemon you wanted. It’s so much fun playing other roles and experiencing the map in a different way.
Like the mainline RPGs, Unite gives players a free Starter Pokemon from a pick of five. While you may want another character, the game gives you a good selection that it’s hard not to be satisfied with. What’s more, those who keep playing will be given another five characters for free which include Slowbro, Cinderace, Snorlax, Venusaur, Alolan Ninetales, Crustle, and Greninja just for leveling up your Trainer level or through daily login rewards. With over 900 Pokemon in the series, we can’t even imagine how epic the game will be once Mewtwo or other favorites (come on, Sylveon) eventually get added to the game.
Microtransactions and paywalls are its biggest flaws
Pokemon Unite is full of microtransactions, and Holowear skins are pretty expensive. Even more outrageous is the cost of certain Trainer clothing items. The game’s biggest flaw by far, though, is that you don’t get access to all the Pokemon at the start as each character is locked behind a “license” that you must obtain. Unless you are willing to shell out real money to just buy a ‘mon you want, so much of the game’s magic is limited to new players.
While I do think the MOBA gives fans a diverse selection of characters out the gate, it’s such a shame that many will miss out on the bulk of the game’s fighters until they eventually unlock them. While it’s true everything can be “earned” by playing the game, realistically it will take an absurd amount of time before you are naturally able to purchase a license for free. It’s also concerning in the long run that Held Items (which can boost stats) can be cheesed by players willing to drop money.
All of that said, this is a free game. And I think all of these flaws have to be looked through that lens. Given how incredible Unite actually plays and just how many systems are actually in place to give users rewards for free, most of the negatives can be overlooked. If anything, it’s just a sign of how good the game is, that the biggest flaw is that people should have access to more of it.
Just as Pokemon introduced a new generation of players to the RPG genre, Pokemon Unite will bring a new worldwide audience to the MOBA space. The Nintendo Switch multiplayer strikes a perfect balance of being charmingly accessible while also challenging.
Most important of all, it has breathed new life into a beloved franchise that has desperately needed a new perspective. TiMi Studios has not only exceeded expectations with this project, but they have given fans what they have been wanting for years by bringing the Game Freak series’ battles to life with a fresh new spin.