The concept of a free-to-play Pokemon MOBA probably sounds like a dream come true to some people and a shameless cash grab to others. As a longtime fan of both Pokemon and Dota 2, I had my doubts about whether Pokemon Unite could successfully mix the best parts of these disparate gaming worlds, but my skepticism turned to delight after seeing how much fun this mobile brawler could actually be... at least for a little while. Unfortunately, Pokemon Unite only partially sticks the landing, resulting in an enjoyable casual MOBA with some dubious microtransactions and little interest in pushing the boundaries of the genre.
Pokemon Unite’s premise will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has so much as glanced at a MOBA in the last 10 years: two teams of five players, two symmetrical lanes littered with auto-defending towers, and a “jungle” full of neutral enemies filling the space in the middle and around the edges. Each player takes direct control of a single Pokemon from a decent roster of 21 (including favorites like Greninja and Garchomp) that gets stronger as the match goes on. You’ll clash along the lanes, killing your opponents and pushing toward enemy towers until one team has been driven back to their base, forced to watch helplessly as their towers fall.[widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="slug=pokemon-unite-all-playable-pokemon&captions=true"]
Except they don’t actually fall, in Unite’s case. Rather than ending with the spectacular destruction of the enemy’s base, Unite’s matches are on a 10-minute timer with the winning team being whichever squad scores the most points before the buzzer sounds. These points, called Aeos Energy, are collected by defeating the wild Pokemon that spawn around the map, then banked by dunking them Space Jam-style into the enemy team’s Goal Zones, which are Unite’s version of the towers that defend each lane. It’s a cute spin on the established genre mechanics, but the match timer and simplicity of these static objectives eventually left me feeling like I was replaying the same match over and over no matter what Pokemon I selected.
I quickly started to notice parallels between Unite and another MOBA that tried to make the genre more accessible: Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, which has been quietly plugging along since development was slowed in 2018. Both games have a similarly simplified take on character progression, with each of Unite’s Pokemon having access to just two activated skills during a match (in addition to two set passives and a slow-charging ultimate ability). Each activated skill can branch into one of two options as you level up, allowing you to lightly customize your playstyle mid-match. Take Cinderace, a speedy ranged attacker who, at level 8, can choose between Flame Charge, a damaging dash attack, or Feint, an evasive buff perfect for outplaying. This pared-down system makes your customization choices slim compared to games like League of Legends or Dota 2, but each Pokemon at least feels distinct from the others even within these strict confines, and I was able to find two or three Pokemon that fit my playstyle in just a few matches.
After an hour or two of playing, your Pokemon will gain access to three Held Item slots and a Battle Item that add some much needed pre-match depth to the strict A/B nature of leveling. You might take Leftovers, Shell Bell, and a Potion into battle to give yourself extra healing in a pinch, or X-Attack, Scope Lens, and Muscle Band to increase your Pokemon’s burst damage potential. There's even a helpful option to see what builds high level players are using. Pokemon are all slotted into different roles, such as Defender or All-Around, but with the right approach many can break out of their intended playstyle. For example, Held Items are impactful enough that the Support Pokemon Eldegoss can use its superior speed and healing skills to become a formidable fighter too, which is a rewarding level of flexibility to have if you are a player who likes to experiment with unique builds.
Once you find a Pokemon and build that works for you, the actual PVP combat is very satisfying. There are plenty of opportunities to outplay and outsmart your opponents using a combination of your skills, items, and the terrain itself. Escaping a sudden gank or wiping the enemy team with a well-placed ultimate is just as satisfying here as it is in any other MOBA (although the chance you are ruining a literal 10-year-old’s day seems much higher), and it's even more fun when you’re pulling those moves off with your friends using the lobby matchmaking system.
Thankfully Unite’s quick matches, small maps, and low cooldowns provide plenty of opportunities for glorious combat, but a good individual performance doesn’t always translate to overall success. The more Aeos energy you gather, the longer the animation takes to dunk it, which can be cancelled by taking any damage. It's frustrating to dominate your lane and build up a healthy supply of Aeos only to be locked out from scoring by the smallest attacks from the opposing team. Perhaps by design, Unite encourages you to move with your team, find your objective, then fight as a unit. This encourages good teamwork fundamentals, but also results in a noticeable lack of strategic variety – especially when the Ranked mode only has a single map. That feeds into my biggest complaint with Unite, and another issue it shares with Heroes of the Storm: map objectives are too powerful to ignore.[poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=Unite%26%2339%3Bs%20controls%20are%20impressively%20accessible%2C%20but%20its%20targeting%20can%20frustrate."]
In a game like Dota 2 there are many ways to win. The team you draft, your lane configurations, and even small decisions like where you place a ward create the story of the match. In Unite, too many games can simply come down to Zapdos, a powerful wild Pokemon that spawns in the middle of the map in the match’s final minutes. Whichever team lands the killing blow is given a massive amount of Aeos energy and the ability to score instantly for a short time. Paired with the decision to reward double points during the same time period, this advantage is too powerful to ignore, offering an insurmountable win for the leading team or an instant comeback for the trailing team with no time left on the clock for a response. Unite’s short match time alleviates some of that pain, but it still hurts to watch your hard-fought battle fall apart over one bad engagement.
Of course, this sort of last minute swing can happen in many multiplayer games, but what makes Unite uniquely frustrating in these high pressure moments is its sometimes unwieldy controls, which quite literally takes some of your control away. As of right now Unite can only be played with a controller on Switch, using an impressively slick scheme that undoubtedly makes it the easiest MOBA to quickly pick up I’ve ever played. Even the most inexperienced player should be able to understand the basics of moving, attacking, and using abilities thanks to the informative (and occasionally overbearing) user interface.[poilib element="poll" parameters="id=2a1abb3d-c9cd-4c9a-90fb-9a39ce267bf9"]
But the lack of a cursor means you rely on “smart” targeting, using a series of customizable options buried in the settings to decide how your character behaves. Even after tweaking those options, I noticed my Pokemon might choose to target the enemy tank instead of the escaping healer, or my skill reticle may snap to a nearby wild pokemon instead of the approaching ganker. In dire moments, like the aforementioned Zapdos fights, this unlucky targeting may be the factor that decides the entire game, leaving me wondering which option I needed to toggle to prevent future flukes.
Some of these complaints may be a little deep in the tall grass for a game that clearly hopes to be a beginner-friendly introduction to the genre – and based on the near instant queue times I have experienced so far, that angle seems to be doing a good job of drawing people in. (The online experience in general is incredibly smooth when using a wired connection, and even features the invaluable ability to reconnect after a dropped connection or rare game crash.) There are even less complex 3v3 and 4v4 Quick match modes that feature smaller maps and slimmed down objectives to really let the combat shine. But Unite’s over-dedication to simplicity can occasionally feel more obtuse than accessible.
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For example, you cannot see either team’s score during a match, so how close a game is largely remains a mystery until the end. There’s no indication of which attacks deal Physical or Special damage, and item descriptions can be similarly vague. And while the six in-game tutorials are enough to get you started, they don’t explain some of Unite’s own core concepts like lane assignments, jungling, or teleporting, leaving MOBA newcomers underprepared.
The disorder continues outside of matches as well due to Unite’s labyrinth of laggy menus, reward paths, and customization options. After spending way too long digging through your battle pass and daily rewards, you have to figure out how to spend your five different currencies at one of the three different in-game stores. A “Claim All” option for your quest rewards and a simplified storefront would do wonders for navigation, but Pokemon Unite is content to follow the industry norms rather than imagine ways they could be better.