A level of greed that would make Meowth blush
Before reading this review, it’s important to understand that I would literally buy anything with a Pokémon on it. My office is littered with figures, plush and many, many bits of cardboard all in celebration of Pokémon. If it wouldn’t cause serious damage to my relationship, I’d have probably bought that life-size Psyduck. As such, Pokémon being slapped on just about any game is enough for me to try it. Pokémon Cafe, Pokémon Master’s EX, Pokémon GO – I’ve probably paid for Junichi Masuda’s third house purely based on the microtransactions I’ve already made across these titles.
Pokémon Unite is a MOBA, which if you’re unaware stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Think DOTA 2 or League of Legends. Five Pokémon on each team must battle AI creatures on the field in order to collect points, these are then deposited in the opposing team’s goals which are dotted around the arena. The aim is to stop your opponent from depositing their points into your goals. Where Pokémon Unite excels is in its simplicity, the realm of MOBA has always been that of RGB keyboards and enough actions per second to make your wrist crumble into a fine paste. Pokémon Unite, as a Nintendo Switch game, has had to adapt the MOBA standards such as abilities, items, and communication onto the Switch controller, and in almost all of that, it thrives.
Your attacks are split across the A button, and the triggers. Every match you’ll begin at level 1, and as you kill the low level Pokémon on the field, you’ll level up and learn new moves. If you’re a Pokémon that can evolve, such as Charizard, you’ll begin the game as Charmander, evolving into your stage one and two forms at level five and 10 respectively, however other Pokémon evolve much quicker. Curiously, Lucario and Snorlax start the match as their evolved form, as opposed to Riolu and Munchlax. This could be due to them being classed as baby Pokémon, but it’s just one of many things that make the game come across like it’s a decent MOBA, elevated by its Pokémon skin.
Standard, quick and ranked battles make up the offering at launch. Playing with friends is very simple, especially for Nintendo. However, if you do match up with friends, prepare for the easiest games of your life. Due to the game being free-to-play and attached to the single biggest property in entertainment history, most matches you’ll jump into, even ranked ones, are unorganised chaos. There is a very limited communication system, but no one bothers to notice it. If you can even establish a slight bit of teamwork, you’ll more often than not establish such a great lead that the other team will forfeit.
The roster of Pokémon at launch includes some staples like Pikachu, Charizard and Venusaur, each with their own strength, weaknesses, and roles in a team set up. There are 20 Pokémon to choose from, however, when you begin the game, you can only play as a few of them. Others are locked behind Unite Licenses, which can be purchased for a large amount of in-game currency, or, and this is what you’ve been waiting for, real money. The most expensive of the bunch, Pokémon like Garchomp and Gengar, cost around £10 each. This is only the beginning of Pokémon Unite’s microtransaction offering.
There’s also the Aeos Emporium which sells clothes for your trainer, these include things like a Snorlax hoodie, something I’d love in real life if anyone’s feeling generous. Decking out your trainer is cool in theory, especially since it’s the main thing you see on the menu, however in-game there are very few opportunities to stunt on people. It feels like the pre-match animation should include your trainer throwing out a Pokéball, or some other avenue for you to show off your big Cramorant hat.
But don’t worry, it’s not only the trainers that get to dress up. In a stroke of evil genius that will eventually shake so much money out of me that I’ll need to sell my flat, Zirco Trading is a shop that lets you dress up your Pokémon. Do you want your Mr. Mime to dress up like a magician? Well, of course you do, you’re only human. That’ll be £20 please. No, don’t try and rub your screen, you read that correctly. The game wants £20 for you to be able to dress up your Mr. Mime. That’s not including the character by the way, you’ll need to buy him separately. For £20 you could buy five packs of Pokémon cards. That’s half the price of Pokémon Sword and Shield. Yes, there are cheaper costumes, but for them to so boldly come out of the gate with a £20 skin is just… depressing. You know what’s worth? I’ve seen loads of people wearing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game made its money back in about 15 minutes.
Somehow, this isn’t the biggest problem with the game’s in-game purchases. Pokémon Unite lets you buy items that will give you an advantage in battle. It is literally pay-to-win. There are items that’ll let you recover health, do more damage or increase your stats. These aren’t one and done items either. These are held items that’ll persist through games. At trainer level 9 you can even upgrade these items, meaning there’s a bottomless power pit for you to throw your money down. This is the real issue with the game. The skins, yeah they’re stupidly expensive, but that’s all games now. The ability to pay for something that will give you an advantage is just… sleazy. There’s also a Battle Pass that you can buy for £10. It’s got the lot. If there’s a way to monetize this game, they’ve thought of it.
There’s something about it being Pokémon that just rubs me the wrong way. There will be so many kids that play this game and have no idea why they’re being beaten into the dirt by folk in their 20s that have spent money to upgrade their Pokémon. There really needs to be a no items mode or something similar because otherwise it’s going to become completely unplayable to those of us who can’t afford to take out a bank loan to support our Pokémon Unite habit.
It’s a shame, because Pokémon Unite is the most fun I’ve had with a MOBA. It’s simple, incredibly readable, and the matches are the perfect length to not lose interest or not feel yourself stuck at your computer for a day. A huge part of how much I like it is down to the Pokémon. That’s my sickness. If you’re not into Pokémon, it probably won’t hook you like it did me (I bought the Battle Pass after my first game), but what’s there is still a very enjoyable MOBA, with some very seedy hooks.
Put a cool Charizard costume in the game and I’ll buy it on sight.