Pokemon Unite is a barnstormer from the start.
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The world of Pokemon has been applied to many genres of video games, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that only a handful of them have been runaway successes. There are, of course, the original turn-based RPGs. There’s the photography simulation of Snap and the augmented reality adventures of Pokemon Go.
These aren’t just achievements, they’re also milestone titles in most cases – but for every game like this there’s something that’s kind of in order – puzzles, combat and a lot of mobile money spinners. To be honest, that’s how I imagined Unite to be – a good idea that would make for a fine, if somewhat tepid, spin-off. Not quite a Pokemon game and not quite a MOBA, just a somewhat boring combination of the two.
But, you know what? Pokemon Unite could be another defining moment of this series. It might be the most important Pokemon game since Go.
The idea for Unite is hardly the greatest Blitz genius. In fact, it’s obvious: games like League of Legends and DOTA 2 are absolutely huge, so why not customize them with some of the most popular characters in games? These types of games require a diverse cast of characters with very different and interesting abilities – and Pokémon has these in abundance. It just makes sense.
However, this is not a guarantee of success. The MOBA genre is complicated and often confusing and difficult for newcomers to understand. A franchise like Pokemon is sure to bring in a lot of newbies as well as younger or casual gamers – and this game needs to be comfortable to play on touchscreen devices. Unite passes with flying colors on all of these fronts.
The smart design continues by not following the traditional structure of the genre. One thematic difference is that you don’t focus on destroying the opponent’s base, but rather collecting points. An overflow of points can remove certain base elements, meaning the overall effect is the same – but the absolute numbers you need to put into the goal to progress are inherently easier to understand. This fits the game’s setting in the Pokemon universe, where Unite is the popular sporting event of a far-flung region. This also fits in with one of the best changes – a hard ten-minute time limit that means games can’t spiral or sink into a stone-walled stalemate. In fact, matches are hectic and intense, often ending long before the timer runs out.
In some ways, it’s hard to believe how well-suited Pokemon feels to this genre. Of course, the various non-player creatures you can encounter around the map and battle to gain an advantage are simply wild Pokémon, and of course more and more powerful variants appear as the game progresses. That’s just traces. The power spike as your character levels up and becomes more powerful over the course of a game feels entirely natural to the franchise, and the thrill of seeing a Pokémon evolve into its next form in the heat of battle is just… look , it’s good, okay?
All of this revolves around the overall feel of the game, but it also feels pretty good to play. I’m a person who has always appreciated the challenge and fun in the delicate ballet of chaos that is MOBA action – to a degree that suits my RTS-loving nature – but at the same time I’ve always struggled with it , as a player to actually get into the genre and enjoy it. Not so with Unite; It’s well-streamlined, tucked, and hidden in all the right places for excellent accessibility.
Co-developer TiMi knows what he’s doing and has a solid track record of creating huge mobile games. This makes Unite offer pretty aggressive monetization – probably the one dark cloud hanging over the game. None of this is pay-to-win stuff – it’s mostly cosmetic and with plenty of chances to make enough money to buy things for free – but it’s still eagerly dangling in front of you to get you to open your wallet .
Some of this has a sinister undertone, such as how you can unlock costumes for Pokemon you don’t even own, tricking you into spending money to unlock that Pokemon in order to use the costume. All they know is that psychologists are working on it and finding the best ways to “encourage” – that is, manipulate – users to spend more. This makes me uneasy, just like some of the ridiculous monetizations Niantic has used in Pokemon Go. This is less than ideal. But the core game is at least free and will soon be available on mobile with cross-platform progression.
As easy as it is to jump into a quick game, I see danger in that. I can see myself playing it on the sofa, in Switch handheld mode, with a trashy TV in the background. I can see myself playing it on mobile. I can see myself becoming competitive in ranked modes. I can imagine spending money. Danger! Danger!
…and yet the game is good. There’s a lot to love. And that’s exactly what happened to me with Pokemon Go and Genshin Impact, two other well-designed free-to-play games with cheeky but not quite above-average monetization. Could it be that Pokemon actually did it again? I dare say The Pokemon Company has another mobile sales chart topper on its hands. Maybe sometimes the obvious ideas are the best.