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First Impressions: Pokémon UNITE - Fabulously frenetic

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If you haven’t been following much (or really, any) Pokémon news of late, Pokémon UNITE is a new Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game brought to us by Tencent, currently available on Switch and, come September, iOS and Android devices - crucially, it’s also free to download and play.

The nature of a Free to Play (FtP) game, with constantly evolving features and varying levels of content depending on what you’re prepared to pay, makes it difficult to provide a conventional, comprehensive review of Pokémon UNITE, so instead we’re going to share our first impressions on the title. Later down the line we’ll be checking in to see how the health of the game is holding up, how well new content has been received and whether or not the balance between free and paid content feels egregious - many FtP games have boasted a strong start, only to be later hobbled by irritating economies.

The setup for a Pokémon UNITE match is appealingly simple; two sides of five Pokémon each navigate a balanced map, racking up points and experience by knocking out the wild Pokémon that inhabit it, and scoring in the goals of the opponent (which also serve as healing stations for the respective teams). Points can also be obtained by taking the fight directly to the opposing battlers, and each fighter has a variety of moves with which to do so - some inflict direct damage, others induce status effects, some provide healing and so on. Curveballs can be thrown by the appearance of powerful wild species that can provide outright game-winning benefits when defeated. Typical matches last ten minutes, with a five-minute ‘quick match’ option also available.

After a few matches, it begins to dawn that there’s a whole host of tactical considerations tucked into this innocuously simple setup - does one try to reap big rewards from taking on the opponent directly, or quietly ‘farm’ the wild Pokémon that appear? Is it better to take the time to try and score a lot of points in one go and risk being disrupted by an attack, or should you make multiple small trips to the goal areas? Should you try to pick moves that enable a hybrid playstyle, or double-down on one particular trick? The list goes on; does a wide geographical spread of players exploit gaps in the opposing lines or is it too vulnerable to being picked off? Is the opportunity cost of going after Rotom, Dreadnaw or Zapdos offset by the benefits that come with defeating these opponents? The answers to these questions will constantly shift in the heat of the moment, making for a very satisfying learning curve.

As with every Pokémon game the titular monsters are the stars of the show, and the starting roster feels mostly visually well-balanced. The inclusion of favourites such as Pikachu, Lucario and Gengar was as inevitable as the tides but we’d have placed very little money on the appearance of less mainstream species such as Wigglytuff and outright oddballs such as Cramorant. The Bulbagarden Staff and contributors on the forums and social media so far seem to have found a pleasingly wide range of playstyles to fit their tastes. Your Truly found melee classes difficult to use given their inability to effectively retreat and instead prefers ranged and support picks, such as Slowbro, Venusaur and especially Eldegoss - but so far there’s been little sense that any one Pokémon is overwhelmingly powerful compared to the rest of the roster. The extremely wide range of anecdotal evidence as to which fighters may be overpowering suggests that the balance is actually in a very strong position; thus far it feels as though match wins go to the most coordinated team just about every time.

The experience is also seemingly bereft of the connection issues that plague online multiplayer games at launch. The author never encountered a single instance of lag, and match-making was perfectly smooth and quick; the lack of reports to the contrary suggests that this is the case for most if not almost all of the playerbase. Thus, it’s incredibly easy to repeatedly dive into match after match, with frustrating losses forgotten in the adrenaline rush of an early sprint to the front lines. All this is to say that UNITE’s core gameplay is excellent, and on that basis it comes with a very strong recommendation given that it’s entirely free to access the frenetic meat of this experience.

However, the game is not without some secondary niggles. The way Pokémon UNITE presents important information is nothing short of abominable - the main menu screen is a cluttered mess of challenges, events, battle passes and other sundries and though the core gameplay itself is highly intuitive, the Pokémon's supposed stats and combat roles sometimes bear little relation to reality and have no real explanation. Equally obscure are some of the in-match mobility options, including springboards (one of which is bewilderingly clunky to actually use) and an option to return home to base when a last line of defence is required. Movement speeds can also feel frustratingly turgid at times, though this does help emphasise the importance of clever positioning, as mistakes take time to rectify.

As with all FtP games, the conversation must inevitably turn to the topic of monetisation. UNITE is presently in a curious place in this respect, as while the game’s microtransactions can currently unlock only relatively minor in-game benefits that are ultimately accessible through free play (in other words, the game is not ‘pay to win’), it is clear that every second spent outside of battle is constructed from the ground-up to nickel-and-dime the player. While many ‘freemium’ economies boast two currencies, UNITE has three, along with several other similar mechanics - one-off tickets, energy, item enhancers and the like. In a typical paid title this would simply come across as poor design, but in a FtP game it’s hard not to wonder if confusion is the deliberate intent, with the ultimate aim of bamboozling the player into the simplest option and forking out.

All this said, however irritating the sense that the game is poised to strike into the players’ wallets at any time, the cart has not been put before the horse; Pokémon UNITE is an great FtP game that, for now, has no real cost barrier to full enjoyment of a highly tactical experience. We strongly advise picking it up and diving in - at worst, you’ll lose twenty minutes of your time, and at best, you’ll lose hours.


Forums Administrator and Bulbanews Writer
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