It’s been about a month now since Pokémon UNITE hit the Switch, with the mobile release coming up in September, and it’s about time I gathered my thoughts on the title. Pokémon’s take on the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (better known as MOBA) genre certainly has a lot going for it, with hundreds of Pokémon to choose from for potential playable candidates which makes the whole thing very appealing. But through all that, some major problems occur which can make or break the experience with alarming regularity. Join us after the break as we discuss some issues and ways to potentially address them.

For those who haven’t been playing the game, UNITE follows a 5v5 team battle structure in an arena split into two sides, one for each team. Each side has a number of goals which one team needs to defend and the opposite team needs to score in. Each goal can be destroyed after a certain number of points, except for the final goal by each team’s base. Earning points is done by defeating wild Pokémon or knocking out an opposing player and taking some, or all, of their points. The points you currently hold onto will be used up with every goal, accumulating to the total score for your team. The team with the highest total score at the end wins, naturally. So with the core premise explained, let’s move onto the concerns.

I think I should first preface that despite my irks, TiMi have been listening to feedback and have already addressed one concern I had originally taken note of. There is a weekly cap on Aeos Coins you can earn from playing matches, 2,100 to be specific, and it was unclear how far away you were from that cap or when it resets. In a recent update, they actually added a progress notification when you finish a match, showing how much you’ve earned and what remains. While I think the cap is a bit low, especially for very frequent players, being able to actually see it is a major plus now.

But onto my actual concerns. I believe they fall into a couple categories, balancing and money. Actually, they’re one and the same in one degree, as money does actually affect the balancing. That’s right, UNITE is a pay to win kind of game, and it really does not need to be. Being able to pay for a boosted amount of Aeos Tickets through the battle pass means that you can just dump them all into Item Enhancers, which can power up Held Items for boosted stats. Someone who paid their way to max level items has a significant advantage over players doing it legit.

So what can be done to mitigate this? Well, matchmaking should really take into account the level of these held items. Someone who legitimately earned their way to max level items shouldn’t really be punished alongside pay-to-winners, but if they’re matched with each other then it creates an even playing field, where actual skill would determine who wins or loses. This also makes it fairer on newer players, as they will also match into newbies and not some juggernaut, max item level Lucario that can crush them in one strike. Alongside this, I feel held items should be banned from quickplay, as matches are fast enough even without them, they just ruin the fun considering they really do lead to absolute sweeps. Ranked mode should also consider fixed item levels for a guaranteed even match, but with the matchmaking suggestion above, that might not be necessary.

Outside of this, paying your hard earned cash effectively only grants you cosmetics and access to Pokémon licenses quicker than just grinding it out for coins. If you don’t have the time to play and want to use your favourite Pokémon, I won’t really begrudge you for it. Likewise for the Holowear costumes for the Pokémon, as they’re not that expensive in some cases.

But for actual balance concerns, I still feel the game has a few kinks to iron out. Nuisance moves, like Slowbro’s Telekinesis or Wigglytuff’s Sing, feel a bit too effective in the current meta. I am concerned they may get overly nerfed though, as TiMi have shown that they can be prone to that. The speedster buff a couple weeks ago absolutely shoved several hard hitting but frail attackers, like Gardevoir, down a significant notch, making them extremely risky picks now.

Some Pokémon are a bit too powerful from the onset, like Pikachu and Lucario, as they do not need to evolve mid-game. For those unaware, most Pokémon start as they base form and gain levels as the match progresses, evolving at certain thresholds. This mechanic is in play to encourage a game plan, as rushing in at the first opportunity is just asking to get stomped. Even with that, some Pokémon either evolve too fast or too slowly. Alolan Ninetales evolves from Vulpix at a mere level 4 (the max level is 15), which feels too quick. Likewise, Ralts evolves to Kirlia at level 6 and again to Gardevoir at level 10, which makes her incredibly frail for a majority of the match.

Zapdos is the major game-changer, granting the team that defeats it the ability to score goals without a wait-time. Not only that, but scores are doubled anyway near the end of a game, leading to serious upsets to games where it’s defeated. As a result, it only appears in the last two minutes of a match and is also pretty difficult to defeat unless it’s a team effort. The only problem is that it can be sniped far too easily by the opposing team, as they can wait for the other side to do all the work and then swoop in to finish it off. This can instantly become a way for the winning team to keep on winning, rather than allowing the losers a chance of a comeback. I feel that Zapdos shouldn’t have a shared health bar, but individual ones for each team. Whoever defeats it first gets to claim it.

Another concern of mine is the respawn times, which are a blanket time that increases as the match draws a conclusion. Unfortunately, it just means that the losers can sit and watch as they wait 20-30 seconds while the opposition swoops in to score, uncontested. Respawn times like this should be based on the individual, as a player who’s scored lots and KO’d plenty in one life should have a longer wait time than someone who is the opposite. This way, if a monster of a player is sweeping through, they can at least be contested by weaker players instead of just scoring 100 point goals without consequence.

Idlers suck too. This is an ongoing problem in any multiplayer game, but the punishment for idling is negligible at best unless they get hit by someone reporting them. That being said, what is the alternative if you just don’t want to continue a game? A surrender option does exist, but everyone else on your team has to vote and then the majority determines if you surrender or not. But everyone still has to vote, otherwise it gets ignored. If you really do want to leave a game outright, you have to force a disconnect, there is no option to actually leave a game (even when a DC happens, the player gets replaced by a bot anyway, so what’s the harm in having a manual leave option?) Of course, repeatedly leaving games should get you penalised, as it then becomes rank drop evasion, but if you just do it once for an utterly abysmal game there should be no penalty.

As pointed out above, the pay-to-win aspects are really bad, but the wallet habits don’t end there. UNITE engages in exceptionally predatory practises with its microtransactions, a first for both Nintendo and The Pokémon Company (neither of which are strangers to gachas at this stage). For starters, they boast a first time bonus on the gems you can purchase, doubling the amount you receive. But this only counts once, so to properly maximise the gems you get, you might as well buy the most expensive one, right? 

Not only that, but the fact that you convert real cash into gems then obfuscates the actual value of the goods available to buy, especially seeing as you can compare the gem values to two different sub-currencies with different rates between them. Of course, any sensible adult will be able to see past this and manage their cash according to their own sense of value, but it’s a major problem for the vast number of children playing the game and encourages extremely poor spending habits. I’m also very disappointed by the direct 1 to 1 exchange rate for gem costs between the US and UK, as the $20 pack comes to £20, which is actually closer to $27 in value. Obscene.

Despite my misgivings, the actual game itself is very fun, though haphazard thanks to the balancing I’ve discussed. Any further complaints amount to mere nitpicks which, while it would be nice to see them adjusted, they’re not major enough to warrant talking about. Many aspects really drag down what is an otherwise good game though, so if anything I’ve mentioned sounds like something you don’t want to deal with, it may not be worth the time. That said, it is entirely free to open up and play with no necessary obligations to open up your wallet, just keep in mind that it really does pressure you into spending by design. Give it a go if you’re curious, but my recommendation is to stay far, far away from the gem menu and determine for yourself if you’re up to the grind or not.

Long time fan of Nintendo and games in general, I always lean on the quirkier and unique sides of things in particular. It all started when I was lucky enough to get a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow for my tenth birthday and it’s been going strong ever since. I’ve always had a need to get my voice heard and share anything I find interesting with the world.