App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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If you asked me back in late 90s what my dream video game would be, I probably would've basically described Pokémon UNITE, a multiplayer game where individual players control Pokémon and battle against each other to score points in real time. Seeing it actually realized on mobile is really neat, and I'll probably never get over being able to slap around a Charizard as Snorlax, but Pokémon UNITE's more accessible take on the MOBA genre has just enough peculiar design decisions that will keep it as something I might play casually every so often at most as opposed to my next multiplayer obsession.
Pokémon UNITE reimagines the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) in a format that is somewhat simplified and built around relatively familiar sports mechanics. As with most MOBAs, it's still a 5v5 multiplayer game where opposing players can attack each other directly, farm AI mobs ("wild" Pokémon), and fight over objectives, but the ultimate goal of the game is to score more points than the other team.
To score, players need to kill wild Pokémon or opposing players to fill up what is essentially a point wallet. Any points stored there don't count toward your team's total unless you can deposit them in an enemy goal, which act as the stand-in for towers in most other MOBAs. The more points you bank up before scoring, the more points you'll actually score when you reach goal. The only catch to this is it takes longer to submit your points when you have more of them stored up. When the match timer expires, points are totaled up, and the team that scored the most wins.
When you first start playing Pokémon UNITE, you'll have access to a few monsters to play as, but by completing various different kinds of objectives on a daily basis you can grind out currency to unlock more. Each monster is also categorized into one of five roles, which suggests keeping a balanced team of diverse Pokémon is a key to victory. By and large, though, the most familiar faces of the franchise are unlocked for free and you can have a pretty good time picking your personal favorite to run around as. If the standard 10 minute match length is too much of a commitment, there are some shorter game modes with fewer player counts and modified rules that are fun for short bursts of play.
If you're interested in going deep on Pokémon UNITE, there is plenty to dig into. Each Pokémon has their own skill tree of moves, allowing you to tailor your moveset based on how the course of a match is going, and ahead of matches players can assign different held items to the Pokémon they play as. Each of these items give some stat bonuses and modifiers to characters, and they can be powered up and mixed and matched to help create custom "builds" for all your Pokémon. This is all on top of the mechanical play of controlling your monster effectively to optimize damage, stay safe in fights, and move in sync with your team to capture objectives.
It's when you start digging deeper into Pokémon UNITE that some issues start becoming apparent. Specifically, the item system in the game is more of a dubious engagement ploy than a desirable layer of balance in the way that these items can be "upgraded" using currency you have to grind out. While it's nice that there's no apparent way to just pay to upgrade your items all the way, this system creates a situation where players who play more often and prioritize grinding currency will almost always have an edge on those who don't.
It's decisions like this that end up making Pokémon UNITE not really feel like a Pokémon game. Well, that and the fact that the mix of elemental abilities doesn't matter at all here. I understand why that's the case, as it would limit team compositions severely, but the end result is a feeling like I'm playing a game with Pokémon props as opposed to the real deal. Make no mistake, it's still fun, but it doesn't quite feel as special as it should. Between that and some of its item decisions that affect balance, I'm just not sure this is a game that works unless you don't really play it seriously at all or decide to invest heavily into the item grind.
The bottom line
In Pokémon UNITE you can have thrilling fights playing in teams of some of the most iconic characters in video games. This is about as cool and good as it sounds, but it comes with tradeoffs that make some of its appeal ring hollow, and I can't help but feel like Pokémon deserves a little better than what it got with this game.