I didn't expect to love Pokemon Unite, but here I am - some two weeks after the game's free-to-play launch on Nintendo Switch - specifically carving out time in my day to fit in a Quick Battle here, a Ranked Battle there, or ticking off the selection of daily quests the game gives me.
It's not surprising that I love a Pokemon game (anyone who knows me will assure you I'm a Pokemon stan through and through), but it's rare for any Pokemon game beyond the core series to really stick - either with me, or the wider Pokemon community. Pokemon Go, the augmented reality mobile game from Niantic, and Pokemon Snap, the photography spin-off, are pretty much the only two in recent history to become breakout successes. Although if they brought back Pokemon Colosseum I'd wager that would be another.
Pokemon Unite has the potential to be another one of those success anomalies. The fact I'm still playing it, and I never fail to find a full squad to play with online, suggests that it's doing rather well so far. And that's partly down to what Game Freak and co-developer TiMi have done to put their own spin on the MOBA genre. There's definitely no escaping the fact that this is a MOBA through and through - a genre I usually completely bounce off, no matter which game or how hard I try - but it does have some unique qualities that make it a little easier and more inclusive initially than something like League of Legends or DOTA 2.
Gotta battle 'em all
Pokemon is a surprisingly good fit for a MOBA. It already has a cast of characters with unique skillsets and abilities that map rather nicely onto your traditional MOBA heroes. There are currently 20 or so Pokemon available to use in Pokemon Unite, which are obtained through completing challenges or bought using in-game currency. Like a traditional MOBA, you can only have one of each Pokemon per team - so no Pikachu spamming, for example. It's weirdly made me appreciate the Pokemon I'd never normally use in the core series. I'm a Fire-type girl usually, but in Unite I'm maining Venusaur, and dabbling with Gardevoir, Greninja, and Zeraora as seconds.
It helps that the focus isn't really on traditional Pokemon battles, which rely on knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each Pokemon and their attacks. Instead, here it's about knowing where your Pokemon fits in the MOBA structure. Are they attackers or defenders? Slow or speedster? Melee or ranged? Experimenting is encouraged and finding a small selection of Pokemon that fits with how you like to play is just as satisfying as building your Elite Four takedown team in the classic series.
Pokemon Unite is also pretty much Baby's First MOBA, which is an enormous part of its appeal for me. You're still battling wild Pokemon and other players, but you're doing so to earn points, which you collect and try to score in enemy goals like a strange game of Pokemon Basketball - probably not one of those potential success stories outside of Unite. This goes against the usual MOBA focus of destroying enemy bases, but it does have the same vague goal. In the Standard Mode, each enemy base has a health bar of sorts, and scoring points chips away at that until the base in question is destroyed. It's really easy to understand, and yet still has enough complexity to build strategies and require constant teamwork.
Depending on whether you're playing a Quick, Ranked, or Standard match, round times are locked at five or 10 minutes, which gives each one a frantic, explosive feel, especially as the tide of success can flip so quickly if both teams are working well together. Little prompts like "It's a Close Battle", "You're in the Lead", or "We're Struggling", also give crystal clear indicators about how each match is going that help boost the energy too. Those time limits also mean it's a lot easier to make it part of my daily routine, because I know if I've got five minutes before work, I can play a Quick Match and earn some XP before I start my day. I just know it's going to be a terror on mobile for a Quick Match on the commute when it launches for Android and iOS later this year.
I also love how your Pokemon will literally level up as you play. Take a Pokemon like Venasaur from your roster, and you'll start off as a little bouncing Bulbasaur with a single move, and as you earn points (either by defeating or assisting a defeat), you'll level up, unlock new moves, and even evolve over the course of the match. You'll experience that progression of building up your Pokemon in the core series through its evolutions in every single match, and it's a bit magical to be quite honest.
Of course, it's not perfect. Although I've invested in the Battle Pass because I can't resist new clothes and the associated daily, weekly, and longer-tail challenges, I'm still not entirely sure how the progression there works. There are microtransaction and gacha mechanics, and they're just on the right side of the fence of being obtrusive. But it offers so much at the free level that I can see myself investing more in Pokemon Unite - just as I've done with Pokemon Go - because of how it handles its take on the MOBA genre.