We’ve seen Pokémon games and apps of many different stripes and colors pop up over the last few years. And now, Pokémon Unite lets you take your favorite Poké into the multiplayer battle online arena (MOBA) for a bit of team fun. It’s free to download on your Nintendo Switch (and available in September for smartphones).
So, what exactly is a MOBA game? Well, it’s essentially a video game where two teams of players gather online and compete against each other on a predefined battlefield. In this case you’ve got two teams of five players—each repping with a different Pokémon.
The setting is simple. It seems the Aeos Research Institute is interested in studying a mysterious power source known as Aeos Energy, and the best way to do that is by pitting trainers against one another in a spacious, well-designed arena on the island of Aeos.
But this competition doesn’t involve catching those exotic energy-filled Pokémon creatures (as Pokémon games normally do) or pulling triggers. The ultimate objective of the game is to score Aeos Energy points. And it kinda works out like a short multilayered game of Pokémon basketball, played with a time clock.
When your chosen Pokémon defeats wild Poké that are scattered throughout the arena, it gains an amount of Aeos energy that can be scored for points at one of several goals on the opponent’s side of the map. However, if your guy is beaten by opponents before scoring his points, those points will be dropped, and nearby players can collect them for themselves.
From there it all plays out as a game of offense and defense as the preset clock ticks away. You decide whether to guard your goals or use your various attack moves to gather energy and then score.
That, however, isn’t the only action at play here. Along with the generic wild Pokémon, special Poké types appear on the map from time to time, too. If a team defeats those beasties, it is rewarded with a temporary advantage that can range from protective shields to faster scoring speeds. And there’s always a very large and advanced Pokémon that pops up near the end of the round offering a key to late-match victory, but these strong creatures generally require virtually your entire team to defeat them.
Another game element of Pokémon Unite is the equipment that your avatar can wear into battle. Useable elements such as healing potions and armor (that run on a cool-down after use) can provide short-term boosts in the heat of battle. Equipment can also be leveled up to increase its durability and potency.
The fact that the game is generally played in short five- or ten-minute rounds is definitely a plus. That allows gamers, young and old, to play in short fun bursts and doesn’t require that anyone plug in for hours at a time.
One advantage of sticking around and playing for a while, however, is the fact that as you defeat wild Pokémon, your Poké will eventually level up and “evolve” into some new upgraded moves that pack a bigger punch. And as you win and gain access to more Pokémon (such as Pikachu, Cinderace, Snorlax, Talonflame, Eldegoss, Charizard, etc.), you can apply several different playstyles (melee, ranged attack, speed, healing support, etc.) to the creature matches you play.
Though the Poké creatures shoot blasts, zaps and gushes of fire at one another, there is no violent mess or trigger-pulling death in the mix. Instead, your characters’ hit-point meter decreases with repeated attacks from others, and when depleted, the character is knocked out and leaves the field for a few seconds before then reappearing back at your home goal.
Of course, the fact that the game is free is another plus that gamers will cheer, but that opens the door to a possible downside …
Like many free MOBA games of this type, the gamemakers make money from in-game microtransactions. Players can exchange real money for gems and currency to purchase new cosmetic looks, various upgrades, better equipment and even new characters. But almost all of those things can be “bought” for free—that is, purchased with in-game currency earned within the matches themselves. It’s just that gaining lofty goals in that battle-and-upgrade path takes much longer.
Of course, another element about this game that some parents may be wary of is the fact that all players must be connected online to play and there will inevitably be strangers in the 5v5 team mix. (But in-game communication isn’t required.)
Of all the MOBA games out there, Pokémon Unite is a solid entry that can fit well in the family room without any rough edges, involuntary winces or shocked gasps. And, hey, there are Pokémon!
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.