Each Pokémon Unite match synthesizes the essential aspects of Pokémon battling into something that, from afar, looks a lot like an unhinged game of basketball. Two teams of Pokémon face off as they try to knock each other out while also tossing glowing spheres into hoops on either side of an arena. When you first start playing, battles often feel chaotic to the point that there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to winning beyond button mashing and praying for critical hits. But as you continue Pokémon Unite and become more comfortable with its ever-growing roster of monsters from different Pokémon generations, it becomes much easier to see how the real key to winning matches is understanding your own teammates and how they see the game.
Unlike most Pokémon games that have been built around single-player narratives perfect for offline solo play, Unite is designed to pull you into its thriving online competitive space, where groups of three to five people are teamed up either at random or by seeking one another out with special codes. There are all sorts of little tweaks you can make to your individual monster in preparation for battle to make them stronger, like equipping them with stat-boosting items that strengthen their attacks. But as the game’s title suggests, it’s seldom that any one player can fully carry a match to victory on their own. No matter how much preparation you do by yourself, what tends to end up determining who wins and loses rounds is the degree to which teams communicate and coordinate to support one another while crushing their opponents.
Whether you’re using Unite’s randomized matchmaking system or working together with a group of friends, the game requires people to choose from a selection of playable monsters. In every match, each team can only have one instance of a particular Pokémon. Each creature has its relative strengths and weaknesses that factor into what sort of role it’s meant to play on a team, like attacker, defender, or all-rounders who can do a little bit of everything. The more you play Pokémon Unite, the more you realize that the game’s categorizations for different monsters are really suggestions more than hard rules, and every creature is capable of scoring points at its own pace.
Cinderaces—soccer-themed rabbit footballers from the Galar region—may have offensive power, but their speed and mobility can be used to lay defensive fire down in the heat of a battle. Tank-y Blastoises are designed to shield their teammates from attacks, but the Kantoian water type’s ability to summon massive waves to surf is surprisingly effective at overwhelming unsuspecting foes until they’ve drowned and been sent back to their base. You learn these things as you grind your way up through Pokémon Unite’s many ranks on the way to Master, all the while experiencing firsthand what sort of tricks other teams have developed in their quests to become the best.
By the time you learn empty, grassy chunks of the arena are almost always traps where the other team is hiding, you also begin to understand both the importance and limitations of the game’s severely basic communication system. In the moments before matches begin, you have just a few seconds to pick a character and weapons, as well as let your teammates know which section of the arena you intend to focus on and how you plan to play. Nintendo’s notorious for making it excessively difficult for people to speak to one another directly through its various online games, and Pokémon Unite’s no exception. For the most part, “speaking” is limited to selecting canned phrases from drop-down lists, but it’s important to understand how crucial using those phrases and other kinds of communication is when you start to get serious about gameplay.
Letting your teammates know which path through the arena you want to take is just the beginning of the conversation that each player should be having as they rush to defend their goals at the beginning of a match. Once the two teams meet and begin fighting, action is the most powerful form of communication that players should be relying on because it’s your moves that often end up telegraphing to your teammates what kind of fighter you are. There are certain patterns of play that become obvious as you familiarize yourself with Pokémon Unite’s competitive space, and it’s beyond satisfying when, in the early minutes of a match, you can see that the teammates you’re running around with are all on the same page. Scoring is important, yes, but so is evolving within matches in order to become immediately stronger, and the most effective way of doing that is by coordinating attacks on the wild monsters wandering through the area. When players are in sync with one another, there’s a swift elegance to the way they can clear the field of wild Pokémon, robbing their opponents of those much-needed experience points and making it difficult for them to fight back.
Every player ends up “fainting” over the course of a round, which forces them to return to their home base and wait before reentering the frey, but there’s a way of strategically making sure that one only ever faints when they’ve still got a teammate on the field left to defend their vulnerable goals. As much as Pokémon Unite’s a fighting game, the necessity of considering strategy is undeniable, particularly as matches grow more intense, and the difference between life and death is but a few hit points. Racing back to your goal where it’s safe to heal up can be supremely stressful and worrying, but it’s made all the more manageable when there’s a teammate by your side using their entire body as a shield because they had the wherewithal to keep their health bar high while supporting your escape.
It’s equal parts fascinating and terrifying to witness an opposing team executing a coordinated strike because of how it illustrates the power Pokémon Unite players have when they actually pool their energies to win. On the one hand, matches that suddenly turn thanks to strategies you aren’t privy to are useful learning experiences. On the other, those situations almost always make it much easier to see how capable your own team is at organically rising to meet challenges. There are few things quite as frustrating in Unite as rushing into the thick of a battle where most everyone on your team is desperately trying to emerge victorious save for one (or, Arceus forbid, two) players either lollygagging or for some reason hanging out on the other side of the court as if the game isn’t a competition.
Malicious throwing of matches is not unique to Pokémon Unite, and the game has a built-in system designed to penalize people who show up to the function trying to ruin things or take advantage of others. In the heat of the moment, though, there’s little you can really do to let your teammates know that you need them other than to call for help, knowing full well that they can see on their maps what’s going on. As is the case with all MOBA games, there are Pokémon Unite matches that you’ll lose for reasons beyond your control—like everyone on your team voting to forfeit simply because things got a little rough for a few seconds, and winning seems impossible. All really it takes to keep faith in the game, though, is one round of turning things around in the last few minutes thanks to everyone on your team resolving not to toss in the towel, and, with a little luck and gumption, to actually strategize their way to victory.
Pokémon Unite is now available for download.
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