(Pocket-lint) - The Pokémon Company spent a long time being mighty conservative with its central IP, but those days look like they could be over - Pokémon is stepping into whole new genres now, and Unite brings it into the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) spotlight for the first time.
It's a crowded genre, but Unite drops onto Switch (alongside mobile) to offer a bit more of a niche choice. With simple controls and fan-favourite designs to call on, it could spell a major win for its creators, though.
A simple premise
Unite is a simple game in many ways - there's no story or campaign mode as such. Instead, you get six tutorial sessions, each lasting only for a minute or so, before you're fully up to speed on how the game's arena battles work.
From there you can dive straight into online play, across a few modes, and in either ranked or casual matchmaking. That straightforwardness is mirrored by just how easy it is to actually get to grips with its gameplay.
While the likes of League of Legends and DOTA 2 often welcoming players with a blitz of mechanics and a cast of characters with often labyrinthine depth, a game that takes it a bit easier is entirely welcome, and Unite does really well at keeping things light.
You get to pick your first Pokémon when you start, but even as your roster grows things are nice and easy to parse. Your goal in the standard mode is to push through any of three lanes against an enemy team, defeating wild Pokémon and players along the way.
As you do so, you'll gain points that can only be banked by taking a few vulnerable seconds to score at an enemy-held zone. Do this enough and you'll break down their defences and penetrate through to further zones, and the overall victor is decided only by these points.
Late in the game, legendary Pokémon Zapdos appears in the map's centre, and defeating it offers a chance to magic hundreds of points out of nowhere, so the chance for a comeback is always on the cards (it's actually a little bit of an annoying mechanic if your strategy has built up a modest league over nearly a whole game).
Special wild monsters can grant buffs and boons that help your team in fights, and respawn delays mean that knocking out enemy players can be huge for any match, but the focus on points and position, like with other MOBAs, makes for a nice mixture of fighting and strategy.
That roster, though
Of course, part of Unite's immediate draw is that its roster can call on some of the most famous character designs in gaming, and it's therefore no surprise to see the likes of Charizard and Venusaur represented. There are also plenty of monsters from more recent mainline Pokémon games, though, so no one should feel left out.
Once you pick that first fighter, you'll get to a roster of around four or five Pokémon in a few days thanks to welcome challenges and bonuses, but it must be said that from there it's all about earning in-game currency to buy new fighter licenses - that, or you can opt to pay real-world cash.
The ramp isn't heinous if you're happy to play a few games each day and take it casually, but we can see how if you preferred to play longer sessions you could start to feel like you don't get rewarded much past the first few games.
That'll be a balance that the game's developer, TiMi, will have to work on over the coming months following launch day, alongside all the countless patching and tweaking that this sort of competitive title already requires. Still, with more than 900 monsters to pick from as it adds new characters altogether, the base is there for the game to include real fan favourites.
A game attempt
Making this sort of complicated ecosystem work on a console like the Nintendo Switch (which is where we've been playing) isn't the simplest thing, either - there are plenty of ways to communicate with your teammates during a match of Unite, but they're all vaguely fiddly.
You can say where you're going, call for backup and more, but each takes a second or two to send while you might be in a nail-biting fight, and we haven't found many players who're using the message system much at all. That may change as we climb up the ranks, but Nintendo's aversion to voice chat is a hindrance where strategy is concerned.
Still, it does fit in with the vibe that Unite is seemingly going for - one where toxicity is rare and the game is simple enough to be enjoyed casually alongside the more dedicated players who will min-max every aspect of it.
On the visual side, meanwhile, things look nice and colourful, with the Pokémon we all know and love looking vibrant and well-animated. The frame rate, meanwhile, holds up for the most part, although it can get a tiny bit choppy in hectic moments, which isn't ideal.
There are options to prioritise higher frame rates, or indeed lower, but the developer doesn't recommend players use them, which is a little unsettling. Still, in the main Unite looks perfectly nice enough.
We didn't expect to enjoy Pokémon Unite all that much - its reveal earlier this year felt a bit confusing, plus MOBAs are famously difficult to get into.
That's why it's such a pleasant surprise that it's been as fun as it has, and with the entry price being completely free, we think it's well worth checking out for Nintendo Switch owners.
You might bounce off after a few games and decide it's not for you, but there's something building here that could be around for a long time, and we suspect that we'll enjoy dropping in for the occasional game for a good while to come.