Massively on the Go: Pokemon Unite mobile is a good port but better update

    
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So Pokemon Unite is now mobile and cross-platform. Who’d have thought a traditionally Nintendo-only IP would do this? The update and dev team letter we mentioned is live as well, and in some ways, it overshadows the mobile release. It’s not that the mobile version of the game is bad; it’s not. There is enough fighting across social media that it feels pretty clear that each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses.

No, it’s that TiMi Studio Group genuinely did a big enough update that even if the mobile version of the game weren’t out, I’d still be here doing a second impressions piece. As you site goers know, online games can change drastically in a single update, but this has been particularly positive. Current players are probably playing too much to read this, but those who previously played and left due to the business model or avoided it because of that may want to read on.

Back to business

Item Enhancers: These were the big “pay-to-win” store item that granted very little power but required large sums of money, causing many people to avoid the game outright. As I’ve said many times before, this was the fear I had right when the game was announced, and it still seems to be a reason people I know have stayed away from the game. That being said, the game was solid enough for me to continue playing for fun, not just work, but I also didn’t spend any additional money on it despite the fact that there were characters I wanted to purchase.

That’s changed a bit. Some new quests now give a ton of Item Enhancers, and the new Super Item Enhancers will boost a held item to 30 while refunding any investments, which seems generous. Again, you get the most bang for your buck by powering held items up to level 20, rather than 30, but you still get some extra stats for those last 10 levels. There are even quests to get a temp item to boost your held item for seven days, just so you can test a few of them out before committing to anything.

While this is better than before, I should note that the quests don’t give you enough rewards to max out all the held items. In fact, doing all the quests for item enhancers that were just released won’t max out a single held item. Powering an item up to level 20 requires 567 enhancers. While level 30 doesn’t power-up the held item’s primary ability (just stat bonus), it requires an additional 2020 enhancers (2587 total). TiMi’s additional Super Enhancers and granting of more regular enhancers constitute nice catch-up mechanics, especially since any Enhancers you previously used on the boosted item are 100% refunded. It also makes Enhancers almost more like sidegrades now, as you can have a primary set but also alternative options.

Getting the three Super Enhancers is relatively easy, requiring a player to reach only level 14. That’s enough to have a well-equipped main and ammo for alternative builds/pokemon. Yes, you can have a “main build” that’s ready for real competitive play, but remember that players on the same team can’t use the same Pokemon at the same time.

What this means is that the playing field can be more leveled, but there’s also motivation to keep playing and build up another Pokemon for those times your Pokemon gets picked, or you want to play something else, or maybe your favorite role is just wrong for your team composition. Given that you can be ready at level 14 (out of 40 levels), it feels quite fair compared to before. I admittedly haven’t used my Super Enhancers yet, as there are also three new held items, but the change did get me to try out and invest in some new items I previously lacked, and I’m generally a hoarder.

So how is TiMi to make money? Well, as players have noted, coins from daily missions were cut in half, from 200 to 100. This means that for casual players, it’ll be harder to unlock units for free outside of events or afford new held items without spending Aeon Tickets. However, the game does offer some of the best units to players right out of the gate without a gacha mechanic. If people don’t like any of those pokemon and have started on mobile, they can choose Pikachu before claiming their campaign rewards and get coins, which should help them get nearly any other pokemon they want.

I’m also personally more OK with the game asking people to pay for Units that cost $10 or less than potentially hundreds of dollars for power or gachapon rewards. The fact that TiMi released several new skins makes it seem as if the company heard player complaints and is trying to shift the general itemization plan more toward customing. I know some people will naturally be upset, but many of the complaints I’ve heard come from people who simply do not wish to pay for their games at all.

I understand this if you don’t have a lot of money, or if you’re protesting a game you enjoy, but games that don’t make cash get shut down, even when a rich company is the producer. Besides, for players with access to multiple platforms, it should be noted that gems do not carry over, but each platform offers four gem tiers between $1-$20 which grant double gems for the first purchase. Between the Switch, Apple products, and Android, you could save quite a bit of cash in the long run.

While no game is perfect and I’m still not a fan of the gacha mechanics at all (especially as my new favorite skin was only affordable because of one of my gacha pulls), I think the new model is much better than the one the game launched with. I can more easily recommend the game to competitive players now, though people with gambling problems may still want to stay away. It’s a shame players can’t outright buy all the skins they want or just earn them, but this sadly feels like an issue with online games in general these days, not just PU.

Model mobile MOBA

Beyond the business model, I was concerned about the initial announcement of having mobile/Switch crossplay. Excited, yes, but also figured the touch controls might greatly overshadow the Switch’s more traditional controller input. If anything, it may be the opposite. I’m still adjusting, but while basic control works, communication options feel more challenging to a degree.

So far, the touch controls are serviceable. In general, touch-control sticks and “buttons” are not my favorite mode of input. I fat-finger what I’m trying to type out on touch keyboards all the time. Naturally, I have also fat-fingered or misclicked the direction I’ve wanted to go a few times in PU’s mobile version, but overall the touch controls aren’t nearly as bad as I worried they could be. In fact, after the first few hours of release, I can no longer easily tell the difference between mobile and Switch players.

The one difference may be in higher-ranked play. I won’t lie, I’ve only done a little of this on mobile because I only recently got out of an elo slump. However, the Switch’s controllers allow for better multi-press input. I can jump in and out of combat more fluidly as Greninja or Grachomp on the Switch, especially when it comes to using my Eject Button battle item, which occasionally gets covered up in the mobile version when I’ve leveled up. Perhaps this could change with continued practice though.

Of course, there are some small changes. From the screenshots, you can see the visuals are a bit muddied compared to what we have on the Switch.

But in terms of gameplay, PU feels just about right, mostly if you stick to Quick Play. As matches last only five minutes, they work pretty well when out and about, at least for me. As I see mobile games as something to jump in and out of easily while outside, short gameplay is best in my opinion. My refurbished Samsung Galaxy A51 runs a bit hot, but the battery drain doesn’t feel much different than Pokemon Go. My connection isn’t always the most stable, so it can be jarring to see a match start and my team’s already moved out, but again, I’m mostly suggesting to play Quick Play on the go.

At home, things are a bit better, especially since I don’t need to worry about battery drain or obviously playing a game in a public space. However, my preference is the Switch still since I prefer the larger screen and controller. Players who are all-in on touch controls probably won’t struggle as I do.

The mobile UI takes some getting used to but isn’t terribly bad. Part of this is because both versions of the game got a bit of a facelift, but the mobile version feels a bit cluttered, as I previously mentioned. It’s still fairly similar, and most of my previous tips actually still apply, just the controls are touching the screen rather than buttons. One nice difference on mobile, though, is that the UI will draw a line to the player currently attacking you, which could help Switch users as well. On the end-of-match screen, you click the category of interaction at the top (such as reporting people or befriending them), then go down the list to check off everyone the action applies to. We could have just gotten a long-press option to open some options, but this works well enough.

But as I said, most of the changes help the game as a whole. The new social quests (including the formerly broken ones), like playing with a friend or communicating via map pings, are a nice touch to try to get people to group up and use communication tools, though this isn’t limited to the mobile version. However, friends on mobile can actually copy and paste a room code to send to their friends via messengers such as Facebook or Discord. It’s a small change, but smart.

Squads are in, but to someone who mostly plays solo, they feel like an extension of a group finder. I can find some people to play with for a bit, but even on mobile, communication feels like a hassle. The preformed chat options are serviceable, and as in Pokemon GO before it, LINE sticker art has been recycled for simpler communication in-game. But anything long and custom feels cumbersome.

Voice chat would be best for coordinating, but I’m personally not that big on needing to voice chat whenever I fire up a game. Typing out a strategy with my squadmates before forming a group is easier on phone, but I’m fine with just map pings while playing on the Switch. For those who have never tried it, well, it’s similar to typing something out in the old arcade machines except with a built-in dictionary that can slightly speed things up. It’s not something I suggest people make much use of, unless you’re trapped under a fallen chunk of ceiling, though in that situation, you’d probably hope you were playing on mobile anyway.

Overall though, the update in particular has brought renewed hope and fun to the game. Combined with the Item Enhancers, new held items, and slew of new skins, it feels like a small but positive NGE, and only a few months after release. The game’s active enough that I honestly don’t feel like I can tell how big of an influx of players the game received by adding a mobile option, though that only indicates to me that there’s a healthy population in general. More so than before, if you’re looking for an accessible MOBA, especially as a Pokemon fan, I’d say give Pokemon Unite a try, either via mobile or the Switch console – unless you’re the kind of person who blows too much money on gambling for skins.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!
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