I’ve had a surprising amount of fun with the Nintendo Switch’s latest Pokémon spin-off, the free-to-play arena fighter Pokémon Unite. Coming from the dense and inconsolable world of Valve’s Dota 2, there’s plenty I could nitpick about Pokémon Unite’s controls, interface, and balance, but man if it ain’t a blast flying around as Charizard and dunking on other Pokémon. There’s just one problem: you can pay to get ahead.
They really crammed it all into Pokémon Unite, like a mashup of League of Legends and NBA2K. You can buy cool hats for your trainer, alternate skins for your Pokémon, and special items to increase your power in battle. Want to unlock more Pokémon to play as? If you don’t want to spend hours grinding before you can try out the full roster, that’ll cost money too. While the game offers character unlocks via leveling and challenges, along with weekly free picks, you can indeed hasten the process. There are also season passes, lotteries, and multiple currencies. Unite’s in-game economy is dense. It might be free-to-play on the tin, but spend more than a couple hours with it and you’ll want to start shelling out money.
While it would cost just over $100 to unlock all of the game’s starting 21 Pokémon right from the jump (Gardevoir, added just today, costs about $4 outright or 8,000 in earnable in-game currency), the real microtransaction culprit is Unite’s arguable pay-to-win items. While you can earn items via playtime, you can also purchase them — and then level them up with upgrades. Pokémon start with one item slot, and as you advance your overall trainer level, you eventually unlock two more. You can boost your available items before getting all the slots. So by the later game, there are slots for up to three items that can bolster existing strengths or provide novel new stat bonuses that can often change the course of team fights and entire matches.
Take a top-tier item like the Rocky Helmet for example. It redirects a small amount of the damage you received to nearby opponents. At level 10 it provides +90 HP and +14 Defense. At max level 30 it provides +270 HP and +42 Defense, making it three times more powerful. The default currency for buying item enhancers to level up items are Aeos tickets, which are typically earned by playing. Eventually, though, you might run out — and the game gives you the option to buy more for Aeos Gems, the game’s paid currency. Some will likely grind to get there. Others, of course, will drop the cash. While inevitably all hardcore players will end up with maxed out items for their desired builds, in the game’s early days, those who are grinding to get fully-decked inventories have a noticeable gap between them and those spending money.
Some quick math. Upgrading an item all the way to level 30 requires 2,587 Item Enhancers. You can earn those via playtime, the battle pass (which costs money) or just purchasing thegems outright. if you spend money, it costs 2,587 Aeos Gems (stick with me). That’s about $40 per fully upgraded item, should you go that route. Each Pokémon can equip three items, so to max out your Gengar or Machamp that’s roughly $120 if you want to create a top-tier Pokémon Unite build right away. As in just about all free-to-play games you can of course wait and slowly grind for other in-game currencies to buy the items and upgrade them. That’s no small feat, however. While getting an item from level 1 to level 10 only requires 82 Item Enhancers, getting from level 10 to level 20 requires 485 item enhancers. The last ten levels require five times that amount.
Here at Kotaku, EIC Patricia Hernandez has gotten two items to level 15, and two items to level 10 after about 8-10 hours of playtime, without dropping any cash. It seems evident those items will get maxed out in due time, but the road ahead might be a long and steep one, especially if she decides to try and level other items.
Maybe you’re content to grind away at your trainer level, battle pass, and collect challenge rewards and slowly level up your items over time. But some won’t be, leaving you in the unfortunate position of maybe occasionally getting absolutely wrecked by someone playing a maxed-out Zeraora. Shortly after Unite released last week, streamer Cr1TiKaL showed this dynamic at work, taking on entire opposing teams undefeated. It might be a nuisance in standard mode, but in ranked it can really test your resolve.
Then again, on Ranked, the most serious players won’t just be maxing out their items — they’ll be coming together with a group. Since it’s a team-based competitive game, simply having a slightly more powerful character doesn’t guarantee a win. Focusing on killing enemies doesn’t inherently net you points, which is what you need for a victory.
Eventually, the economy for free-to-play and pay-to-win players will even out as players rack up more hours and earn more in-game currencies. But a week after launch, we’re not quite there yet. “Pokemon Unite is just baiting idiots to spend money to gain rank now,” wrote one Ultra Rank player on the game’s subreddit. “However after everyone gets free Tickets, P2W Ultra and Master players will drop to Great and Expert Rank. Just wait for it don’t spend your money for season 1 rank.”
Or better yet, TiMi Studio Group, the Tecent-owned company behind the game, could take out the option to spend money on leveling up items altogether. Earlier this week, the game’s developers tweeted out a survey asking for player feedback. “Please, please, please everyone select the answer about over emphasize paying money,” read the top reply.
Many free-to-play games have ditched loot box and pay-to-win elements in recent years, though they’re still common in the mobile space where Unite is headed later this year. Playing Unite on my Switch though, it all feels like a bunch of extra nonsense that’s distracting me from what the game does best: let me dress up my Venusaur like it just got back its timeshare in the Florida Keys.