Pokémon finally has a serious rival, as Temtem attempts to do everything that Sword and Shield did but with proper online options.
For years, decades even, fans have been telling developer Game Freak that they want to play a home console MMO in the Pokémon universe. From the very early days of the franchise players have imagined exploring great open world expanses, catching, battling and trading with friends across the world, in what seems to almost everyone to be the logical evolution of the Pokémon concept.
But to Game Freak it’s not obvious. Pokémon Sword and Shield has arguably more restrictive online options than its predecessor (only slightly mitigated by the new Pokémon Home announcements) and only embraces the concept of modern open world exploration in the most basic way possible (although that may be expanded on by the recently announced expansion pass). It’s tempting to describe Temtem as everything that Sword and Shield is not, but while things aren’t quite that straightforward it gets a lot closer to the dream Pokémon game than anything else seen so far.
One of the major frustrations we had with Sword and Shield was how low the production values were, for a franchise that has made £69 billion over the last 24 years and which theoretically should command a budget in the hundreds of millions. By comparison, Temtem is only in early access and was partly funded by ordinary people via Kickstarter, for less than half a million pounds. We said in our Sword and Shield review that Game Freak’s games look and operate like mid-budget indie titles and Temtem is proof that we weren’t far off.
As you might gather, Temtem is not only a game that is inspired by Pokémon but is so shamelessly similar, right down to many of the creature designs, that we genuinely fear for Spanish developer Crema if The Pokémon Company’s lawyers decide to flex their muscles. But for now they’re free to not only copy what’s great about Pokémon but to improve on what could easily be made better.
The set-up to Temtem is largely the same as any Pokémon game, with a full story campaign that has you playing as an enthusiastic new temtem tamer, exploring the Airborne Archipelago, competing against eight dojo leaders, and battling an evil group of tamers. The story isn’t exactly riveting stuff but at least Temtem has one, unlike Sword and Shield’s barely discernible attempts at a narrative.
Catching and battling temtems works in a very similar way to Pokémon (you have special memory card like devices instead of poké balls) and while the turn-based combat does have some interesting wrinkles, with a strong emphasis on managing temtems’ limited stamina, it’s still primarily based around a series of elemental resistances that make certain temtem stronger or weaker against others.
Temtem battles are two versus two as standard, a set-up that rarely comes up in Sword and Shield single-player but here is used to ensure you don’t just pick a good elemental match for your opponent and bludgeon them repeatedly with the same move. In Temtem you have to think carefully about what the other opponent creature will do and that makes the tactics much less straightforward, and ultimately more interesting.
That said, we’d actually liked to have seen the game try something a bit more experimental for the battles, maybe even something in real-time, but we should emphasise that Temtem is not some perfect Pokémon alternative that instantly does everything right. Instead, the focus, at least at this first stage of early access, is on getting the basics of the gameplay right and on ensuring online play is integrated at every level.
Much of Game Freak’s resistance to more robust online features is out of fear of protecting its predominately young audience, which is perfectly understandable. But Temtem is not reckless about such things, with communication using an icon-based system that makes it easy to be understood without allowing for anything untoward.
And the game does this while being online at all times and allowing you to play in co-op. Sword and Shield has elements of an MMO, as other players skitter ghost-like across the Wild Area, unable to be properly interacted with, but in Temtem other players are everywhere, playing and trading as they please or teaming up for dedicated co-op play.
By ordinary gaming standards the online is nothing remarkable but to finally have it in a Pokémon style game is a revelation. Temtem also manages to do several other things better than its inspiration, with far more robust and inventive personalisation options and an equally customisable home that is another one of those ideas Pokémon briefly dabbled with in the early days (such as the secret bases of Ruby/Sapphire and Diamond/Pearl) and then abandoned for no obvious reason.
Temtem is early access though, so there’s a lot of bugs and glitches and many areas are simply missing – with promises that they’ll be added in later. But we’ve seen far worse from much bigger budget games and while some areas look better than others the visuals are at least as good as Sword and Shield and, despite a lot of derivative designs, the art style is bright and colourful in a way that avoids being a direct copy but still conveys the same sense of optimistic adventure.
Many of the features, like the base customisation and two versus two battles are already in Pokémon and have been more prominent in previous iterations. But that was half the point of Temtem when it was originally looking for Kickstarter backing from fans: to not only do what Pokémon has never done before but to emphasise what has always been great about it, but which Game Freak seem to have forgotten.
The ultimate question then, is whether Temtem is better than Pokémon Sword and Shield. But that seems a little unfair given the game is not yet finished and has barely been out a week. And yet that week has been remarkably trouble free, with Crema coping very well with the unexpected demand despite being having nowhere near the resources of Game Freak, The Pokémon Company, or Nintendo.
This isn’t the time for a final judgement though, not for Temtem and not, with its own expansion pass yet to come, for Sword and Shield. But we will say this now: Temtem already does several fundamental things better than its inspiration and clearly has the potential to be the very best, like no one ever was.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: 21st January 2020 (consoles TBA)
Age Rating: N/A
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