It’s been a rough few months for Pokémon. What might have been another successful lap for the global mega-franchise quickly stalled, waylaid by fan outrage over everything from a slimmed-down Pokédex to concerns over animation and shading. And although all that backlash seems to have barely put a dent in the franchise’s bottom line, it could potentially have offered a golden opportunity to the new kid on the block.
Temtem is a creature collection and battling game that name-drops Game Freak’s juggernaut as its biggest inspiration. Vibrant and charming, it’s a game that clearly draws on years of Pokémon history, with ideas cherry-picked from the earliest days of Red and Blue, all the way up to Sun and Moon. But while developer Crema clearly has a lot of respect for Game Freak and its creation, it’s also asking plenty of pretty fundamental questions about the future of its adopted genre.
From the very start, it’s clear that Temtem is aping some of Pokémon’s oldest ideas. You wake up in a small town, before being gifted an elemental creature by the kindly local professor, and heading out into the wild to hone your battling skills. It’s enough to give even the most fairweather Pokémon fan a powerful dose of déjà vu. But it doesn’t take long before you realise that Temtem thinks more can be done with even these opening moments.
Meaningful dialogue choices and side-quests offer a sense of breadth that’s almost entirely absent from Pokémon’s narrow critical path. Once you leave home and start battling, that breadth is matched by significant tactical depth. Temtem features a broadly recognisable type-matchup system, but in the course of a battle you’ll also need to consider your critters’ stamina meters - each move takes a certain amount of effort to pull off, and creatures will get hurt if you push them too hard. Many moves require a turn to charge up before they can be used, adding an extra tactical layer to the double battles which form the backbone of Temtem battles. All these changes coupled with the absence of an early EXP Share means that training is harder, encouraging Temtem Tamers to pay more attention to the weaker members of their (Tem)teams.
But Temtem isn’t just tweaking old ideas to generate a hit of nostalgia - it’s also pushing the genre in the kind of direction that I had hoped Pokémon’s arrival on the Switch might have facilitated. Rather than a single-player experience with optional multiplayer battles, Temtem is a MMOG right from the start, and its already vibrant and colourful world comes to life as you head off on your adventure surrounded by other players on the same journey. It’s an ambitious move, but it seems to be paying off, letting you live out an Ash Ketchum-esque fantasy, challenging anyone you come across to a fast-paced and entertaining battle.
All these changes are significant in their ability to capture the ideas put forward by Pokémon and then push them further, and if Nintendo is paying any attention whatsoever, Temtem's influence is likely to be felt somewhere in the franchise's future.
Sadly for Crema, that isn't going to keep the lights on in the short term – if Temtem is going to thrive, it needs to capture the attention of the wider Pokémon fanbase. And right now, that fanbase is probably more willing to look elsewhere for its fix than it has been in years. Sword and Shield haven't really delivered on the increased potential offered by the Switch, and fan backlash over controversies ranging from 'Dexit' to graphical performance have stoked more anti-Game Freak sentiment than I've ever seen.
What's more, swathes of the community have already made their way through Galar, and with the expansion pass not arriving until the summer, die-hard players have a few ways to get their fix; continue to engage in Sword and Shield's post-game and competitive content, wait for Mystery Dungeon, or give Temtem a try at the end of this month. Nintendo is never going to lose its hold on the top spot entirely, but Temtem is asking exactly the right questions at just the moment Pokémon's grip seems weakest. Crema's fortunate timing could well be the difference between success and obscurity.