Don’t get me wrong: Temtem draws so much inspiration from Pokémon that it’s impossible not to notice similarities even if you only have a passing familiarity with the creature-collecting genre, and at times that can make it feel like a knockoff. You spend most of your time taming cartoonish animal-inspired monsters and leveling them up through battle which causes them to evolve into new, more powerful Temtem (which are, of course, what these monsters are called). Along the way you work with a professor who gives you your first monster friend, fight against an evil organization that wants to exploit Temtem, and there’s even a dopey rival who always seems to show up at the worst time to challenge you to a battle. Practically every trope and basic building block you know from Pokémon is accounted for in Temtem and for those looking to dismiss it as a shameless ripoff there’s quite a bit of copycatting to point to.
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But Temtem sets itself apart and is immediately enticing in its own right through all the ways it drastically improves upon things that have bothered me about Pokémon for since I became a fan of in 1998. Sick of having to delete old moves to make way for new ones? While Temtem honors the tradition of only allowing you to equip four at a time, it lets you slot any abilities your Temtem has learned whenever you want so your Temtem have more flexibility from battle-to-battle. Wish Pokémon had more to do aside from the main campaign? Temtem has a robust library of sidequests. It’s clear that developer Crema thought long and hard about what its team’s dream version of Pokémon would look like and set out to create it – and so far it’s paying off.
One of Temtem’s best original ideas is the stamina meter. Instead of a finite number of times each ability can be used before having to heal your squad, Temtem introduces a stat which decreases as abilities are used and increases in between rounds or when Temtem use their turn to rest. More powerful moves require more stamina, which adds some strategy into which abilities you use and when. If you run out of stamina, any further attacks you make eat into your Temtem’s health bar and disable them for one turn until they’ve had a chance to rest. Running out of stamina can be irritating at times and means that you likely won’t get to use your most powerful attacks far less often than a Pokemon player normally would, but the tradeoff is a system that feels better balanced and isn’t just a matter of using your best attacks to knock out the opposing team with a single move. And all Temtem refill their stamina meters at the end of each combat encounter, meaning you never have to turn back and heal up to keep using your favorite attacks.
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The way stamina plays into combat can be hard to wrap your head around at first, but it’s absolutely awesome once mastered and can turn the tables if used well. Late in my playthrough, I challenged a stranger to a multiplayer match and found, to my surprise, they had a much stronger team. He hit me with his best attacks right away and did some serious damage, but as the match drew on, his Temtem became exhausted. They took damage from over-extending themselves and had to rest while I pressed my attack. Finally, I was able to win the match by the slimmest of margins. I felt like Muhammad Ali doing the rope-a-dope until my opponent wore himself out, then striking back at the perfect moment. That’s a level of strategy and depth that I’ve simply never experienced in all my years of trying to be the very best that no one ever was.
All combat in Temtem is 2v2 (unless one or both trainers have only one playable Temtem), which speeds up combat and allows for different Temtem duos to synergize with one another for maximum devastation. For example, a crystal-type Temtem using the Crystal Dust attack will deal additional damage and act sooner when fighting with a wind-type Temtem at their side. Sometimes synergy modifiers completely change the nature of the move, like by poisoning the enemy in addition to the standard effects of the attack. Having two Temtem on the battlefield for every match also improves the usefulness of moves that affect everyone on the battlefield – a feature that’s sparsely used in the series that inspired it. And because you can do damage with one of your fighters and use the other for buffs or debuffs, I foundmyself making use of non-damage-dealing abilities far more often than I do in Pokemon. Abilities that restore stamina, for example, are particularly useful because they can keep the powerful attacks coming for longer.
Beyond those mechanical changes, probably the biggest way in which Temtem differs from its inspiration is in the fact that it’s 100% online. That’s awesome in all the ways you’d hope…and less awesome in all the ways you’d fear. It’s great that you can see other players and their Temtem running around the map and interact with them in a number or ways, including challenging them to a battle, trading Temtem and items, or asking them to join you in co-op. Battling and trading are exactly what you’d expect, but co-op in particular is an awesome addition worthy of high praise. By teaming up with a fellow trainer, you’re free to travel together, complete missions and, of course, battle. Since all combat is 2v2, adventuring with a friend feels like something Temtem was built for rather than a tacked-on feature.
On the other hand, with an online ecosystem – particularly one that’s still in early access and will be for the foreseeable future – comes disconnects, service outages, choppy performance when the connection dips, and more. It’s nothing rampant or experience-ruining, but it’s undoubtedly there and players who demand the stability of a largely offline experience to the social benefits of an MMO aren’t going to be happy about it. Still, the fact that it’s online makes the world of Temtem feel alive and populated with tons of trainers sporting badass creatures you didn’t know even existed, and that’s well worth the trade-off.
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Another side effect of the MMO model is that losing battles becomes canon, given that there’s no way to quit and reload to erase a failure. As much as it pains me to admit, I didn’t win every match that I fought and some of those losses impacted the story. While it hurts my perfectionist heart to lose a match and have to live with it, it’s really interesting to suffer a defeat at the hands of one of the story’s villains and have them smugly walk away, leaving me with a bitter, unfamiliar taste in my mouth.
The world of Temtem is expertly built and filled with entertaining characters, even when the campaign’s story proves somewhat generic and uninteresting. Set in the floating islands known as the Airborne Archipelago, you’ll encounter a wide variety of unique areas, from volcanic craters to poisonous, lawless wildernesses. Each one is filled with interesting characters that often pull you into cheeky banter before offering a sidequest or challenging you to a Temtem duel. Absolutely everyone has something to say and pre-combat conversation can go on for quite a while in many cases – some of those include multiple dialogue options, though you can usually select one that jumps straight to the fight if you’re not there to chat. Characters are so well-written that I rarely noticed their often low-detail character models and faces, which stand out when compared to the elaborate Temtem themselves. From an enigmatic and silly detective to a smug and sinister countess, characters are wacky, memorable, and make goofy sounds in lieu of spoken dialogue.
With such a strong cast of characters, it’s frankly bizarre that the story (so far) seems not to go anywhere. While there are strong sections, like when you get stranded in the wilderness and have to fight for survival, or escape prison and have to make do with a whole new set of Temtem after being separated from your own, each section feels very much like a self-contained story with no real repercussions or larger direction. And because Temtem is a work-in-progress, the story actually…doesn’t have an ending just yet. Partway through your journey you find someone blocking your path and a message pops up to tell you that more is coming soon, and that’s that. It’s to be expected in this circumstance, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed.
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That’s not the only reminder that Temtem isn’t complete. You’ll note that some Temtem simply can’t be acquired, find doors all over the place that have “WIP” (work in-progress) signs on them, and hit an arbitrary level cap of 48 late in your adventuring.
Another thing I hope Crema works on during early access is that while the Airborne Archipelago is a lot of fun to explore, the creatures you encounter are often less exciting. Simply put, there just aren’t enough Temtem out there, which is one of the ways in which Pokémon’s decades of creatures give it an incredible advantage. Even if the Temtem are well-designed (and most are), you can only see the same handful of creatures pop up in the wild so many times before you’re bored to tears. Worse, each area only has a handful of unique Temtem, which makes battling through the wilds a bit of a slog. It’s only marginally better in duels, where the most powerful Temtem tend to show up quite a bit.