There’s a particular routine you fall into when playing Pokémon. Tuning in to one of developer Game Freak’s creature catchers means being whisked away to a sleepy town, only to leave immediately in search of something more. You pick one of three companions, brush past a rival who chooses the stronger Pokémon, and then travel across the land as wanderlust takes hold.
Pokémon Sword and Shield tinkers with the formula slightly, experimenting with new ideas for your first rival, Hop. You still make short work of him, but it’s by design this time as he picks the starter Pokémon that’s weaker than yours. As the story continues, Hop can’t help but fall short. He has ambitions of being the very best that no one ever was, but is stuck in the shadow of his brother, who happens to be the local champion. As you grow in stature yourself, Hop falls under your shadow, too, but his humility in the face of failure is novel and sweet. His plucky approach to picking himself back up after falling short sets the pace for a breezy jaunt through Game Freak’s reimagining of Great Britain.
Temtem, the latest and perhaps greatest Pokémon equivalent we can get on PC, feels similar at first. You awake to your mother gleefully telling you it’s time to go and start your adventure. You jog across a happy hamlet and greet the professor, who introduces you to three potential companions. After you’re done, it’s time to do battle with your rival Max. He wins the bout in one blow.
It’s quickly apparent that Temtem offers a greater challenge than Pokémon Sword and Shield. A lot of that comes from the battle system. Duelling in a two-on-two format forces me out of my oldest and worst Pokémon habit, which is to simply cruise through the game with an overpowered starter and not bother training any other Pokémon.
That’s not to say you can get away with using only two temtems. Your temtems’ stamina depletes after each move, with more powerful attacks costing more, and you’ll find that it drains at an alarming rate. Once your stamina hits zero, your pocket pal overexerts itself and takes damage. While this does allow you to play tactically, encouraging you to hold back and endure your opponent’s attacks until you can strike a killer blow, it also punishes the foolhardy temtem tamer who goes all out.
Temtem’s more thoughtful combat has a tangible impact in the long term, too. As your healing items dwindle, it’s not uncommon to be stuck in the wilds between towns with a party on the verge of exhaustion. I can’t remember the last time I blacked out in Pokémon, but I’ve come dangerously close in Temtem a few times already.
Pokémon Sword and Shield accommodates my bad habits, rather than challenging me to fix them. When you win a fight, your whole party gets the experience points. Sure, the Pokémon who does the work gets the lion’s share, but it also means that you can train your other ‘mons without the need to ever actually bring them into battle. It’s an interesting ploy to encourage people to try newer Pokémon, but it comes at the expense of the challenge of training them. I already feel a stronger bond with my temtems as I’ve had to train them each two-by-two just to make sure we can reach the next town without wiping out.
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Temtem’s higher difficulty doesn’t always translate into a better experience, though. It’s retained some of classic Pokémon’s bad habits. For instance, you encounter temtems in the wild at random by running through tall grass or exploring a cave. That’s fine for the outdoors, but it’s annoying to be in a cave and feel like you’re constantly just three steps away from another battle. Pokémon’s answer to this is for its creatures to be visible in the wild. Not only does this help the world feel alive, but it means you can lose yourself in the fantasy of exploration. Temtem’s Airborne Archipelago is a breathtaking land that sits among the clouds, but being yanked away from it and into a battle screen so frequently is jarring.
When it comes to difficulty, Temtem is to Pokémon what Path of Exile is to Diablo 3. It’s a more challenging experience unburdened by time. Game Freak has to appease older fans who grew up with Pokémon while targeting a younger audience. Temtem developer Crema Games, meanwhile, reminds us of what you can do with a clean slate.