It's nearly impossible to look at Temtem and not see Pokemon in its DNA. On one level, Pokemon was the originator for this genre offshoot of RPGs that includes the Digimon and Yo-Kai Watch franchises. Temtem could've been just another little sibling, following in the steps of a famous elder sibling.
Playing through the early hours of Temtem a second time though, I'm struck at how close it is to the earlier generations of Pokemon. You wake up in a small, sleepy town, with a seemingly uncaring parent, a plucky rival, and a grand journey ahead of you. Your opening conversations with Professor Konstantinos mirrors the chats with many of the various Pokemon professors over the years. Temtem has Single Values (SV) and Training Values (TV), versus the Individual Values (IV) and Effort Values (EV) of Pokemon, even though they offer the same effects. The same choice of starter companions is presented to you, and many of the early designs seem to evoke their early Pokemon counterparts, like how the evolved bird Temtem Paharac mirrors the evolved Pokemon Pidgeotto.
Even beyond that, the composition is the same, where various towns are connected by relatively straightforward routes full of waiting trainer battles. You still wander through tall grass to find waiting Temtem to capture. The routes of Temtem feel almost quaint compared to the level design in Pokemon Sun and Moon, or Pokemon Sword and Shield, which are less rigid and more freeform. It's more square in composition, feeling closer to a series of blocks being placed together. In fact, the closest analog would be the recently-released Pokemon Let's Go titles, which were remakes of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow. It feels wonderfully simple, a throwback stripping out many of the additional systems that have become a part of Pokemon's current iterations, like Z-moves or Dynamaxing.
I glean that the pitch of Temtem was "What if we modernized Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire?" It includes many of the features introduced in that generation, including two-on-two battles, Pokemon breeding, and individual abilities. On top of that, there's the general online nature of the game, including the ability to see other trainers, jump into cooperative play, and join player guilds. There's extensive player customization like in the last few Pokemon games, but separated from the binary male and female restrictions. Being able to see fellow trainers walking around with their varied looks and Temtem behind them makes the world feel alive.
And while the level design is grid-like, the visual presentation of Temtem is absolutely top-notch, with a beautiful color palette and sense of style, running at a smooth 60 fps. Scaling the mountainous Thalassian Cliffs on the way to Arissola, the third town, there's a moment where you can look down on the route below from on high; it looks amazing and it doesn't feel a view like that was something available in Pokemon Let's Go.
Temtem also explores new concepts like synergy, where the two Temtem you have on the battlefield can actually improve one another. Take the Toxic-style technique Urushiol; if you have a second Toxic Temtem on the field when you use it, Urushiol poisons the enemy for four turns instead of three. Taking the right two Temtem into battle is important. The developers of Temtem are clearly fans of Pokemon, and there's clear thought put into some of the design decisions.
I think part of why Temtem succeeds in what it is, receiving the kudos and loglines like "Best Pokemon game in years," is that it's not Pokemon. Pokemon would never get the chance to strip everything back to zero. Game Freak could not build a simpler world and bring its bestiary back to a manageable number like 161 tamable monsters. Pokemon has to move ever forward, while retaining much of what came before.
That's not a statement where you should be thinking, "Oh woe is Pokemon, and the slings and arrows it suffers." That's the double-edged sword of success. The popularity and name-brand power that leads to situations like Dexit is also why Pokemon can smash sales records, with 6 million units sold in the first weekend. The passion that leads to fans of the animated series and sales of vast quantities of merchandise also pins Pokemon and Game Freak into a certain range of expectations. There's a great degree of institutional cruft that can't be discarded. Meanwhile, Temtem can just be what it is. Put the Pokemon name on the same thing, and I think the tune of the community would change drastically. You would not accept this game with the Pokemon name.
But that's why games like Temtem and the upcoming DokeV from Pearl Abyss matter. They can do things that Game Freak can't necessarily do with a juggernaut franchise like Pokemon. They have the leeway to go back to the beginning, strip everything down to its core, and ask, "What really works here, what can we discard, and what can we improve?" Competition means a chance to try out different ideas. Temtem and DokeV will do things differently and the community will respond. And, likely, some of those ideas will find their way blending between competitors. I think World of Warcraft is better for the existence of Final Fantasy 14, because competition breeds better games.
I'm looking forward to seeing where Temtem goes over the next few months and years. It's currently in Early Access on Steam, as clearly indicated by actual "WIP" signs within the game world. There's still promised features to add, like customizable housing. But so far, Temtem feels like a scrappy upstart looking toward the horizon, full of promise. I think the community is vibing with that feeling, wanting to see where the padawan goes, rather than what steps the master continues to take.