Remember Temtem, the monster-taming MMO that got its 1.0 release earlier this year? Don’t feel too bad if you don’t.
What was once hailed as the “Pokémon killer” officially launched in September too little fanfare. Despite the initial spike in interest after its early access release, it didn’t quite reach the cultural status of the game it was trying to build on. Meanwhile, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet broke records as Nintendo’s fastest-selling games of all time, despite being the most heavily criticized entries in the series’ history due to performance issues and glitches. Not even bad press could keep Pikachu down.
Pokémon is still king in the monster-catching market and it doesn’t seem like that’ll be challenged any time soon. Temtem and Coromon both came out this year, but neither generated large-scale mainstream interest like Pokémon despite their own successes. For all the complaints that Pokéfans have, 2022 proves that the series is still doing something right. That isn’t just on account of the cute monster designs or massive marketing budget; it’s a reflection of developer Game Freak’s design chops, which are easy to take for granted.
Pokémon has its faults, but its underlying skeleton has kept it afloat for years. Its core game design makes it pleasant to play without too much investment. Players can evolve their first-party members within a few hours of starting fights with wild Pokémon and trainers because of generous experience boosts and lower evolution thresholds. Gym leaders, which act as its version of bosses, also appear within a brief enough time of each other to move the story forward and grind levels up as a “reward.” If each reward in the journey is a hike away from the next, players are going to run out of stamina fast.
For the first time, Game Freak published two distinct major Pokémon projects in one year: Pokémon Legends: Arceus in January and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet in November. Even with obvious flaws, each of those games modeled how skilled Game Freak is when it comes to creating a tightly paced game full of progression hooks.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is technically a spinoff, but it achieves much more than that the typical sub series because of how it mirrors mainline games. Game Freak’s first step into open-world Pokémon games received a warm welcome thanks to its thoughtful design and new systems that actually matched the world it belonged in — even with the arguably ugly graphics.
Catching and battling Pokémon never felt pointless because of the rewards for doing so. Its unique Rank System rewarded players who completed research tasks, such as catching a specific number of Pokémon or watching them use a specific type of move. I didn’t mind throwing a ball at 10 Buizels in a row because there was always a good incentive for me to do so. It was also easier to capture highe- level wild Pokémon without engaging with them, which gave players the opportunity to catch stronger allies instead of grinding levels in a traditional RPG way.
Scarlet and Violet didn’t garner as much praise as its early-year counterpart, but it also nailed the concept of regularly giving players a “reward” for each step of their journey. Its three-storyline structure meant that there was almost always another part of the narrative ready to unlock without the need to grind between gym leaders. Our review praised the newfound freedom in the games, which let the player play at their own level of difficulty as a side effect of the open-world aspect. After all, you can to run into an area of level 40 Pokémon at level 20 if you wanted to.
Pokémon games typically involve some level of grinding. I used to tread back and forth in the grass until my starter could one-hit KO everything before moving on to the next city. Rinse and repeat. However, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet had enough of a level disparity between its beginner and intermediate areas that I could just hop from place to place without fighting wild Pokémon for hours. Even the varying level bosses encouraged players to keep progressing through the different storylines instead of grinding in one place.
Those are some small examples of how finely tuned the Pokémon series is at its core — details that you start to notice when placing it next to the games that attempt to one-up it.
Temtem, for instance, is a much slower experience. It looks like everything you could want from a Pokémon-style game on on the package: a young child leaves home to fulfill their dream of becoming a Temtem master and defeat gym leaders across the archipelago. However, it can take a long time to really get that journey going due to its slow progression pace. Players voiced similar complaints about its grindiness and lack of content that made it difficult to commit to.
At the 10-hour mark, I had only fought one gym leader and evolved one creature. I’ve played every mainline Pokémon game since Pokémon Red and Blue. I could’ve beaten at least three gym leaders and evolved half my team in the same amount of time in those games. It didn’t help that fast travel and teleportation, which have become staples in modern games, weren’t unlockable until later in the story. Smoke Bombs, which are similar to Escape Ropes in Pokémon, seemed primitive in comparison. It’s not like it had the option to ride through regions on the backs of Pokémon like in Pokémon Legends or Scarlet and Violet.
Coromon, another monster-catching game that received a similarly middling critical reception, appealed to Game Boy Advance-era Pokémon fans, enough that some hail it as the “best Pokémon clone.” Still, some players had similar reservations spurred by the game’s approach to progression specifically. Nintendo Life mentioned a story that moved at a “snail’s pace” and the fact that it took “hours” to move between areas because of the difficulty spike.
Both Temtem and Coromon struggle to offer enough incentives for players to stay invested in their adventures. Some players like a higher difficulty and grind on its own, but moving at too slow a pace could push those looking for a more casual experience elsewhere. That’s something that the Pokémon series has always understood and held true to in the face of criticism. A game like this needs to give players something to cling to early in the game so that they feel like they’re moving forward. You can try to replicate Pokémon’s monster hunting and turn-based battles, but those aren’t the only elements that make the series work — even at its lowest points.
Game Freak proved that it knows how to keep Pokémon engaging this year — and that it’s trying to improve. It tends to “soft launch” new features and fine-tune them later, like it did with phasing out hidden machines and adding in traditional fast travel. The design expertise still reigns; now Pokémon just has to evolve to a higher-quality standard.