Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Game Freak
Over the years we’ve seen a lot of animals star in videogames, from the icons like Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong and Crash Bandicoot, but over time the quest for lovable animal protagonists has wavered as the game industry moved away from such cartoony antics and instead focused on generic lead characters with gun fetishes. Cue Game Freak. If you have no idea who that is then don’t worry, because you aren’t alone. You see, Game Freak has worked almost exclusively on Pokemon titles, only occasionally venturing off to do other projects. So here the are attempting to introduce their own animal mascot in the form of an elephant starring in a 2.5D action platformer.
Elephants can be pretty badass when they want, after all they are packing a lot of weight, size and muscle. Tembo the Badass Elephants takes this to the logical next level with the titular Tembo, a full-blown member of the military called to help fend off the mysterious forces of PHANTOM, who have taken over a city. For plot that’s really about all you get. There’s no voice acting here, and not even any written dialogue, instead the setup is delivered through comic-book style panels that quickly get the invasion by PHANTOM out of the way so that you can get on with being a badass elephant being all badass and stuff, because let’s face it that’s what you’re here for. Your mission is ultimately a simple one; smash everything in your path while rescuing any civilians you come across and scoffing stupid amounts of peanut butter, which acts as Tembo’s extra lives providing you can scoop up 300 peanuts to make a jar of the stuff. Look, it makes sense, alright. He’s an elephant, for Christ’s sake.
For a weighty creature Tembo has an impressive selection of agile moves at his disposal, including a flat-out charge that can bash through various obstacles and which serves as your most used ability, a vicious uppercut, a devastating downward slam, a bouncing attack that would have Sonic scream copyright infringement and even the ability to extend jumps by waving his legs madly mid-air. Presumably he’s never thought of using his spacious ears to glide gracefully through the air. Using these you madly dash through levels, smacking aside wrecked cars, buildings and enemy troops with abandon while timing jumps and navigating the levels which often offer branching paths to check out and hidden areas where civilians are being held. To top it all off Tembo can also store an insane amount of water in his trunk that can be used to put out fireballs, combat flamethrower wielding foes and even force strange plants to quickly grow so they can be used as a platform to reach higher spots.
Aside from the fact that it’s a bit too easy to accidentally use certain abilities at the wrong time the controls are generally sharp and responsive, but it’s really the level design that bring everything together. The best of them feel like they’ve been designed specifically for players to abuse the charge ability and get into a nice rhythm, leaping, jumping and squashing foes while trying to keep the momentum going. In these moments the game really is fantastic, almost reminding me of playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, albeit with a more developed moveset. Slowing down is advisable, though, because the game has a fair few nooks and crannies that hide things like innocent civilians waiting to be rescued, or just extra peanuts, which when you’ve collected enough turn into jars of Peanut Butter, Tembo the Badass Elephant’s version of an extra life. By gulping down an entire jar of the sticky stuff Tembo can immediately restart from the last checkpoint, but if you have no jars of peanutty goodness left then you’ll have to restart the entire level, albeit with five jars given to you for free. Oddly enough you can also harvest early levels for peanuts if you hit a difficult point in the game.
There’s no acquisition of extra skills or upgrading stats here, instead progression is handled through the steady introduction of newly enemy types or ideas, such as having to frantically race up a building while a deadly laser grid slowly creeps up below you, intent on frying you into little elephant bits that would probably taste quite nice on a salad. There’s little soldiers who hide in spiky shells who remain infuriating until you realise that the shockwave from a nearby ground pound will knock ’em over, and tanks that lob fireballs. Laser fire must be dodged, attack patterns learned, platforms leapt on, flamethrowers cursed loudly and walls destroyed. It’s all about timing, people, and as the game goes on different groups of enemies get mixed together, constantly demanding that you keep up or fail. Having said that it’s not a hugely difficult game, but it successfully straddles the line between not being overly difficult and still providing some sort of challenge.
To advance the final regular stage in each area you need to stomp, ram, batter and squash a requisite amount of the enemy forces, and each section of the map finishes up with an enjoyable if pretty standard boss fight. It’s a bit of pain, though, because while the death toll required in early levels to progress is usually quite manageable, later on the branching level design sometimes leaves you locked out of a path containing fifty or so enemies, so you can find yourself having to replay levels just to hunt down a couple more baddies to unlock the last stage in each section. It’s a cheap, artificial method of getting players to replay levels even when they don’t want to, such as in my case where I found myself missing about 70 corpses to progress, and had to trudge back through a few levels to mop up some bad guys I’d missed. Having just played those levels being forced to return to them was…annoying. The idea of going back to essentially “master” levels is fine, but it needs to be something the player chooses to do, rather than being forced. It also somewhat curtails being able to play the game purely at speed, which is how it feels like it was meant to be played, and encourages you to be a bit more careful.
If you haven’t already managed to figure it out then Tembo is a slightly conflicted game that doesn’t quite seem to know if it wants you to enjoy the satisfying feeling of keeping up your momentum and developing a rhythm, or if it wants you to stop and consider whether you’re breaking a platform you need in order to reach a civilian or something, or double back to check another path lest you leave a bunch of baddies alive that stops you unlocking the last stage. It’s a dichotomy between a desire for speed and a desire for slower, more thoughtful platforming action, and the game doesn’t always manage to balance the two out. You’ll be charging along, tossing enemies aside and entirely in the zone, and then have to come to a halt to reach a secret area, or to backtrack to go down a separate route to mop up some extra unlucky goons.
It’s not enough to ever stop the game from being fun, though. The DNA of both Sonic and Donkey Kong clearly resides within the gameplay mechanics, including the way cannons are frequently used to fire you off to a new section of the level and even how certain sound effects gently remind you of the old days. At the same time while Tembo the Badass elephant may not do anything new or groundbreaking it stands as its own game, riffing on the classics but never wholly ripping them off. Indeed in some ways it feels like the modern Sonic we’ve been waiting for, which is a heady compliment.
It helps that it’s a visually lovely game, featuring incredible colors and vibrant backgrounds and great animations. Truthfully these static pictures don’t do it very much justice as they make the game seem flat and almost cheap, but in motion it really is a fantastic looking game with plenty of nice details and energy. The music, too, is spot-on. It’s not memorable or great, but it suits the game well.
Having been helming the Pokemon series for so long it’s nice to see Game Freak stop hurling Pokeballs around the office (I’m just assuming that’s what they do by this point) long enough to work on something different, and if Tembo the Badass Elephant is anything at all it’s proof that they should do it again sometime soon. Tembo may not break the template but it’s a damn fun action-platformer in its own right with an immediately likable character and compelling gameplay, which is enough to earn it a recommendation from me.
Recommended games may either be truly amazing all round, or possess some quality or qualities which make them worth playing, such as a stellar story, amazing graphics, superb gameplay etc. This also means it’s possible for a game that plays badly, looks terrible and sounds horrible to achieve a recommendation if it has, for instance, an amazing story.