Tembo the Badass Elephant: review

When you think of Game Freak, you’d be forgiven for struggling to think of anything other than Pokémon. Over the last twenty years, the developer has practically become synonymous with their animal battling franchise despite their development of games such as Drill Dozer or HarmoKnight. Tembo the Badass Elephant also stars a battling animal as its titular hero, though that’s where the similarities end.

Tembo the Badass Elephant barely has a story. Players take control of Tembo as he is called back into the service of the army to take on the nefarious forces of PHANTOM across the three regions of Shell City. While the game won’t be winning any literary awards, this threadbare plot is really all the game needs. The events are told rather well in short motion comics detailing the transitions between each region with a vibrant and inviting art style.

The levels themselves also feature this style and it’s really a pleasure to look at, perfectly capturing the cartoon aesthetic that it’s going for. It works well with the 3D environments, the two disparate styles meshing together to form one cohesive look. There’s also a surprising amount of visual diversity in these levels, even within the same region. There are dilapidated cities, lush forests, mechanical strongholds, craggy mountains, a fairground, and even a train in which to take on PHANTOM. They all look great and stand out, as well as taking a few of their unique elements and turning them into level mechanics.

Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. Tembo may be a “Badass” Elephant, but he is not a “Badass” platformer hero.

Tembo has a small arsenal of abilities. He can charge, turn his trunk into a hammer for an uppercut, do a butt stomp, and hurtle diagonally to the ground in a ball. While they all work fine alone, there are a lot of situations in which you have to chain them together and the whole thing falls apart. We can’t count the amount of times we needed to charge ahead and transition into an uppercut, only to stare agape as the moronic elephant then decided to use his ball hurtle ability to fly off the stage despite not being told to do so. We tested that a lot, and it still baffles us as to why he insists on doing this. We suspect Skynet interference.

Outside of mechanical gaffes, it’s all just a bit boring. Tembo’s charge is fun the first time you run forward knocking a wave of enemies into the air, but by the tenth time you’re required to do it you might scratch your head and wonder if Game Freak didn’t really know what else to do with it. They certainly never do anything interesting with it to raise the difficulty, as they achieve that by just throwing more enemies on the screen rather than any clever level or enemy design.

While the levels look great and are pretty sizeable, they’re extremely dull. Aside from one taking place on a moving train, there are none that do anything particularly interesting or new. In a world of Freedom Planet and Shovel Knight, you can’t just release a run of the mill, pedestrian 2D platformer any more. It’s even more of a problem when Tembo features sprawling, diverging levels with lots of hidden areas to seek out, but no compelling reason to do so.

The game’s bosses range from dull to shrug-inducing, with a little bit of bafflement mixed in. The first boss is a giant tank-slash-dragon that shoots fireballs at you and that’s kind of it. It took us a while to figure out how to defeat this boss not because it was hard, but because it would have been insultingly simple had a required element actually ever been on screen. It’s a terrible example of mechanical communication and level design that is incredibly confusing from a developer of Game Freak’s calibre. A later boss is similarly simple, if not for the previously mentioned mechanical problems that will send Tembo hurtling into projectiles at the behest of Skynet.

There are three types of collectibles in each level: peanuts, ten survivors for Tembo to rescue, and the hearts of the PHANTOM troops. That last one may not have been entirely accurate, but you’ll rack up points for each PHANTOM member killed. It provides the game some replayability if you really want it to. Unfortunately, you also need a certain amount of PHANTOMs killed to unlock each boss level, which involved redoing levels in the second region. That’s never fun, so it fits well in Tembo the Badass Elephant.

Game Freak are known for fantastic music thanks to the Pokemon games and even have a rhythm game under their belt, so how they managed to put together a completely forgettable soundtrack for Tembo is – and this seems to be a word that epitomises this game – baffling.

Tembo’s sprawling level design combined with its dashing and ball attacks remind us a lot of the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games, unfortunately mired by the unresponsiveness and mechanical issues of Sonic’s more recent 3D outings. The 2D platformer has seen a resurgence in recent years with a wealth of excellent examples of creativity in design. If you really want to play Tembo and aren’t an elephant enthusiast, go play any one of those instead. Any one at all.

critical score 3

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Written by Adam S

Hailing from Parts Unknown, Adam grew up with a passion for three things: Videogames, anime, and writing. Unfortunately his attempts to combine the three have yet to form Captain Planet, but they have produced some good byproducts.

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