Tembo the Badass Elephant Review
What do you get when you cross Dumbo and Rambo? Why, Tembo: The Badass Elephant, of course. The new side-scrolling 2D platformer from Game Freak and Sega puts you in control of an elephant soldier that, despite his weighty behind, moves a lot like Sonic in the olden days. You will sprint, smash, dive-bomb, and hurtle towards the finish line of every enemy-packed level, thriving on the player’s ability to control Tembo’s speed and momentum. The result is a nicely designed, endlessly engaging old-school adventure with a hefty dose of cheerful craziness. It’s not without its flaws but it’s a solid, wonderfully fun little quest that could serve as a worthy distraction on the next rainy day.
On first glance, based on what I saw in the media, I wasn’t overly impressed with the visual presentation. The graphics, while generally appealing to the eye, didn’t seem especially accomplished and actually came across as somewhat flat and uninspired. However, the key to the game’s visual attraction lies in its fantastic sense of movement. Sure, the game won’t blow anyone away when Tembo is sitting still, but when is Tembo doing that? The animations that accompany every movement, on the part of both the main character and the enemies, are downright stellar, and these are what makes the experience viscerally remarkable. The level design is nice as well, even though there are some understandably frustrating segments.
The sound further plays into the goofy, over-the-top style by focusing squarely on the cheerful nature of the game. For instance, while you’re technically “killing” your foes, they’re hardly erupting in bright, gushing geysers of blood. No, they simply go “poof” and disappear, which is fitting for such a game. The soundtrack is a little too repetitive – and can get annoying very quickly – but otherwise, you’ll be happy with the combat and overall gameplay effects. As is the case with the visual effects when Tembo is at full tilt, the audio really shines when you’re moving at speed. It’s almost as if every technical element is begging you to fly through each level with breakneck abandon. And you know, that works.
If you’re unfamiliar, Game Freak is the developer that brought you Pokemon. This is a bit of a departure for them (as anyone who played the hell out of the Pokemon games on GameBoy Advance will tell you) and it’s pretty straightforward: Tembo was recruited into a war waged against an evil military organization called PHANTOM. Tembo just has to wreak as much havoc as possible while attempting to rescue various POWs, and if this sounds a lot like good ol’ Contra, you’re not far off. Of course, the control and gameplay is fast-paced platforming ala Sonic and it doesn't let you catch your breath. It takes a little time to grow accustomed to all the finer points of control, but it’s worth the learning curve.
Tembo doesn’t have a wide variety of abilities, which is a minor drawback. All he can really do is dash forward or perform a ground smash; he can eliminate lots of enemies at once with either maneuver, though, provided the execution is on point. He can also spray water from his trunk, which lets him douse fires and short out pesky electrified obstacles. But for the most part, Tembo just dashes and slams and that’s about it. At first, I considered this to be a bigger downfall because I figured I’d get tired of the same ol’ same ol’ and I lacked a sense of progression. If I’m not unlocking anything cool for Tembo to use as the game wears on, am I still going to be having fun? Will I tire of running and jumping?
Well, had the game controlled exactly like your standard, everyday platformer, the answer to the preceding question would’ve undoubtedly been “yes.” But this badass elephant’s admittedly small move set flourishes within this particular setting. That’s because the PHANTOM foes are actually wildly diverse, which is a huge bonus because traditionally, the enemies we face in such games are faceless and of limited variety. And just because Tembo doesn’t have a ton of different moves doesn’t mean he can’t be inventive. He has to take down certain opponents by dodging and using the environment to gain the edge, and it all has to happen very quickly. You’ll find yourself gripping the controller harder than intended.
Amid the beautiful animations, Tembo charges and eliminates. He never tires and he’s always ready to face down the biggest and baddest that PHANTOM can throw in his path. At times, you almost feel as if you’re trying to restrain the vigorous beast but as I said above, every fiber of this game’s being is screaming at you to move. One might be disappointed in the ultra-linear styling of the game, simply because the word “linear” has become a bad word in the industry today. But don’t forget that there are some shortcuts and hidden areas to locate and explore, and if you want to finish, you’ll have to eliminate all major PHANTOM foes in your path. This might require revisiting previously conquered levels.
The game excels when you get into that awesome rhythm of destruction, when you’re seeing two and three moves ahead and Tembo is locked in. Stringing moves together is loads of fun but if you want a break, if you want to slow down and check things out, you can try to find every collectible and hidden enemy. The game really wants you to dash and smash, obviously, but there’s nothing stopping you from easing off every now and then. The only problem is that when you do so, you immediately start to come down from the speed high. Your interest begins to wane and when you near the end, and you find that the last levels are locked until you defeat a set number of PHANTOM baddies, you frown in disappointment. I don’t really want to go back and search for enemies I missed. It’s just doesn’t fit the nature of the game.
Aside from that, there’s lots to like. Fans of the traditional side-scroller will probably appreciate the life system, as collecting 300 peanuts grants you an extra life. This lets you start a level at a checkpoint as opposed to starting over from the beginning, and as some of the areas are lengthy and forbidding, this is a very nice feature. Thing is, you’ll find that you won’t want to enter tough levels without at least a handful of lives, which may in turn lead to some peanut farming in earlier levels. I didn’t mind doing this too much, though, because the breathless spirit of the game kept me involved. I just started to lose some focus when the developers strangely pulled me from this wildly enjoyable tract.
Tembo the Badass Elephant is a goodhearted, challenging platformer where speed and rhythm sit at the forefront of the gameplay experience. It’s really about getting into that great groove, where enemies are going “poof” every second and Tembo is in absolutely no danger ‘cuz you’ve got him down cold. There are a few shortcomings but none of them should keep the intrigued from giving Tembo a go. It’s very much unlike any other game available right now, and it hearkens back to the golden age of the side-scrolling adventure. Die-hard Sonic followers are especially encouraged to apply, as are those who are feeling a little worn out by all those massive open-world games.
The Good: Beautiful animations throughout. Great level design. Generally well-paced and challenging without being frustrating. The rhythmic speed-oriented gameplay will reward the diligent. Cheerful, lighthearted exterior makes for a pleasant experience.
The Bad: The fun starts to slide as soon as you slow down. Going back to find missed enemies – or more peanuts – can get tedious.
The Ugly: “It’s an elephant soldier in a cartoon romp. No ‘ugly’ here.”
7/21/2015 Ben Dutka