Also On: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Game Freak
ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10+
Tembo The Badass Elephant kind of comes from nowhere. It definitely suits the main character, an elephantized Rambo who wrecks up the place behind enemy lines, and maybe surprise works in favor of the game, as well. It's the kind of title that cuts to the chase, and that's a call to action that we answered.
Composed of a handful of regions, Tembo the Badass Elephant is a 2D action platformer centered around the kind of things an elephant can do (charging, trunk swinging, spraying water) and some special military stuff they normally can't (whipping around as a ball, downward dashing, opening a jar of peanut butter). These mechanics work well, to varying degrees, but are overall oretty polished.
It seems that the game's shining moments are centered around Tembo's momentum; charging downhill through an enemy camp, bouncing off pinball bumpers through perfect arcs of peanuts, and the laser grid chase sequences come to mind. While the slow puzzle-oriented sections aren't necessarily a drag, the slowness is felt, and that's not something players want to feel after a good rush through breakable stuff.
From all the notes that Tembo seems to pull from games like Genesis-era Sonic and Donkey Kong, it's missing a small but important link between the fast and slow. It's not even a matter of fast vs. slow, but more of a balancing act between fluid and finesse that asks this type of game to walk a very fine line to pull it off. While it doesn't completely nail the balance of the action against puzzle/platforming, levels that focus more on one side or another give a consistency that shows what the developers saw in Tembo.
The trouble with the run-n-jump genre is that it's so easy to screw up that players are sensitive to any imbalance. This can make what would otherwise be a great romp feel much more binary when the jumping and puzzle bits ask for some patience. This isn't a dealbreaker, but the gear-shifting was much more in the front of my mind. Some strange positives to how overly tight Tembo's controls are include changing direction off almost anything that launches him, but maybe that's why the military brought on a physics-defying elephant.
Each level has a couple boxes to check which award a badge for completing them (rescuing ten civilians and destroying all enemies). It's a nice bit of encouragement for players to replay some levels to 100%, although without giving any benefit to replaying boss fights. This is all in line with the game itself, however, and works along side the quick cutscenes, straightforward title, and no-nonsense action gameplay.
Maybe the most unbalanced part of the game is when the mechanics are applied to combat. It's either feast or famine in weirdly designed boss fights that are equally simplistic, but clunky enough to cause problems. A few tougher enemies don't seem to have proper tells to indicate where an opening will appear, and at the same time it feels great to plow through the fodder types that go down in a hit or two. The catharsis of destruction is always welcome, but it doesn't ever feel earned in Tembo, which comes off as clunky design.
Tembo the Badass Elephant hits a lot of the right notes, nods appropriately to its inspiration, and was a great, polished palette cleanser from the highfalutin indie stuff and overly dark AAA games we're awash with these days. Had it been as balanced as its high points were, it'd be an easy recommendation, but as it is, it's great for a few hours a night to just wind down. Just don't expect to remember it when all's said and done.