The Elephant is in the Room. I Repeat, THE ELEPHANT IS IN THE ROOM.
There’s always something amusing about game studio trivia. Knowing that Rare went from Banjo-Kazooie to Xbox Live avatar icons, or that there’s a crossover between the people who worked on Halo 4 and those responsible for the Metroid Prime series, reminds us just how thoroughly odd and unpredictable the video game industry is. Likewise, I’m sure it must tickle your fancy just as it has mine to know that the people who have brought us the world-renowned Pokemon franchise has now made a game called Tembo the Badass Elephant. It seems that even when transitioning from pocket monsters to animal-friendly sidearms, Game Freak has a thing for empowered critters with attitude.
Tembo is a veteran who has seen his share of warfare. The powerful pachyderm is a retired soldier, called back into action when the evil PHANTOM army takes hold of the homeland he has sworn by his trunk to protect. With a heavy heart, Tembo leaves his wife and child in a tearful goodbye, and prepares to go to war. He will take on soldiers, tanks, mechs, and plenty more on his way to freedom. The world is on fire, and only the water from his trunk of freedom can extinguish the flames.
A true warrior never forgets, and even less so when they have an elephant brain. Tembo has an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve, making up for his slow movement and heavy weight with a basic attack that sends him charging into (or through, really) enemies as fast as they can line their insignificant purple bodies up for him to bowl down. He can also jump, a move which can be combined with the attack button in a few different ways. Ground pounds, uppercuts, and Sonic the Hedgehog-style aerial spin attacks are all part of the tusked warrior’s moveset. Tembo can also spray water from his trunk, a tactic useful for clearing obstacles and immobilizing foes. He only has a certain amount of liquid stored away in that leathery spout of his, but he can refuel at various stations dispatched across each level.
The warpath of Tembo the Badass Elephant is divided into three worlds, each with four normal levels and a boss level. The game is a side-scrolling affair through and through, but doesn’t strictly subscribe to the single-direction design that many do. Some levels will guide Tembo vertically up or down more often than any other direction, with some cool variety that will send him through city streets, deep forests, and up into the reaches of space. Each level has its own thing going for it, all subscribing to the overall Tembo style while doing so. Tembo must save as many helpless citizens as he can in his campaign, some of which are well-hidden in the wrecked landscapes where he fights. Speeding trains, destructible pillars and giant bowling balls await in the weird world of warfare that Game Freak has constructed. Everything can flatten and explode under the weight of Tembo’s enormous, wrinkly form of justice, and the game goes to great and effective lengths to make players feel like the most destructive force in town.
Speaking of style, visual presentation is something that Tembo the Badass Elephant does right. The whole game has the look of an action-packed comic book, perfect for its overall goofiness. Anyone who played Game Freak’s rythym-based sidescroller HarmoKnight will recognize Tembo’s style as a slightly grittier version of how that game was presented. There are no talking rabbits or boys with giant music notes here, though; just terrorists, floppy-eared combat animals, and a whole lot of peanuts.
Each level in Tembo is pretty long, at a collective average of around 15 to 20 minutes per level. On one hand, this means hey, more content! Unfortunately, while none of these levels feel padded per se, they far too often wind up feeling longer than they really need to be. This is made more potent by a few parts of the game’s general sense of progression, which seems marred by three numerically-themed issues.
Here’s the list of big issues with Tembo: lives, level design, and progression. To tackle the first foremost, Tembo’s lives work just like those in a Super Mario Bros game, where each 100 coins collected gives the player an extra life. In Tembo, players collect peanuts, turning into jars of peanut butter that act as the PTSD-plagued pachyderm’s lives. The issue is that the tusked trooper requires 300 peanuts for each jar of peanut butter, a number that just doesn’t seem to match up with the spread of nuts collectable in some levels. 150 or even 200 would have been reasonable, but the 300 peanut requirement unfortunately makes the life system a lot less helpful and supportive than it should be. Players will run out of lives too frequently, losing their checkpoint and having to start a level from the beginning. What makes things worse is that this often comes through no fault of their own.
So how can it be this way? Is the game truly so punishingly difficult that Tembo is tipping like a huge, well-armed cow at every turn? The answer is a hearty “yes, but…” that leads a trail to the next big issue. It’s true, there are some challenging enemies within the military forces of PHANTOM. For the most part, even the stronger foes are well-designed, challenging in a positive way that gives opportunities to find weak spots to players crafty and quick-thinking enough to find them. The bigger issue lies not in enemy design, but in frequency. Some areas are chock-full of explosives-toting PHANTOM forces, so thick and heavy in density that it’s impossible to get to one without getting hit by two others. In these places, it seems like the factor of how large and slow Tembo is was not properly taken into account when designing the warfields through which his giant lumbering feet charge.
Continuing to talk about the sinister PHANTOM forces, the violet militia also factors into the final larger issue with Tembo the Badass Elephant. The last two levels of each world are locked, demanding a minimum number of PHANTOM enemies to be killed before Tembo can move forward. Each level has a set number of enemies in it, and tracks how many the player has found. What this usually results in is about 10 forgotten foes in each level, all of which have to be entirely completed to make those extra takedowns count for anything. Between backtracking and extra-close sniffing around and hunting down, this results in a solid couple hours of backtracking through levels in order to move forward, and it turns the game from gun-toting rollercoaster to backtracking time-waster. It’s one thing to give players a price to move forward in the game, but quite another to ask so much in the process that the player sees continuing on at all as little more than a chore.
Not without its share of bruises and war flashbacks along the way, Tembo the Badass Elephant comes out of the fray alive and kickass. The whole thing succeeds handily at its action movie vibe, and controls as tight as a machine gun in the sweaty but well-trained palms of a mercenary. It has its flaws, and won’t leave players without some frustration, but those brave and bloodthirsty enough to fight through them will find something fun, charming, and ultimately satisfying.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, ; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Game Freak; Players: 1; Released: July 21, 2015 ; ESRB: E 10+ ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Tembo the Badass Elephant provided by the game’s publisher, SEGA.