Tembo The Badass Ele­phant

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PC, PS4, Xbox One

Let’s ad­dress the ele­phant in the room: Tembo, your game isn’t very good. The prob­lem isn’t vis­ual, the art style ooz­ing a quirky ’90s ’tude. And if you have to build a plat­form­ing moveset by pil­fer­ing from an­i­mal mas­cots, you could do worse than to bor­row Yoshi’s flut­ter jump and ground pound, or Sonic’s dash from Rush and his abil­ity to curl into a ball of de­struc­tion. But mix­ing both? That’s an iden­tity cri­sis right there.

Split be­tween its na­tures, Tembo The Badass Ele­phant can’t de­cide what it wants to be, ei­ther. A combo me­ter for chain­ing kills and smashed ob­jects sug­gests you ought to run these lev­els at speed, but then en­e­mies and struc­tures are spaced too far apart to keep a combo go­ing. Early on, en­e­mies’ at­tacks be­come timed ex­actly to make you slow down or suf­fer, but then come in such types and vol­umes that you can’t al­ways af­ford to be pa­tient. Fi­nally, the crit­i­cal path is greased for Tembo’s quicker moves, but you can only un­lock later lev­els by clear­ing out a high per­cent­age of non­de­script evil-do­ers PHAN­TOM (whose aim seems to be to pro­mote the colour pur­ple), en­forc­ing pa­tient back­track­ing.

Or, rather, plod­ding back­track­ing: when he’s not charg­ing, Tembo han­dles with all the weight and none of the grace of a real ele­phant. The con­trol scheme is clunky too. Why, when you have face but­tons free, would you bind the bounc­ing ball smash per­formed from the air to the same in­put as the ground dash? Given how fussy the game is about land­ings, it makes at­tempts to tran­si­tion from jumps into dashes a lottery.

But a stop-start rhythm would be eas­ier to en­dure if the level and en­emy de­signs weren’t grad­u­ates of the sadist’s school of plat­form­ing, pun­ish­ing you for us­ing your moves as of­ten as not. That ball smash-cum-spin at­tack is the worst cul­prit, at first seem­ing like a good way to en­ter fights, but bounc­ing you into the air and into pro­jec­tiles. It’s also a li­a­bil­ity for plat­form­ing, too un­pre­dictable to use ex­cept when tele­graphed, and ca­pa­ble of smash­ing through crum­bling plat­forms, which is galling when you need to get a move on but have to leave a pause to en­sure you land prop­erly first.

Where Tembo finds any trac­tion is in the only thing it seems clear on: big, dumb de­struc­tion. It’s here Game Freak feels able to have some fun with its comic-book premise, per­haps us­ing a gi­ant bowl­ing ball to mow down grunts, or wreck­ing pil­lars to re­shape a puz­zle room. If Tembo is ever let out of his pad­dock again, the stu­dio would do well to re­fo­cus on his daftest mo­ments of fluid ac­tion-cin­ema car­nage. As it is, he’s left to star in one of the most un­gainly plat­form­ers of re­cent years, a clumsy re­minder of 1990s ex­cesses rather than a trib­ute to the 16bit golden age.

Tembo’s back­drops are won­drous, and its star is full of ex­pres­sive touches. One par­tic­u­larly fine mo­ment is when you re­turn to life, the mil­i­tarised ele­phant down­ing a jar of peanut but­ter to give him strength to con­tinue

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