Tembo The Badass Elephant
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