Tembo the Badass Elephant is a mammal on a mission as he crashes, stampedes and uses his trunk to jet-power wash his way through anything that stands in his path in Game Freak’s new 2D action-platformer. With SEGA in charge of publishing duties, it’s probably no coincidence that influences from the classic Sonic The Hedgehog games run through the heart of Tembo, which empowers players with its sense of speed and generously rewards them with that feel-good factor for smashing stuff up and collecting items. Yet, despite Tembo walking over well-trodden ground, it’s testament to the charm of this new character that he manages to stand on his own four feet and stamp his identity firmly on this challenging platformer.
Tembo is an ex-war elephant currently enjoying his retirement until he’s called back into action following the invasion of Shell City by an organisation known as Phantom. Pitting Tembo against its army of soldiers, mechs and bosses, the action takes place across multiple colourful stages as he attempts to take down three Phantom drones and gain control of the city. Rather than having an army of his own though, Tembo is the elephant equivalent of Rambo as he goes it alone with his arsenal of special abilities and sheer strength, earning points for each and every enemy he tramples.
The first stage that you power through is so reminiscent of the classic platformers of old it feels like you’re about to witness the birth of an important new SEGA mascot—though it doesn’t quite hit those heady heights come the final boss battle. While jumping from one platform to the next feels a little weighty (we guess that’s the downside of being an elephant), Tembo’s dash move allows him to smash through crates (Crash Bandicoot-style), pick up apples to fill his health meter, and gobble up peanuts to fill his peanut jar, which grants him an extra life each time he fills it; an action which is crucial if you hope to save time re-starting from checkpoints when you die rather than the beginning of a stage.
Gameplay evokes the spirits of the classics with strong level design and mechanics that sees Tembo hurtling through whole buildings, sending enemies flying into the air with his trunk uppercut and ground pounding into tanks, while attempting to carve out a path through each level and multi-task to avoid obstacles, such as fireballs and enemy fire. The traditional platforming staples are all here, with the likes of jump pads and shifting platforms that require timing and skill to use to prevent falling to your death, while man cannons send Tembo shooting up through the air sucking up a trail of tasty peanuts that send out a delightful pinging sound in a way that’s reminiscent of Sonic hurtling through his golden rings. It feels good.
Though each stage has a linear path from A to B, there’s also the side task of searching for 10 civilians, which opens up a level of exploration that will see completionists backtracking and exploring the verticality of stages. It’s a nice touch to see that every civilian you find jumps on the back on Tembo and joins him for the rest of the stage, clinging on for dear life as the loveable elephant ramps up his levels of destruction. Further light puzzle solving is required through the likes of quick decision making as you juggle killing enemies with avoiding their attacks and other obstacles, while attempting to work out the right path through each level. This might require nothing other than sheer brute force to smash through a reinforced door, a series of carefully planned platform hops, or the more subtle gesture of ground-pounding a button.
Points in Tembo are earned by taking down enemies, which goes towards your final score at the end of each stage. And it’s with the scoring system that things start to go a little downhill. After a fun start to Tembo’s journey, we completed three stages only to be greeted by a padlocked fourth stage, and the knowledge that we needed 600 points to unlock it. Sadly, that meant that the momentum we’d gained was abruptly halted due to the fact that we had to replay two of three levels we’d only just completed to rack up enough points to progress. This isn’t a one-off either as more padlocked stages occur later in the game.
Unless you’re the most skilful of players, this means that with 20 levels on offer you’re forced to repeat stages again and again. Now, while Tembo is definitely a game worth replaying, we’d rather do so at our own pace, and when it’s our own choice. Being forced to replay levels so early on did nothing but put us in a bad mood. Nevertheless, what it did do is force us to learn each stage inside out, which in turn meant that we could therefore finish some stages with a satisfying 100 percent completion rate. After the first bulk of stages, we also quickly learned that Tembo shouldn’t actually be played as quickly as a Sonic game. It’s tempting to dash with Tembo at every opportunity as that sense of speed and smashing up stuff feels fantastic, but it turns out it requires a more meticulous, measured and slower approach in order to get the most points possible, and find all the civilians.
Indeed, as you progress to the second set of stages, the action reminded us a little of Ubisoft’s Rayman series. Using Tembo’s trunk to water flower buds and seeds to reveal hidden enemies and platforms that disappear after a certain amount of time, slower-paced platform hopping kicks in before the action ramps back up again with the likes of fireballs, flying enemies and tanks doing their best to block your tracks. Tembo loses health quite quickly, and during some sections there’s so much going on on-screen to either avoid or kill that it can get a little frustrating. Consequently, Tembo is a challenging game, with some sections requiring a trial-and-error approach, and even a bit of luck. When things click however, and you’re chaining together combos and smashing through stages with perfectly-timed button presses, it’s an absolute joy to play.
The soundtrack and audio is immense too with the trumpeting fanfares during boss battles, the satisfying tinkle of picking up items, and the glorious crashing sounds caused by tumbling buildings, complementing its gameplay and quirky main character. The vibrant cartoon-like visuals are beautiful too with colourful, detailed stages and slick animation bringing it to life. With the likes of airbases, forests, and a moving train to traverse, the backdrops are also extremely varied, while animation rarely fails to amuse (nudging a bowling ball into a group of soldiers to score the perfect strike, for example).
Tembo the Badass Elephant is an exhilarating reminder that when platforming is done right there’s no better genre out there that provides such instant pick-up-and-play thrills; that thought was compounded when we played a fair chunk of Tembo via Remote Play on PlayStation Vita which suited the handheld perfectly. While the action generally flows well, Tembo does suffer from the disruption from padlocked levels, the awkward slow-paced jumping style of Tembo and some of the busy levels that require an insane amount of precision or good luck. While this holds Tembo the Badass Elephant back from being the classic platforming experience that it teased in its opening level, when it gets that balance between fun and challenge spot on it’s an absolute blast.