Who do you call when a terrible invading army lays waste to your beloved homeland and defeats every conventional weapon you can throw at it? Why, you call Tembo the Badass Elephant, naturally. It’s play for game title of the year clearly made, this new platformer/stomp ‘em up from Game Freak gets straight into its work, calling veteran pachyderm war machine Tembo out of his quiet retirement (much like his **mbo pop culture namesake circa Rambo III) to confront the menace of evil invading force PHANTOM in a quick comic panel montage.
Tembo lumbers along elephant-like and deceptively slowly at first, but he can descend into a red mist and charge forward at speed, entertainingly smashing everything in his path as his thunderous footfalls play out in onscreen onomatopoeia behind him (BADA BADA BADA). He also flaunts nature as an elephant that can jump; while he’s airborne he can tuck and roll or bounce.
Combine this with occasional strategic military elephant cannons that launch him about the place at speed, glowing yellow peanuts that he collects to make life-sustaining peanut butter, and the Sega publishers logo at the start of the game, and players may be confused at points, assuming they’re playing Sonic the, Uh, Badass Elephant.
Tembo’s got more than a hedgehog’s job to do though; there’s civilians to be rescued and PHANTOM’s truly motley assortment of forces to be taken down. Just as a sample, enemies and obstacles to overcome include all-but-defenceless grunts, tanks, choppers, hang gliders, blokes with big knives, mechs, troopers lugging along spiked shields, giant dinosaur/bulldozer hybrids, and floating flaming skulls (although as an elephant, Tembo can fortunately at least deal with the flaming skulls with a squirt from his trunk water supply).
The variety seems to be aiming for a zany comic-book vein, but it ends up all feeling a bit incoherent rather than inventive. By the time Tembo is smashing through PHANTOM-themed log cabins, it’s clear that any story development for the game basically stopped at “What if there was this badass elephant?”
Tembo himself is immensely likeable though (the little animation of him frantically air-running to try and extend his jumps is almost worth the price of admission alone), and there are certainly less satisfying ways of finally dealing with that one annoyingly-placed shooter enemy on a top platform than landing on them with an elephant. It’s just a shame we don’t see a bit more of Tembo and his world outside the gameplay, as it feels like there’s a version of this game somewhere in an alternate universe with a hilarious script and more thought behind world and enemy design.
That’s perhaps forgivable in a small downloadable title, though. What’s harder to take is the progression system, which at certain points locks level advancement through the (fairly short) game until you’ve cleaned up a very high percentage of total enemies in previous levels.
With levels up to 20 minutes long, fairly unforgiving difficulty, and branching routes often far from obvious, you can expect to spend a lot of time replaying multiple levels to try and find the significant number of enemies the counter tells you must be there somewhere before you can move on. It feels like a cynical attempt to extend the life of the game, and unsurprisingly, it gets old very quickly.
Tembo the Badass Elephant’s killer hook is an advantage in an increasingly crowded segment of the marketplace, and the big grey guy himself is a joy, but the game fails to make the most of these assets by dropping its hero into surroundings that seem unworthy of his larger-than-life presence. It’s fun to furiously trumpet and get to smashin’ stuff as Tembo for a while, but before too long you’re reduced to hoping he makes his way over to a better sequel – or possibly the Virtua Fighter roster.