Tembo the Badass Elephant Review

By Shawn Collier on July 22, 2015

Long known for their work on the Pokémon series of games, developer Game Freak has recently been experimenting with some non-Pokémon titles, including rhythm and even horse racing. Their latest experiment, Tembo the Badass Elephant, sees the developer trying out a platformer this time around --- but this time interestingly partnering with SEGA. Those who know SEGA know they are most famous for their Sonic the Hedgehog games, and interestingly enough Tembo the Badass Elephant borrows quite heavily from the classic titles in that series. And it manages to do so taking the best elements of that franchise while still being its own entity.

Controlling a badass elephant who trumpets into enemy lines is already a delightfully absurd concept, so it's quite fitting that Game Freak went all in in that regard with the game's storyline. The evil, shadowy organization PHANTOM has invaded and occupied Shell City with their onslaught of soldiers, helicopters, tanks, and even mechs. And who's the best person, nay animal for the job? A former war elephant, Tembo, that's who. It's not as an absurd concept if you think about it, since there were real-life armies that used them for centuries in battle, but having said elephant going in full-on rampage mode causing chaos just makes things that much more amusing.

Hearkening back to the older Sonic titles, Tembo the Badass Elephant is a 2D side-scrolling action game where you control Tembo as he uses his weight to dash into enemy soldiers and destroy their vehicles. You can go different ways of attacking said enemies as well, from jumping on top of a tank to flatten it to even using Tembo's trunk to literally uppercut a helicopter.

Normally you'd expect a game featuring an elephant to have somewhat unwieldy controls, but once again returning to the Genesis-era Sonic references, the controls in Tembo the Badass Elephant work in an easy-to-pick up but still deep fashion. Holding down one button will cause Tembo to start dashing forward, where you can smash into the air or slam into the ground by pressing up or down respectively. You also have the ability to use Tembo's trunk to spray water, which outside of the normal uses one expects from elephants like putting out fires, can also be used to shorten out electrified objects or spray objects which turn into platforms, which you can use another button to make Tembo jump.

It's a small move set, but Game Freak does a good job of making you get every use of it with the enemy placement. You have your generic foot soldiers and tanks, but there's also aerial units to contend with and even giant mechs occasionally. Each of these requires different approaches to defeat, and the game also will throw out projectiles such as fireballs or electric bolts.

It also works nicely in that your movement speed is tied to a button instead of by how fast you're moving. This approach also allows speed runners to race through the level as quickly as possible for the best time or to escape a bad situation more easily, but also lets newcomers to the genre take their time learning the levels and the controls and completionists search the level for every collectible.

And speaking of the stages, the choice to release the game on current-gen consoles and PC did a wonder for the art style in the game. The graphics present themselves a bit flat when seen through static screenshots, but seeing the game in motion makes it come to life in that stereotypical action cartoon style the game takes inspiration from --- even down to the comic book-style sound effect text that appears when things happen on screen.

That isn't to say the game is perfect, however. Later in the game there's levels that feels somewhat unbalance. I encountered a few levels in particular that felt like the developers thought "more enemies = more advanced levels" was the way to go, so it felt less like skill than luck getting past those segments alive. This thankfully wasn't the case for the majority of the game, but it detracts from the expertly designed stages present elsewhere in the game.

Tembo also employs a weird progression system that works against those who want to treat the game as a speed running title. There's four "worlds" in Tembo, each of which have their own levels that they're comprised of. The last couple levels are locked behind defeating a set number of PHANTOM soldiers, so unless you were methodical about defeating every last one of them along the way, you'll need to go back to previous levels and hunt down more foes. It doesn't really serve any purpose outside of artificially lengthening the game's play time.

Final Thoughts

But even with its faults, Tembo the Badass Elephant managed to rekindle that mix of speed and platforming that the older Sonic the Hedgehog titles had back in the day. It blends that perfect mix of exploration with the ability to speed run through levels effortlessly if you have the right skills. I never expected this type of a game from Game Freak or that such a game would exist in this era, but I'm sure glad it lives up to its "badass" namesake.

You get to control an elephant in a action platformer. It explains itself.
The controls are easy to pick up, but deep enough for those who want to master them.
Caters well to the speed runners and those who want to explore every nook and cranny.
Later levels are locked by enemy kills, works against the speed running aspect the game allows.
Some areas feel like luck getting through without farming enough lives.
It only lasts about 8-10 hours, which might be a negative for some people.
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