Tembo the Badass Elephant review: gotta go fast

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Sega
Developer Game Freak
Release Date

Tembo the Badass Elephant proves two (slightly modified) adages: game development makes for strange bedfellows, and don't judge a game by its terrible title.

Developed by Game Freak — that is, the same Game Freak responsible for the Pokemon franchise — and published by Sega, Tembo quickly elevates itself above its first impressions. Like Sega's classic 2D platforming franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog, this is a game about speed and momentum.

If Tembo the Badass Elephant is a game that unrepentantly draws on the DNA of Sonic the Hedgehog, it does so while also learning from all of Sonic's greatest flaws. It opens itself to a wider and more discerning audience by way of smart level design and a wonderfully quirky visual style.

Tembo the Badass Elephant follows a trail of destruction left by the titular pachyderm, a wild animal recruited into a war against an evil military force called PHANTOM. Tembo's mission is to cause chaos by running down enemies and rescuing prisoners of war.

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Tembo relies on smart level and encounter design to shine

The plot is straightforward in a way that matches the simplicity of the gameplay. Tembo has a very limited arsenal of moves. Holding down one button causes the elephant to dash forward, which can take out unprotected enemies on its own. Tapping up or down while holding the dash button causes Tembo to smash into the air or slam down onto the ground, respectively.

Tembo's only non-destructive option is the ability to spray water from his trunk, putting out fires and temporarily shorting out electrified obstacles.

With a fairly small move set, Tembo relies on smart level and encounter design to shine. It delivers in this respect as well. PHANTOM soldiers come in a huge variety of types, including tanks, helicopters and giant mech suits. Each type requires different strategies to take them down, often also challenging Tembo to dodge fireballs or bolts of electricity as he approaches.

The levels housing these enemies mostly follow a linear path from beginning to end, but there are often many short branches and hidden areas to explore for completionists hoping to rescue every prisoner of war and kill every PHANTOM soldier.

(A note here: "kill" may sound like a harsh word for such a cheerful, cartoony game. When Tembo runs down an enemy, they disappear in a puff of smoke and a skull symbol, floating to the heavens as your "enemy defeated" counter ticks one higher. You can interpret that as you want; in my mind, those PHANTOM scum were not just knocked out.)

Those levels (and all of the enemies and allies inhabiting them) are also beautifully animated. In screenshots, Tembo the Badass Elephant can look kind of cheap and flat. In motion, though, it's fluid and fast, a personality-filled cartoon come to life. Still images just don't do it justice.

None of this is revolutionary, but the immediate reactiveness of Tembo's controls ensured that I felt like a master when I was able to string my moves into a lengthy combo of destruction. The brilliance of Tembo lies in how it facilitates two separate types of gameplay perfectly.

Tembo the Badass Elephant review a 430

If you want to take things slow and steady, exploring levels to find every collectible and strategically tackling each enemy, the game will allow that. If you'd rather plow through the levels recklessly, smashing through everything in your path and trying to complete each zone in the shortest time possible, this is both allowed and encouraged via the dash button. And frankly, while I often found the former strategy more in line with my pace of play, the latter felt incredible as I memorized levels and was able to blow through them.

It's odd, then, that Tembo the Badass Elephant maintains a couple of confusing systems that purposefully slow things down. Like many platformers, progression is split into levels, which themselves are placed into four distinct "worlds." The last couple of levels in each world are locked behind a goal — a set number of PHANTOM soldiers that you need to find and destroy in the previous levels. These goals aren't hard to attain generally, but on a couple of occasions I was forced to return to old areas and hunt down foes that I missed in the far corners of the levels.

Tembo utilizes a strangely old-school 'life' system
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Likewise, Tembo utilizes a strangely old-school "life" system, where the elephant collects peanuts to crush into peanut butter, which revives him after death. Every 300 peanuts will grant you an extra life, which allows you to begin at a checkpoint when you die, rather than restarting the level entirely. Levels are long and complex enough that you're going to want this option, especially on initial runs as you're still learning the layout. I was rarely able to stick it out through a whole level if I went in with only one or two lives.

In a concession to this frustration, Tembo will refill you to five lives when you hit zero and get knocked out of a level. But if you want more than that, you're left to return to easier levels and farm peanuts for as long as you can stand it. Five was usually more than enough for me, but it was annoying needing to go into a level with only a couple lives, drop them and then return to the start with my refreshed stack. The life system just doesn't add to the sense of accomplishment provided by other areas in the game.

Wrap Up:

Tembo the Badass Elephant is a surprising new direction for Game Freak that pays off

Even when I was forced back into levels I had already conquered, Tembo rarely lost its momentum. In the eight hours I spent as an elephant soldier, I never felt like the game's flow was interrupted. Tembo the Badass Elephant is a direction I never would have expected Game Freak to go in, and it would feel redundant coming from Sega, if it wasn't so damn good at improving in the areas where Sega has failed. But however this strange beast came into being, I'm glad it was given the chance to exist.

Tembo the Badass Elephant was reviewed using an early download code provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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