If you thought a war-torn elephant with a possible case of PTSD would never make a suitable hero for a video game, you’d be wrong. Living out his retirement in the jungle, Tembo is called back into action to save the world from a bunch of dastardly, masked villains. While the idea of setting a freakishly intelligent elephant with an insatiable bloodlust and a penchant for peanuts loose on a horde of your enemies is a tantalising one, he’s obviously been at the buns since he last hung up his jaunty red bandana. Tembo lumbers his way through the game, slowing the whole thing to a disappointing crawl.
Tembo is a 2D platformer similar to Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. His backstory unfolds in comic book style panels that punctuate the stages, and they’ll initially win you over with a combination of cutesy charm and unbridled violence. Even the range of animations accompanying the demise of both Tembo and his adversaries are delectably gruesome - in a PG-13 kind of way.
He has quite the repertoire of moves, from a relentless charging assault and devastating ground pound, to a strained flutter jump and the mother of all uppercuts; but it soon becomes apparent that the vast majority of enemies can be killed by ambling over them at a brisk walk, so these extra moves are mainly used to traverse levels and solve the occasional environmental puzzle. And they’re clunky to use. You’d have more luck wrangling an elephant in the African savanna than you’d have at wielding a semblance of precision control over an insubordinate Tembo.
Despite the sluggish controls, boss battles are frenzied and intense, bombarding Tembo with lasers, rockets and the threat of being crushed by giant mechs. The frantic nature of these clashes is made all the more infuriating with the traditional 3-hit victory drawn out into at least double that, with no way to recoup health. If there’s one way to suck the fun out of a boss battle, this is it.
It’s all well and good when he’s blundering through the early levels, but it’s not as simple as running through from start to finish, snuffling up life-nourishing peanuts (à la bananas in Donkey Kong), and racking up combos. Before you know it, platforming areas are being introduced, and while he’s certainly got a gift for galumphing through the urban tundra, when it comes to navigating a complicated series of platforms - be they treadmills, violently unstable rocky outcrops, or budding trampolines that only flower when doused with water from his trunk - he just doesn’t cut the mustard. MIndlessly charging along is Tembo’s forte. He’s built for it. The heavy controls preclude him from feats of agility, and yet this is exactly what the level design ushers him into.
Toss a few of the more challenging enemies into the mix and what was an irksome flaw becomes a full blown handicap as you trundle around trying to dodge homing missiles from choppers, bouncing balls of flames spewed out by tanks and a few smug infantrymen pelting you with bombs as you edge into range. Suddenly you feel less like a badass elephant saving the world and more like a geriatric chicken trying to cross a road, hesitantly shuffling through these segments in a clumsy attempt to avoid taking a hit.
I’m sure you’re having some clever ideas about stampeding your way through if things get a little hairy. You’re a force to be reckoned with. You’ve got tusks. You’ve accessorised. But you won’t get far. Replayability is often an appealing feature in games of this nature, but if you initially sped through in a glorious grey blur, get ready to trawl through the levels again, almost immediately. It’s possible to clear them in just a few minutes, and as if to counter the brevity of these ebullient romps, but your progress is stalled by the penultimate level in each stage being locked until you defeat the appropriate amount of enemies to continue.
What’s more, there are no tallies for killing bad guys and saving prisoners in each level - the latter being an optional collectible - that roll over to your next attempt. Each run through resets the counter, resulting in a standalone score to be bested when you pop back for another go. You have to revisit every square inch, kill every enemy and save every hostage in one clean run - because nothing is more fun than manoeuvring a great hulking elephant around a terrain designed for something half the size and ten times more nimble. Twice.
The one thing Tembo does get right is the delightful thrill as you demolish pillars, houses, trees and anyone foolish enough to stand in your way. It’s eminently gratifying to watch platforms collapse in your wake, while you barrel along trampling puny humans and occasionally being jettisoned out of canons along paths lined with golden peanuts. When you’re stacking up those combos, boy howdy, does it feel good.
The problem is that these moments are few and far between and take a back seat to exploring, which becomes something of a drudgery when being browbeaten into replaying the levels. Tembo is an elephant. He’s a badass. He should be storming through stages reveling in bloodshed and peanut shells, but instead he’s consigned to waddling awkwardly about in all his finery, fending off deadly projectiles while he waits for PETA to get wind of his plight.
Tembo the Badass Elephant could’ve been a great, but the cumbersome controls paired with the platformer-meets-speed-runner level design, drags it down into the ranks of mediocrity. You’ll need a good supply of perseverance and a zen-like temperament to slog through to the end.