As far as videogame names go Tembo the Badass Elephant is pretty rubbish. It’s up there with Punky Skunk and James Pond II: Codename Robocod, but thankfully that’s where the similarities end, Tembo, as it’ll no doubt be known, is a surprisingly joyful 2D action platformer from Sega and Game Freak, a developer more widely known for their work on the various Pokemon Games. Feeling like a modern mash up of old school Sonic and the more recent adventures of Rayman, Tembo will no doubt win players over with its excellent gameplay and bright visuals from the moment they start playing.
The game begins via a handful of comic style slides in which you’re introduced to the titular Tembo, the saviour of Shell City, now overrun by the invading PHANTOM troops. And from there it’s clear it’s up to Tembo to save the occupied city. There’s not much more to the story in truth, but really it’s all that’s needed, setting the scene nicely and letting players get stuck into the game.
After a brief tutorial stage which introduces players to Tembo’s various abilities you’re soon let loose on the first of seventeen stages, and it’s here where the fun begins. The opening few stages may feel a tad simplistic but don’t worry, things soon ramp up as you begin to nail down the timing and chain dashes, jumps stomps and uppercuts together into a surprisingly fluid and enjoyable experience. At first you’ll bash through walls, ceilings and enemies creating a pleasant rhythm as you go, before slowly coming to grips with the more complex and sprawling stages as you progress. And it’s here that Tembo is at its best, breaking up its faster paced segments with inventive platforming, such as using Tembo’s water cannon like trunk to put out fires, or to fill balloons in order to make useable platforms and bounce pads.
Occasionally you’ll also come face to face with bosses or mini-bosses in the shape of tanks and helicopters, they’re not particularly difficult at first but once they start coming at you in groups the challenge begins to ramp up, much like the rest of the game. Even as the difficulty curve creeps up, it still manages to come as a bit of a surprise - or at least it did for me - when after an hour or two you finally realise, Tembo is a bloody tough game. But even so, that by no way means Tembo’s unsuitable for younger players, in truth they’ll probably end up being better at it the likes of myself. What it is however, is refreshing, seeing a new IP start boldly and avoiding boring or patronising its audience.
However if there’s anything negative that could be said about Tembo it’s the game’s adherence to a few old mechanics that can feel a tad dated, especially if you don’t invest a lot of time into 2D platformers already. The game does supply you with plenty of lives to burn through, but rather annoyingly once they’re gone, after seven or eight stages worth of play, your next death will end up erasing your progress within the level you happen to be playing, before handing you another half dozen lives. It’s not a major issue, but as a punishment it does feel somewhat arbitrary. Of course there are collectibles to pick up that increase your available lives as you dash through stages, but they only seem to delay the problem rather than remedy it.
As well as this, throughout each stage civilians can be rescued, serving as they do, as Tembo’s hidden collectibles. While finding them can be a lot of fun as you figure out exactly where they are and how to reach them, it can get irritating when you’re killed between checkpoints and any civilians rescued since the last checkpoint are reset. It’s either a strange design choice or a mildly irritating oversight, forcing players who want to hunt down collectibles to replay puzzles they’ve already solved should they die. That being said it’s only really going to affect those interested in chasing a one hundred percent completion rate, and doesn’t detract from the rest of the game in any meaningful way.
And that’s Tembo in a nutshell, a game capable of surprising those who pick it up, and ensuring that those who do will want to come back to it. It’s well-balanced mix of high speed running and smashing blends seamlessly with its chunky combat and challenging platforming to make a truly impressive 2D action platformer. Despite a few minor niggles Game Freak have delivered a standout game here, and across its various - beautifully designed - stages and settings Tembo manages to ensnare its audience and remind players that 2D platforming isn’t, by any means, a cakewalk, even for a badass elephant.