Game Freak is a studio that is most famous for the Pokémon games, with years of developing exclusively for Nintendo’s platforms, so it was a bit of surprise when SEGA announced it was publishing a game by the studio for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. That game is Tembo The Badass Elephant, a new IP that borrows quite heavily from a blue coloured member of SEGA’s stable. Though that particular influence is noticeable, Game Freak has tried to make a mark of its own in the side-scrolling platformer genre. The question is whether Tembo will be remembered for all the right reasons, if at all.
The shadowy, evil organisation of Phantom has invaded Shell City with wave after wave of soldiers, helicopters, tanks, and even mechs occupying the city. Apparently the only hope is a former war elephant, Tembo, who is called back to service to destroy the Phantom horde. A war elephant isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination considering they were part of armies for centuries, with Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps one of the most famous mentions of their presence. Tembo doesn’t have an army supporting him in this fight though, going in as a lone commando while he comrades seem content to sit behind friendly lines and let the elephant cause chaos.
What you’re presented with then is a 2D side-scrolling action game in which an elephant dashes into enemy soldiers and smashes up all sorts of vehicles. And this can be incredibly be fun too as you watch Tembo dash across the screen then jump right on top of a tank, or uppercut a helicopter with his trunk. It is all set against a fantastic series of environments which are vibrantly colourful, and each area carrying its own identity from Shell City to the rolling green hills. Tembo the Badass Elephant is one of the better looking side-scrollers I’ve seen in a while, and is on par with some of the best in the business in that field.
The sound and the music is also top notch, with some suitably powerful tracks cutting in as the bigger boss battles begin. The environmental sounds of Tembo trumpeting, people cheering, and glass smashing are all well done, adding to the fun atmosphere that Tembo the Badass Elephant tries to generate. Everything is in place for what should be a contender for best side-scroller of the year, but the actual gameplay can be so damn infuriating.
Each level follows the same basic premise of getting from beginning to end while destroying as much Phantom equipment as possible, as well as save ten captured civilians, which really encourages you to explore and find hidden areas within stages. Fighting the enemies for the most part is easy enough, but the shine is taken off when wrestling with the controls. To understand the predicament you first need to know the default mapping of the controls with (on PS4 at least) Cross is jump, while it’s Square to dash, Square + up to uppercut, Square + down to slide.
You can quickly find yourself dashing when you want to uppercut and vice versa if you move the analogue stick even slightly in a different direction – you can use the D-Pad instead of the analogue sticks, but I actually found that just as cumbersome. Holding a trigger has Tembo spray water, but aiming is yet another job for that poor left analogue stick. The other control options in the game don’t improve much and don’t let you spreading out the controls to other buttons, which would have made Tembo the Badass Elephant a much better experience.
Then you have the difficulty of some stages that is just ridiculous, and has you rely more on luck than skill. It feels like SEGA and Game Freak saw the success of overtly hard games and tried to replicate their success, forgetting the one tenet that makes those games fun in the first place. Those games respect the player enough to make challenges that can be beaten with skill, following a tough but fair rule. In Tembo the Badass Elephant, the levels are made tough by throwing more and more enemies on screen, and it all comes down to luck if you’ll make it through a section due to how quickly Tembo can succumb to injuries and the stinginess of health drops.
Then there are the boss battles. The last couple of boss fights are so cheap they make 99p stores look expensive. This is because their bullets bounce around the environment, but instead of a single salvo of bullets to content with, you might end up facing a dozen homing missiles, bombs being launched at you and lasers being fired, as well as the projectiles that bounce about the place. Couple that with no health drops and your facing missions which aren’t trial and error, but trial and anger inducing because there is no real pattern to try and counter. The line of making a boss tough but balanced is a fine one, and it’s a line that is crossed repeatedly.
But before you even get to the boss battles you have to unlock levels by reaching an arbitrary number of enemy kills. Each level has a set number of enemies to beat and the amount you get is tallied up, and you’ll have to go back through repeatedly, as each section of the game features a level locked behind this kill count. It’s a simple enough system, but it also feels like a mechanic that has been put in to inflate the gameplay time without actually adding anything enjoyable. Instead it hinders your progress and slows the pace of the game.
It feels that SEGA were trying to aim for a Sonic game without the blue hedgehog, and those influences aren’t just implied but lifted from some of the classics. There are a couple of levels set in a theme park which would not have looked out of place in Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2, but they don’t quite give you the same level of satisfaction. There are also bits where Tembo will roll really fast through tunnels collecting peanuts, similar to rolling through areas and collecting gold rings.
Tembo the Badass Elephant could have been so much more than what is offered. SEGA seemed to be searching for a successor to Sonic with Tembo but at the same time wanted to get a piece of the market for particularly hard games, forgetting to make it fair at the same time. It is an incredibly nice looking and sounding game, and when everything falls into place Tembo is a joy to play, but these instances are rare. The poor control scheme mixed with stupidly hard late levels, which almost caused me to destroy my controller, take major points away from what could have been a promising game.
Version tested: PlayStation4