Tamarin really should have been awesome. A nostalgia fuelled love letter to the Rare classics of yesteryear, it effortlessly evokes fond memories of cult hit Jet Force Gemini from the N64. There’s good reason for this too, with developer Chameleon Games made up of several key members from Rare’s much beloved Nintendo glory days. There’s clearly a ton of talent behind the scenes, from Banjo-Kazooie character designer Steve Mayles through to Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise, which is why I’m absolutely baffled that Tamarin kind of, well, sucks.
The set-up for Tamarin is refreshingly simple and devoid of backstory or world building. It can very easily be summed up: an army of evil industrial ants have invaded and destroyed the home of the Tamarins. The fowl Formicidae have kidnapped three members of the Tamarin family and so it’s up to the player, as the sole surviving monkey, to launch a rescue mission. That’s it, there’s no further rationale required for the third person platforming and shooting that follows.
Tamarin is really a game of two halves. The first is a 3D Platformer that see’s the player exploring and navigating a Metroidvania styled environment, gathering a plethora of collectables to unlock further progress. The second is a more traditional corridor shooter, as the Tamarin uses a very limited selection of weaponry to gun down the ant overlords. Despite their mechanical differences, both sections of the game are united by the fact that they are undermined by some poor design decisions.
But first, before the negativity apocalypse begins, let’s cheer ourselves up by discussing the positives of Tamarin: the character and audio design. The Tamarin is without doubt the cutest and most loveable fluffy wuff I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It has fur so lovingly animated that it immediate invites comparisons to Sully, the fluffed up blue titan of Monsters Inc., which is a massive compliment. The soundtrack is similarly brilliant throughout, achieving the enviable balancing act of being both upbeat, distinctive and insanely, brain-scratchingly catchy. It’s the equivalent of an entire soundtrack being made up of the LEGO Movie anthem Everything is Awesome. The battle music, in particular, is a funktastic highlight.
Right then, so that’s the positives done.
The exploration segments of Tamarin are undermined entirely by some of the worst signposting I’ve seen in a video game… because there isn’t any. The player is lobbed into a level with very little idea of where they are going. Eventually, after wandering aimlessly, you’ll find a hedgehog who will ask you to find some collectables in order to unlock progress. The problem is, the hedgehog could be literally anywhere and the only visual identification of his possible location is a tiny pile of leaves. The game provides no visual or audio clues as to the path you should take.
On one particularly painful stretch of the game I spent forty minutes searching until I finally found that stupid hedgehog in a random corner of the map. He then demanded I wander the map some more to find fruit to feed his insatiable berry addiction so that he might give me a power-up for my trouble. You’re lucky I was playing the game for review Mr Hedgehog, as were that not the case I’d show you exactly where you can stick those berries.
All that meandering is exacerbated in its tediousness by a series of repetitive environments that offer little variety in their appearance, causing the player to quickly get turned around and utterly lost. Worse, there’s no landmarks to identify where you are and where you should be going; everything is composed of identical bushes, trees, rivers and rocks that make for some rather pretty screenshots (especially when cherrypicking the best-looking locations), but all end up blurring into one. There’s one particular mountain that sticks out for just being a big mound of muddy brown textures.
If all that doesn’t drive you to drink, then the ‘super jump’ mechanic will surely have you chaining shots of tequila. For certain jumps the Tamarin can inexplicably jump further. Only on very specific jumps, mind you. How do you know when he can jump further you ask? Well, when you reach the edge of certain platforms, and only when you reach the edge, a little yellow arrow will appear on the opposite platform that you can leap to. It means you have to check every accursed bit of a level just in case a yellow arrow appears. Why can’t the Tamarin use his super jump to get to any of the other hundred odd platforms he can’t reach? Your guess is as good as mine.
As I already said, the gunplay doesn’t fare much better. At the start of specific closed environments, the thrice hated bundle of spikes will bestow upon the Tamarin some weaponry, which the little monkey can then used to go full Duke Nukem on a contingent of villainous ants. Here’s where the game thematically really doesn’t know what it wants to be. Up until this point everything has been a cutesy and fluffy collectathon, the Tamarin rolling into or jumping on the occasional beetle or dragonfly that simply disappears upon defeat. Now that same Tamarin is totting an Uzi and proceeds to eviscerate an army of ants.
Limbs are blasted off, heads are severed and ants explode in a giblet shower. You can even shoot and kill the cute Disney-esque birds you’re meant to rescue. It’s just plain weird and sits at odds with the rest of the game, like the exploration and shoot ’em up sections were designed by entirely separate teams and then quickly stitched together at the end of development.
I’d say there’s moderately more fun to be had blasting ants than exploring the environment, but not by much. There’s a handful of unit types to battle, but you foes are essentially the same ant foot soldier in a variety of different colours. Signposting is even a mess in these brief shooting episodes, with more aimless wandering to be had. One section in a factory was a particularly joyless experience that finally came to an end with no build up at all. There’s no pacing to the combat, no peaks or troughs, just blast a couple of ants and move on.
Aiming is woolly and indistinct, with no-lock on function and a camera that is slow and sluggish in its response, except for when the Tamarin is shooting at ants above ground level. In that instance the Tamarin can lock on to the target like a pro. Why can you lock on to some ants and not all the others? I’ll be honest and state that by this point I’d entirely ceased to care.