Tembo the Badass Elephant is no run-of-the-mill indie title. This is a truly historic release, an action packed platformer created by none other than Game Freak, Nintendo’s own Pokémon Company. It gets crazier, as Tembo the Badass Elephant is published by the big N’s once arch nemesis, SEGA. We live in unusual times now, gone are the days of second party developers because the industry is now in a place where Ratchet and Clank developers, Insomniac, can create an Xbox One exclusive in Sunset Overdrive, and now Game Freak develop a title that is available on all major platforms (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One) except the Wii U. As ironic and unusual as this may appear, Game Freak always had it in them to make a stellar platformer without Nintendo, as nearly 20 years ago they developed Pulseman for the SEGA Genesis. Now it’s 2015 and Game Freak teams up with SEGA once more to bring an exceptional platformer that has you take control of an badass elephant. Tembo the Badass Elephant has all the ingredients of becoming a cult classic like Pulseman. Of course, Tembo is more than just an obscure and quiet release. Both SEGA and Game Freak have become household names at this point, and Tembo the Badass Elephant is quite easily one of the best platformers you’ll ever play past or present.
From the first training stage and all the way to the larger-than-life final boss, Tembo is an entertaining romp that not only gets more challenging as it goes along, but also more fun. It’s often with platformers that the difficulty spikes later on, making the experience more frustrating than anything. Tembo, on the other hand, manages to keep things fun while progressively spicing up the difficulty. It doesn’t do this by making the enemies stronger or by making the platforming unnecessarily tight, but rather it introduces challenge in the form of more intuitive platforming scenarios and some interesting physics-based mechanics. It also throws in some heart-stopping chase sequences, clever environmental puzzles, and above all, nails a fine balance between classic platforming and combat-heavy shenanigans.
Tembo is also a fast paced game and quite possibly the first since the Genesis Sonic titles to actually nail the balance between speed running and adventuring. Modern Sonic titles, and even most indie platformers for that matter, have simply devolved to one-track speed running affairs with little emphasis on exploration. Tembo may feel like it wants you to bulldoze through everything, but the level design encourages you to stop and look around, which makes the experience all the more memorable as cool secrets and hidden areas are stumbled upon.
Tembo simply shines in its level design, with a variety of cool gimmicks and all its little ideas coming together organically to create engaging and unique levels. Achieving a high score and 100% completion in Tembo is all about defeating every single enemy in a level (there’s a fixed number) and rescuing the hostages. This also factors in during game progression, as a certain number of Phantom emblems (obtained from destroying anything associated with the bad guys) are required to unlock certain levels. This can be a bit cumbersome, but thankfully replaying levels again is far from being an inconvenient ordeal, and more often than not you’ll collect the emblems necessary during normal playthrough to proceed smoothly with the campaign.
The dedicated boss stages showcase some truly epic mechanical behemoths, with the boss design ranging from an all-out brawl to something that demands pattern recognition and a bit of puzzle solving. The third boss battle in particular is perhaps the most interesting of the lot, built like a giant disco ball with a shield that needs to be deactivated before it can take damage. This involves literally tossing the boss around like it was a beach ball, and of course a badass elephant is best suited for the job.
This brings attention to what truly defines, distinguishes and sets apart Tembo from every other platformer: its titular character. So many platforming characters are mechanically derived from the tried and tested Mario and/or Sonic template, but Tembo is one of a kind. This commando elephant is all about sheer strength and momentum, giving players a sense of empowerment that only comes with stampeding as a badass military elephant. Tembo leaves a path of broken soldiers, buildings and machines wherever he goes. He is an unstoppable bulldozer, who is also smart enough to use his trunk to spray water during tricky situations. Spraying water comes handy when putting out fires, growing platforms from seeds scattered in some levels and of course to stir up some electrical charges. Tembo is mechanically the most unique and original character you will ever have the joy of controlling. He is in fact the pillar that makes Tembo the Badass Elephant such a special platformer, and the uniqueness of his play style is flawlessly complemented by the level design, bosses and the entire package. Tembo’s unique combination of speed and devastating strength (along with his other special abilities) simply has to be experienced first-hand to be believed and appreciated.
Visually, Tembo is no slouch when it comes to impressive set pieces and quirky design. Aesthetically, it’s like a comic book come to life, with a nice mix of sprites and 3D models that convincingly sell all the chaos and destruction taking place. Visually, it’s a bit like a modern day Comix Zone (SEGA Genesis, 1995). The huge 3D bosses, use of colorful particle effects, detailed backgrounds and animation of the titular elephant prove a vibrant attention to detail in Tembo.
Tembo the Badass Elephant is a platformer that only comes once in a while, making it an experience that no gamer can afford to miss. Game Freak takes a break from their Pokemon duties to show everyone that they’re no one trick pony and that Pulseman was no accident. The famed developer proves that they have a melting pot of amazing ideas and Tembo is a fine showcase of their creative genius. Tembo is a consistently engaging and entertaining platformer with a protagonist that is mechanically the most unique and awesome you will ever have the pleasure of controlling in the genre. Tembo provides an empowering character to control, complemented by a polished gameplay experience, which allows it to set itself apart from every other platformer out there, past or present. Game Freak may have an eternal bond with Nintendo, but this partnership with SEGA has given the gaming world something fresh and original. Tembo the Badass Elephant is easily one of the most memorable releases of 2015 and hopefully the beautiful beginning of Game Freak branching out from Pokemon (and Nintendo) to deliver more pleasant surprises.