Comparisons between Tembo The Badass Elephant and Sonic The Hedgehog are bound to be drawn due to their shared publisher Sega, but Pokémon developers Game Freak's colourful platformer also owes a great deal to Nintendo's Donkey Kong Country series.
Tembo blends elements of both, with its elephant star's bursts of speed evoking the blue speedster while the weightier platforming sections and often quite punishing difficulty bring to mind the iconic ape. All of this is wrapped up in a lively art style and a great sense of fun, but it's the game's style which impresses most – not its substance.
Tembo is essentially Rambo with a trunk and a peanut habit. He is called in by a moustachioed Shell Army general to help stamp out the threat posed by the invading PHANTOM army. This sets up a batch of initial levels each with a set number of enemies to dispatch and 10 civilians to find and rescue.
What Game Freak has done best here is create a platformer that fits neatly between two respected series without feeling too much like a rip-off of either. Tembo is powerful but fast. He can attack, charge to take down enemies or build momentum for a jump, use his trunk to spray water at obstacles and ground pound to defeat certain enemy types and hit switches.
These are the tools in Tembo's arsenal and each is introduced in the first full level. Having a set skill-base players master rather than add to as the game progresses is no bad thing, but Tembo's difficulty is poorly managed – offering up all the frustration of a tough challenge but with little sense of achievement when it is overcome.
Challenge vs Fun
Donkey Kong Country is a challenging game, but there's a rhythm to its gameplay that takes time and skill to tune into. Tembo doesn't have this due to how often the player is required to stop hurtling forward to search for objects needed to obtain a high score. When you stop like this the game quickly becomes sluggish.
When the challenge presented is a room of enemies or a precise platforming, Tembo can become a joyless slog. During a handful of sections players are chased down with the threat of instant death and there's very little room for error - to go from the fluctuating pace to this is jarring.
In the case of something like Donkey Kong Country the challenge comes from mastering each level's enemies and obstacles, not from battling how the character you play as controls. Tembo is hardly a graceful beast, wrecking tanks, crashing helicopters and barrelling through groups of PHANTOM troops, which is why the moments which command more precision than the character was designed for frustrate so much.
Regular frame rate stutter only made matters worse. Typically occurring when the speed and chaos picked up, it hindered what little sense of flow had been built up.
Tembo is also remarkably frigid with lives. Running out of them takes the player back to the level-select screen – such is genre convention - but at least other games make gaining and building up a bank of new lives relatively easy. Restarting a level from the pause menu also drains one, which makes absolutely no sense.
I suspect the game was made more difficult to artificially lengthen the time spent playing its 18 stages, but even so the manner in which Game Freak has handled things is disappointing in the face of everything else the game has to offer.
Taking out enemies is a blast, the design stellar from top to bottom and there are a host of wonderful touches. Logic clearly went out the window when Game Freak pitched "Rambo Elephant" - so there are huge pinball machines for Tembo to bounce around, enormous bowling balls to throw at tanks and most endearingly of all the civilians you rescue then ride on Tembo's back.
The creativity of Game Freak is commendable. They're so close to something brilliant with Tembo but they've hindered the player's pursuit of fun with a game that is cruel and punishing without much sense of achievement – only a sense of relief.