Tembo The Badass Elephant Review
Tembo wears a headband. It's not clear how he tied it without opposable thumbs and only one trunk. He also has a tree phone – that's how the friendly Shell Army contacts Tembo when invaders from space drop to Earth. How the phone wired in Tembo's rain forest abode is also an unknown. And where did he find the grenade strapped to his hide? It's beginning to seem as if this video game with a militaristic elephant who fights aliens called the Phantom Invaders is actually fiction.
That's okay. Tembo is as illogical as '60s era cartoon shows. It has their spirit too. George of the Jungle, Danger Mouse, Dudley Do Right; Tembo wants in their club. He'd fit there – mostly. Friendly violence, a sense of mischief, those boldly drawn outlines. But he is still a video game creation. Odd, weird, and kooky all fit as descriptors. Only in a video game would something this absurd be accompanied by elaborate orchestration where some themes appear to be culled from Rambo.
It is as if Tembo's existence is overruled by Kanye West.
Tembo is the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in years, despite having nothing to do with Sonic other than sharing a publisher in Sega. Take the good with the bad then. Tembo is designed to run fast, break stuff, and eat peanuts (there's a pinball stage too), but like Sonic, Tembo is consistently interrupted by entrapping level design. It is as if Tembo's existence is overruled by Kanye West.
“Yo elephant, I know you want to run fast, break stuff, and eat peanuts, but here's a level designed so you can't. It's the best of all time.”
Kanye West jokes are old, but Sonic is too. So there.
The spirit of this elephant is caught somewhere inside of an endless runner. Those moments where Tembo is allowed freedom - smashing through Shell City (although saving towns via destruction seems to counteract the elephantine heroism) and bopping purple-clad Phantom Invaders are bliss. Tembo needs Rayman Origins' exquisite, full sprint music-themed stages. They'd be a match.
Instead, it's stop-and-go, dealing with control/attack functions designed for speed in scrunched arenas not designed for speed. Squeeze by those, move forward, and maybe Tembo opens up.
Variety to a fault
It's for variety, superficially though. “Audiences don't want the same, they want different,” but that's wrong. Tell that to kids who have pucker lips from kissing their iPad, thanking it for letting them play more of the same Minecraft. Tell adults they want different or variety. They don't. It's why app stores are overly slathered in tap-tap-tap strategy “war” games designed to pilfer real money in exchange for fake money. They drown out the “different” no one wants. Sequels exist en masse because different is scary, or worse, not profitable. It's why Tembo tries to be Sonic without being brave enough to tweak things through learned behavior.
There's no sense of power; it's a sense of being overwhelmed.
Doing the same thing repetitively under the right conditions is comforting. Variety is praised, but it's a killer when done wrong. Therein is Tembo. Mechanics have a purpose. Tembo's are constructed for an elephant charging forward with such speed that a sonic boom surrounds his tusk. Instead it's mostly played in an obnoxiously safe pitter-patter – adorably, but still - tip-toeing between missiles and bazookas and bombs and tanks. There's no sense of power; it's a sense of being overwhelmed. Dodge this, leap over that. What happened to smash this, bash that? Tembo is an elephant on an offensive warpath. A badass? So rarely is he allowed to feel like one.
Tembo's cute. His world is wonderful. Everything in it is not. Most of it isn't, actually. Say, a stalling tactic which unlocks levels based on the number of defeated aliens. Other than forcibly creating a need to replay levels to gain arbitrary Phantom Invader kills, such pace-stopping functionality does nothing positive. Sonic Boom 3DS did something similar. That comparison is the warning shot which indavertantly becomes an accidental direct hit.