If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to play a hybrid between Donkey Kong and Sonic the Hedgehog, then you don't have to look further than Tembo the Badass Elephant. The latest game from the folks over at Game Freak, you know, the same ones that develop the insanely popular Pokemon games, allows us to become said badass elephant to put an end to an evil empire and save helpless citizens in the process.
What Tembo does incredibly well is balance momentum based gameplay with devious platforming, to form this strange hybrid of devilishly hard Donkey Kong gameplay you could find in the most recent Tropical Freeze, and the speed of Sonic games, without needlessly overdoing it, still giving the player complete control. It's obvious that Game Freak certainly drew inspiration from both of those games, whether it's collecting peanuts instead of bananas and shooting through cannons instead of barrels, or charging through enemies across rolling hills at full speed.
It seems fitting too, SEGA being the publisher. I don't think they were specifically looking for a mascot to replace the blue blur, and I also don't think Game Freak succeeded in that respect, but they certainly nailed the gameplay more so than Sonic Team did in years.
Much like other 2D platformers, you progress through the game by completing stages, with each one having optional side objectives to complete. Two of these are eliminating all of the enemies in a given level, and saving 10 people in distress. While both of these aren't required to fully complete to beat a level, the former is only slightly more important, since the game does present locked levels that only unlock after you had defeated a certain number of enemies cumulatively.
Game Freak's other game that wasn't Pokemon, Harmoknight, was also a 2D platformer albeit one that was centered around timed button presses to the game's soundtrack. Though Tembo doesn't revolve around the rhythm aspect at all, there is a certain rhythm-like element still present when platforming. The game's levels are broken up with areas that are clearly designed to be charged through at full speed, with peanuts and boxes placed in locations to make the run feel very rhythmic and deliberate. On the flipside, the platforming and puzzle elements will force you to play carefully, with perfectly timed jumps and glides.
When not charging through the level, destroying everything in your path, you'll often have to rely on Tembo's ability to spray water out of his trunk. This is actually used for many different things like putting out fires or fire enemies, as well as activating various devices.
The levels themselves are filled with tons of secrets, again, much like Donkey Kong games, that really push you to investigate every nook and cranny, cracked wall, and even boundaries of the level you wouldn't think to check. If anything, Donkey Kong games have now conditioned me to first run left in the beginning of any 2D stage, and it certainly applied in Tembo.
I won't beat around the bush though, Tembo is a hard game. Like, controller-thrown-against-the-wall hard. Just when I thought some of the earlier stages were tough as nails, the game continually throws harder levels, one after another. The boss fights are particularly challenging as well, since they rely on dodging or putting out projectiles with your water. Being an elephant, dodging doesn't really seem like the best option, and a lot of times, it seems downright impossible, but it is doable.
I was very impressed with Tembo the Badass Elephant, despite its incredibly devilish NES-era difficulty. And while it may not be a paragon among 2D platformers (Shovel Knight still holds that crown), it certainly was a nice reminder that Sonic-type gameplay can be achieved without excessive use of speed.
Once again, Game Freak proves that they have the chops to create unique experiences outside of catching and evolving monsters, and provided they have the time, should be creating more games like outside of their comfort zone.