Tembo the Badass Elephant is a 2.5D side-scrolling action game with a hand-drawn comic book art style that somewhat resembles Regular Show and other Cartoon Network cartoons. When the evil Phantom Commander and his loyal army take over Shell City, the military calls on the aid of Tembo the elephant, drawing him out of retirement. Tembo is the Rambo of the animal kingdom – he's a pachyderm military force to be reckoned with. Controlling an awful lot like Rambi the rhino from Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, Tembo charges through the landscape at the press of a button, bashing through obstructions and enemies while devouring peanuts along the way.
This is a fairly traditional platformer when it comes to structure. There are four worlds, each comprised of four standard A to B levels (except for the final world, which is two levels shorter) and one boss battle – it's not a particularly long game, with a thorough playthrough clocking in around six hours. Despite the similarities between the movements of Tembo and Rambi, the pacing is not far from what you'd expect in the modern Donkey Kong Country series, as you're usually free to explore at your leisure or use Tembo's power and speed to quickly plow through a stage. Along the way there are 10 civilians to rescue and hundreds of enemies to defeat, and doing so will earn medals, achievements, and even unlock the levels ahead.
Since elephants aren't known for being light on their feet, you can bet Tembo the Badass Elephant is a loud, explosive game. Each level is filled with cars, billboards, and buildings to smash through, and it's quite satisfying to do so. The controls offer moves like charge, dive attack, uppercut, ground pound, and flutter, while incorporating a water spraying mechanic for extinguishing fires, briefly stunning opponents, and sprouting plants/platforms from seeds. Utilizing these moves means there are many ways to overcome the opposing odds, but movements can sometimes be a bit too clumsy for the intricate level designs that presents itself as you progress deeper into the adventure.
It's in the moments of urgency when you'll realize that the controls aren't always as reliable as you'd like them to be. For example, in the third world there's a level called Zapporail, and the intensity that comes from outrunning a massive electrical gate proves there's a slight dissonance between the controls and level design. Constantly running and pressing the jump buttons is absolutely fine; it's when ground pounds, dive attacks, and other moves are integrated into the mix that things become awkward, clumsy, and potentially harmful for your controller. This is because there are short waiting periods between the inputting of each move, making it tough to seamlessly transition and continue pushing along. It doesn't help matters that the X button serves multiple functions, and unintentionally performing a dive attack when you're attempting to charge upon landing can be devastating to your run.
Even though it would be better if there was more immediacy when going from one move to the next, it's hard to place the blame solely on the controls. In the earlier stages of the game, everything is very smooth, and level designs allow enough room for Tembo's all-over-the-place method of attack to breathe. When it comes to the second half of the game, however, frustrations begin to mount. Whether it's the enemies that turn the environment into a bullet-hell scenario, or the platforming that expects an unwieldy elephant to jump, dive, and dodge while landing gracefully in the right place, there's a lot to manage, and doing so efficiently won't always be an option.
There are checkpoints spread throughout each level, and they can often be a lengthy pace apart. Mostly, it's not so bad. But because you lose all progress beyond the last checkpoint when you die – even the civilians you've saved and enemies you've killed – it can be taxing to continually replay complex sections and return repeatedly to the same areas for things you've collected at least once before. Furthermore, when you run out of lives – which will happen later on in the game if you intend on chasing 100% completion – you'll lose all progress on that level and be forced to start from the beginning. Because of the way the game plays, these "game overs" feel unnecessary and too punishing, and they raise chances that players will want to put the controller down and take a break after losing all of the progress made in a particularly hard level, especially when the accrued deaths feel like they're not their fault.
But instead of painting an unflattering picture of Tembo that might wrongfully turn heads in the opposite direction, let's establish that this is undoubtedly a fun game with many fantastic qualities. Even though there are quirks to come to grips with, they're not much of a problem for about 70% of the game – that percentage of which is very enjoyable. In fact, some levels have a very natural flow to them, and, even though it literally only amounts to peanuts, charging ahead full steam and stringing together a combo based on the amount of destruction you've dealt can be immeasurably satisfying. Additionally, it helps that each level and world does a quality job feeling distinct from the last. We would've loved to see more ideas that allowed the mechanics to evolve a bit further, but the level design is generally interesting enough that it's easy to look past.
As you probably guessed, a major chunk of Tembo's charm comes from its cartoony, comic-book-like aesthetic. The hand-drawn characters and enemies are animated with such fluidity that their finer attributes can occasionally make certain environments feel a bit bland in comparison. The surroundings often retain a hand-sketched look, too, but they're three-dimensional and blocky, and there's definitely a noticeable contrast between the two when it comes to detail. Even so, some levels are fantastically decorated – like the opening stage through a war-torn Shell City, filled with rubble, goofy billboards, and comical business names. Others, like a mountainous scene colored mostly with shades of brown and white, aren't as striking. But all in all, this is an impressive-looking game that delights with its distinct appearance and humor.
In the frame rate department, the performance can be somewhat choppy. This is only intrusive during segments with an abundance of action and destruction, so it's not frequent enough to painfully puncture Tembo's thick skin. The oddest of all occurrences is the near two-minute loading time that greets you before ever reaching a splash screen or the main menu. Word of advice: If you believe that the game is glitched out and stuck at the loading screen upon booting it up, just give it an extra minute or two and it should move along.
Lastly are the pattern-based boss battles, which range from filler to thriller. The first boss is a pushover that allowed us to spam a single attack and beat him within 15 seconds; the second boss works the water spraying mechanic into the mix and the result is fun but fumbly; the third boss revolves around the uppercut technique and is solid; and the final boss is easily the most well designed, easy to read, and compelling of the lot. The best way to sum up the boss presence would be to say that it's hit and miss but never poor.
When it comes to Tembo the Badass Elephant as a whole, there's a lot to like and a few negative things that sometimes stampede through happy moments that could have potentially been even happier. If it sounds like our criticisms outweighed our compliments throughout this review, that's because Tembo is so close to being a notch or two better than it is, making it easy to pick apart the missteps keeping it from the next level. It's still a great snack that's going to satiate the hunger of platforming fans looking for something new, but don't be surprised if all the stomping lends to a minor headache here and there.
Tembo has an arsenal of flashy and destructive moves at his disposal, but he's a bit too stubborn to be considered a badass of the absolute highest order. Still, the protein power of peanuts has supported a bone structure that doesn't buckle from a few fractures, thus ensuring the host is sturdy enough to endure a mission that fans of the platforming genre should find plenty rewarding. If you're interested in enlisting with a pachyderm that throws himself around like an acrobatic anvil, arm your trunk and charge full speed ahead – Tembo the Badass Elephant has brought the ruckus to Xbox One.