Tembo the Badass Elephant should have been ten tons of fun, but instead it's a steaming pile of missed opportunity. This is Pokémon developer Game Freak's first PlayStation release since surgeon simulation Click Medic deployed in Japan over 15 years ago, and so it carries the weight of industry intrigue for that reason alone. But while there's a nifty Sonic the Hedgehog-inspired sidescroller hidden beneath several layers of fat here, the final product's got some serious junk in its trunk.
The story's fairly straightforward: the forces of evil organisation Phantom have descended upon the serene streets of Shell City, and it's down to the titular tusked protagonist to take out the trash. You'll be dashing through vibrant 2.5D stages reminiscent of releases gone by, smashing up as much of the aforementioned faction's equipment as you can, with the ultimate aim being to rid the settlement of its captors, while still finding the time to scoff all of the peanuts that you find.
And this gameplay loop is awesome at first. Despite being the poster child for the importance of a balanced diet, Tembo can really haul ass, giving the game a serious momentum-based appeal. You can sprint through walls, upper-cut floor panels, and butt stomp blocks – it feels amazing when you're moving at full-pelt. The game even seems to realise this, incorporating cannons that send you hurtling through the air – but then, after a few levels, it opts to stop you dead in your tracks.
Later stages rely on precision platforming and puzzles – even though this represents the package at its absolute worst. For starters, the protagonist is not exactly light footed, so hopping between crumbling platforms doesn't feel particularly fun. Furthermore, using the character's imprecise water cannon – mapped awkwardly to either the d-pad or left analogue stick – to put out fires is not all that exciting. And it's particularly irritating when said infernos reignite every few seconds.
But the game's biggest sin is just how padded it is. There are around 20 primary levels here, but the developer's decided that you shouldn't see them all in one go – instead, you'll need to grind in order to progress. Each stage has a quota of grunts for you to bust, but you won't get them all at first blush. However, the only way to unlock later levels is to go back and locate the foes that you missed – many of which will be hidden in the most obscure of locations. It proves yet another excuse to slow down the game's pace.
All of which proves to be a big fat bummer, as when the title's imitating the blue blur, it's at its absolute breakneck best. Smashing through glass, rocks, and crates feels great – and the effect is enhanced by some stellar audio work as well as onomatopoeic visual effects. A big band soundtrack accompanies the action, adding a military flavour that empowers when you're moving at speed – and grates when you're stuck searching for a switch that's been hidden behind geometry that makes very little sense.
The performance isn't always great; the game judders as it attempts to keep up with the amount of chaos that's occurring on the screen. But, as in series such as Earth Defense Force, this actually adds to the illusion of insanity, offering the impression that you're moving so fast that your console can't keep up. It's just a shame that it seldom captures this same feeling better than the first stage – it's almost as though the game peaks in its opening minutes, and then just gives up.
And the boss fights don't help in that department, as they teeter on controller snappingly frustrating. The problem with these, much like the entire second half of the game, is that they tend to depend upon luck rather than any real skill – you'll be wishing that you could kick Tembo's butt yourself by the time that the credits roll. Leaderboards and collectible human characters attempt to add replay value, but you'll have had your fill of this foray by the time that you've beaten the last level.
Tembo the Badass Elephant is made even more frustrating by the fact that it doesn't flat out suck. There's a solid sidescroller in here, but Game Freak's taken it in the wrong direction. This should have been an adventure all about momentum, but it does everything within its power to pump the brakes. Give this wide load a wide berth – it's made itself irrelephant.