When you first hear that a game called 'Tembo the Badass Elephant' has been developed by Game Freak, you are completely justified in asking "The Pokemon guys made a game about an elephant?" Following which, you'll probably quickly visit their Wikipedia page, and then it will all make sense. Before the Japanese developers became synonymous with the Pokemon franchise, they were creating fantastic action games like Pulseman. For gamers all around the world, it's a blessing that Game Freak went back to their roots and developed about as un-Pokemonlike a game as is possible -- a 2D platformer about a rampaging elephant who saves the world.
The story, flimsy as it is, is utterly hysterical. There's an evil invading army called Phantom that's taken over Earth, and humanity's last hope is Tembo -- one elephant to rule them all. Tembo's a war veteran pachyderm who's seriously angry, and is going to unleash several tons of carnage all over Phantom's forces.
As an elephant, Tembo isn't exactly as agile as certain Persian princes, but he's got some cool moves of his own that make him uniquely suited to the task at hand. Your primary attack is a dash, where you use your tusks and might to Sonic-style plow through any obstacles, whether living or mechanical, that stand in your path. If Yoshi's Island and Donkey Kong Country had a baby and it was an elephant, it would be Tembo. What makes playing him so much fun is that the controls are razor sharp and smoothly allow you to chain attacks, jump off obstacles and string movements together as you unleash a fluid, dynamic trail of destruction all over the level. Even moving around as Tembo is a blast. You can roll around, stomp into the ground, get into a slide and then uppercut someone on your way out.
Smashing everything in sight is almost too much fun. So much fun that you'll sometimes get in the way of your own progress because you smashed something that you shouldn't have. The level design is suitably fantastic, with hazards, tricks and traps all over the level. Even when you're playing as a rampaging force of doom like Tembo, the game always offers a fairly challenging experience. Once you've charged headfirst into a bunch of explosives, you'll think twice before channeling your inner Juggernaut. There are several different kinds of enemies to deal with as well. Initially, you'll easily mow down the generic Phantom soldiers, but you'll start coming up against more difficult one as the game progresses. Some of them will bring out the big guns that are slightly tougher to destroy. A wall of solid stone's got nothing for Tembo, but you're not going to be able to brush off a missile that's hurtling straight at your face.
The level design, as mentioned before, is wonderfully balanced. You have sections where you can run rampant, slaughtering enemy forces by the dozen and razing their structures to the ground, but you'll also have sections where you're heavily outnumbered and you'll have to get by using your dodging and jumping skills. There are several clever puzzles sprinkled into the levels as well. As you would suspect though, the major goal is to create as much chaos and destroy as much of Phantom's presence as you possible can. You get points for each enemy and vehicle you destroy and each civilian you rescue. There are certain stages which are only unlocked after you reach a certain score benchmark, which is further incentive for you to unleash hell in every single stage. But, if you're overzealous with your rampages, you'll find that you've missed out on some collectibles or inadvertently destroyed a path to a hidden part of the stage.
There are several unique mechanics at work here too. As an elephant, Tembo can spray water from his trunk to douse fires, nudge platforms, catch enemies off guard and even sprout some plants that you can use as platforms. By timing your abilities correctly, you can dash through walls that are on fire. The water mechanic is important in solving several puzzles too. Be careful with your sprays when you're around electric structures though, or you'll be zapped instantly. Tembo, like the platformers of old, uses a lives system. Once you're out of lives, its game over. And there's a lot of things that can kill you in this game. The fast-paced, high-octane set pieces combined with the fact that you have limited lives lends an extra air of tension to the proceedings. It could also be a frustrating limitation, depending upon how good you are at the game. Restarting stages is a pretty big deal because most of them are fairly lengthy.
Every four stages, you'll come up against a massive boss, each of which are creatively designed. They all have a distinct attack and movement pattern which you'll have to get familiar with if you want to beat them. One boss, for example, is a robotic dragon which you have to push off a cliff while keeping out of the way of its fire breath.
The only gripe, if any, is that the game is fairly short. If you're good at platform games, you should reach the end credits by the six hour mark. Even after you've finished it, you can always come back to earlier levels and try to achieve 100% completion or beat your best times. When you've got a rampaging elephant at the helm with precise controls to back you up, there's plenty of fun to be had.