After playing and beating Ori and The Blind forest, my appetite for indie platformer games was reignited. From the very first screenshots and gameplay of Tembo The Bad Ass Elephant I was very interested in playing it. This week the game is on sale for Xbox Gold Members for $13.50 but the regular price is $15. You will want to read my whole review before making a decision to buy, because I’m going to try to be measured about where it shines and where it falls short. I manage to beat the entire game after about 6 and half hours of play, which is pretty good for $15 and is a bit more bang for your buck when compared to the $7 Batgirl DLC ($10 is bought separately) that took me under two hours.
The graphics are immediately winsome and fun with a new “living cartoon” aesthetic that I am growing very fond of. Ori and the Blind Forest was more pristine and dream-like while Tembo will have you feeling like you are in control of a Saturday Morning cartoon hero. The cartoony explosions, animations, and text that pops up in Batman-esque style is a charming way to give the game a fun comic book heroism feel as well. I will say, however, that I was incredibly frustrated by the consistent and game-flow-breaking frame rate drops. For a game with this style of graphics and rendering it is completely inexcusable to have this happening on a next-gen platform. This became especially irritating as the game progressed. I predicted it would become increasingly bothersome with the later levels and boss fights, and sadly I was correct.
The opening tutorial walks you through the simple controls and I was immediately thrilled with how smooth the game looked and behaved. Then, as the game progressed and the screen filled with a variety of enemies and explosions, the controls started to become the main reason for my deaths. There are some ground level problems with decisions about the control mapping, and the inability to remap controls is understandable, but even the optional layouts come close to what would have been far better.
First, holding X makes you immediately charge forward. The challenge here is that in most platformers where you need to run fast to make certain jumps, you tend to hold the run button down and then move the joystick to make your quick dash and jump. The problem with Tembo is that as soon as you hit X you start sprinting in the direction you’re facing. This caused me to run off the edge on multiple occasions, and made most of the finesse jumping parts incredibly frustrating because you can’t preemptively hit X in order to land and run, because when X is pressed in the air you shoot forward toward the ground. Had they mimicked any classic platformer it would have made most of the challenging parts far more fun and satisfying as the controls became the primary hurtle instead of the numerous enemies and moving death-traps.
Second, the controls just aren’t precise or accurate enough for most of what is required of you at the end of the game. The final boss fight, for example, has numerous moments where precise dodging, running, and jumping is required. There were at least five different occasions where I died because if you accidently bump down on the joystick while you are in the air Tembo will shoot toward the ground. This same “butt slam” mechanic is in Ori and the Blind Forest, and I never had an issue in that game. The threshold is far too sensitive and should require a more intentional thrust downward on the joystick to execute the move. In the midst of a chaotic boss fight, it is incredibly irritating to have a perfect run ruined because I made a hairline mistake. Now five deaths might not seem that bad, but the boss fight takes a while and starting over is somewhat grueling because his second phase is not a checkpoint. So, dying because of things that aren’t my fault started to really hurt the experience.
So much potential
The thing is, I really liked the game. Up until the final two levels and the final boss fight I was cruising along, dying fairly infrequently and typically because of my own impatience or mistakes, and having a good time. It wasn’t until the game’s difficulty hit its peak that the sloppy controls and frame rate drops really started to ruin the experience. This is unfortunate, because beneath the irritating levels and final boss fight I could see the same complexity and challenge that Ori and the Blind Forest had. There were levels with a variety of enemies, timing, precision, and necessary quick reflexes. But glitchy controls and frame rate drops make the whole thing become a frustrating chore. I give this game a 6.5 out of 10 because the core elements and majority of the game ran adequately and it was fun enough to feel satisfied in my purchase. But if you are going to buy it, be prepared for the ending to have you grinding your teeth. Ori was hard and irritating, but it felt more like a golf game where I could analyze my mistakes and bad decisions and timing. Tembo just felt unfair and irritating which wasn’t the best way to end an overall fun experience.
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