Let’s make one thing clear here: Tamarin on Xbox is one weird game, and that’s really putting it mildly.
It is backed by the pedigree of ex-Rare staff, you know, the company that created all those SNES and N64 classics, before they were gobbled up by Microsoft and assigned to create that one pirate game which is sort of fun – Sea of Thieves. You can play all the Rare classics in the excellent Rare Replay collection, and yet we can only play the classics for so long. Fans have long yearned for Rare to release a new platformer, and while a Perfect Dark revival is on the horizon for Xbox fans, there is Tamarin in the meantime. Except, it’s not quite the action platformer it appears to be.
Xbox fans will remember the blindsiding experience when they first heard about a new Banjo Kazooie game for Xbox 360, only to find that it was the furthest thing from a 3D platformer; instead a weird (although to be fair, still fun) vehicle building game. Still, you go into certain games with reasonable expectations, and when the game itself pulls the rug from underneath then you can’t help but not want to commit to the rest of it. Tamarin is a bit like that, but where Banjo Kazooie actually pulled off its vehicular ambitions with Nuts & Bolts, Tamarin just feels like a mess of juxtapositions.
The game starts off with our primate protagonist enjoying a lovely day with the family, when all of a sudden, an army of bugs armed with urban warfare destroy their home and burn down the surrounding forest. No set-up, no context, just plain old senseless violence. And so, our hero embarks in search of family and the perpetrators. In the first instance it is a sad and melancholic state of affairs, as you explore the scarred remains of a once beautiful home. Here you get a little familiar with the 3D platformer systems; the movement is solid, the little monkey can roll around and has a nuanced jumping ability. Here you collect a few things too, among them a firefly which you need to enter the first major area of the game.
Once you leave the burnt-down home, you step into a lush and vibrant area, the kind of greenery and sunlight you’d expect from any first area of a platformer. Sure, it was a bleak and morbid opener, but now we are getting into familiar platformer territory, things are getting cute again. Why look! It’s one of our local woodland mates, a hedgehog burrowing out of the ground to have a chat. It’s almost a mirror of the mole you meet in the opener of Banjo Kazooie. Naturally you’d expect a little story development and perhaps the customary tutorial. Like clockwork, our hedgehog friend comments on the recent tragedy, and how scary this invading bug army is, before then proceeding to hand you an Uzi.
Yes, the automatic sub-machine gun, that Uzi.
It honestly takes a good minute or two to process this moment. This cute little monkey is suddenly armed with one of the primary weapons in Grand Theft Auto. Actually, in those games you start with the handgun before using an Uzi, but this monkey in Tamarin starts with serious firepower right out of the gate. Immediately, this adorable looking fella flips a switch and turns into a stoic killing machine, as players shoot down the first platoon of ants. As you shoot the ants, they scream in agony, some even start to lose their heads and limbs in the process, and soon after their rotting corpses are swarmed in flies and maggots.
I wish this were hyperbole exaggeration, but that’s quite literally what happens here. And so, calling Tamarin an action platformer is a stretch. Instead this is a straight up third person shooter where instead of shooting berries or fruit, you are laying waste to bugs with bullets and rockets, all while controlling a cute little monkey creature. Honestly, it’s a lot to process, and it’s just such a jarring juxtaposition of themes and moods . T
The problem with this juxtaposition is how it also adversely impacts the gameplay and game design. Like any 3D platformer, Tamarin has a focus on collectibles, but the problem is that there is no synergy between the platforming and shooting action. Basically, as long as you are holding a firearm and shooting, you simply cannot perform your platformer abilities like rolling around. It’s one or the other, and the game design forces these segments upon the player, meaning that they cannot switch between the shooting and platforming mechanics to their liking. It feels like a cumbersome mess, and while the platforming segments and mechanics are serviceable at best, the shooting just feels plain cumbersome, especially when the lock-on aiming system is so clunky. The shooting action simply isn’t fun, and unfortunately it is that which makes up the bulk of the experience rather than the platforming.
The graphics are functional but the whole game feels dated, like it could have used a bit more time and texture mapping. While there are no bugs or crashes in the Xbox release, there are some lousy systems here like how checkpoints and auto-saves work. It seems the game chooses its preferred checkpoint rather than the most recent checkpoint you touch to save your progress. The camera system isn’t great either, and it doesn’t work well with the tedious shooting gameplay. There isn’t much to the level design and set pieces either, as you’re going from one frustrating shooting segment to the next, exploring environments that are simply crammed with enemy and C4 explosives, among other things. Yes, I said C4s…
Tamarin is fairly straightforward, and while it does have a sense of charm and occasionally even a sense of humour, the various moving parts just feel pointless and disjointed. Take one of the collectibles for example, which are fragments of memories you can read during the load screen. These are dark and existentially charged poems and monologues of our hero. How does this innocent looking monkey, who happens to use military warfare with confidence, also happen to be a poet of Edgar Allan Poe grade? None of it makes sense.
If you’re a fan of Rare games, or even attracted by the game’s loose inspiration from Jet Force Gemini (also on Rare Replay by the way), then there is a good chance you will be thoroughly disappointed. This isn’t a 3D platformer, this is a third person shooter ;an average and somewhat playable one at best, but far from being enjoyable. The most “Rare” thing about the game is the soundtrack, featuring tracks composed by veteran David Wise (Donkey Kong Country fame). His style is present, but there’s really nothing standout or iconic in the soundtrack.
Tamarin on Xbox is a game that does not know what it wants to be, one capable of completely blindsiding player expectations. It’s simply a weird game, perhaps one of the weirdest in the platformer genre. Still, the real disappointment is just how boring and bare the third person shooting action is, with no real sense of rewarding level design or progression.
Tamarin is available on Xbox from the Xbox Store