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June 2021


Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Chameleon Games
Release Date: Sept. 10, 2020


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PC Review - 'Tamarin'

by Cody Medellin on Feb. 2, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Tamarin is a third-person action-adventure game set in beautiful Nordic scenery, starring the world's cutest monkey.

Tamarin is an example of how looks can be deceiving. It's an old adage, but it remains true in the realm of video games. The artwork on the Steam page suggests a title that's cute and kid-friendly, and the trailer shows all the trappings of a standard 3D platformer. Give it a little bit of hands-on time, and you'll see that Tamarin is very different — but not in a positive way.

You play the role of a tamarin monkey living in a little house in the forest along with your family. One day, an armada of insects arrives and burns down everything in the forest, including your house. Your family scatters from the flames, leaving you all alone and hoping to find them. A hedgehog informs you that your family and the birds have been kidnapped, making it your responsibility to rescue them all.

The kindest word to describe the story and storytelling is clunky. The beginning is rather abrupt, with no explanation about why any of this is happening, but it matches the tone of the ending, which is happy but also abrupt and without explanation. You can collect memoirs along your journey to flesh out your tamarin's emotions, but since you can't see them until you load the game and notice that they're stand-ins for loading screens, you'll likely miss or not care about it. You get more direct exposition from the hedgehog that sends you on your journey, but you'll quickly grow to hate him. He often alludes to insects destroying nature for their own benefit, and he tries to make it sound poetic but comes off pompous, so he seems uncaring to your plight.

Tamarin is partially a 3D platformer with all of the expected moves. You can run or crawl on the ground, and you can climb on some walls. You have a decent regular leap, but you can also do either a backward flip or spring-loaded jump to get more height. You can roll into some barriers and enemies to knock them out, and you can use a diving leap as an attack and a long-distance jump. Butt smashes can also break some enemies and floorboards, and you can leap over large gaps if you hit a targeted area.

While the game gives you plenty of moves, it does a terrible job of letting you know about them and what you can do. There are signposts that give you some basics on the moves and how to pull them off, but those signs are hidden away and their colors blend in with the environment. Additionally, finicky triggers make it difficult to execute the moves in the first place. Unless you have experience with other platformers or are willing to fumble around with the controls, you'll never know about some moves until much later due to the poor communication of this information.

There are issues with the platforming component. While some people will complain about how modern games have too many markers for guidance and hold your hand, that would be preferable in Tamarin, since the game doesn't tell you what you should be doing next. You can argue that it's meant to encourage discovery, but the environments are large with hardly any distinct features so it's difficult to get your bearings. You'll wish for a minimap with some kind of markings. The checkpoints are so far apart that you'll fear dying because it means having to trek through large swaths of land again. Those deaths will most likely come at the hands of you falling to your doom, since the tamarin slides around when you try to come to a full stop. More so than in any other platformer, you'll fear leaping to small platforms, since you'll land and slide off to your doom.

While the camera is great for horizontal rotation, don't expect much control over the vertical axis, resulting in a camera that feels restricted but sometimes zooms and shakes when it's near buildings. Finally, the game requires you to lock on to something before you take a significant leap or catch fireflies. For the former, it isn't so bad unless you need to stand at a specific spot before the arrow appears to let you know that you can lock on. For the latter, it's infuriating since you can't just walk up to a firefly and catch it; most of the leaps lead to the firefly floating away to another spot before you can catch it again. Fireflies are essential to opening gates to new worlds, but due to the game's imprecise leaps, your attempts to catch fireflies will usually end as misses. It's enough to make you quit in frustration.

It would be one thing if Tamarin were simply a platformer, but the game is also a shooter, and if the invading ants didn't already give it away, the shooting portions are heavily inspired by Rare's classic Nintendo 64 game, Jet Force Gemini. Although your platforming skills should be good enough to deal with most enemies, your hedgehog friend thought it'd be best if you entered the fight with a gun. You start off with an Uzi, and you eventually gain access to a machine gun, throwing stars, and a rocket launcher. Most of your enemies are gun-toting ants, but there are a few instances where you face off against rocket launcher-toting beetles and laser-firing flies before battling a pair of mantises as the final boss.

Like the platforming, the shooting comes off as sub-par due to a plethora of issues. The most pressing problem is that the camera also zooms and shakes in close quarters. You'll rely on a lock-on system reminiscent of the days before dual analog sticks became a standard, but you can't lock onto enemies on the ground, so you can't strafe. Lock-on only works for enemies on platforms above you, and that works decently, but it becomes useless in dealing with flying bug swarms, since you're expected to lock on and nudge the right analog stick to get more precise hits on the creatures.

Beyond the aiming issues, most of the enemies are brain-dead. The ants sniping from above will stay in the open while they're being shot at, and the giant beetles refuse to move no matter how many times they've been shot. The same goes for the boss, which makes for an anti-climactic end to the journey. The ants are slow to react, so the only thing saving them from being pushovers is that it takes a number of shots to take them down. The ants take action when you approach an area with bird hostages; they're quick to gun them down and do so with decent accuracy. Even if you know where those areas are, you need quick reflexes and good aim to make it through without any bird deaths. That's a vital statistic, since rescuing birds and sending them home grants you the all-important fireflies. Let too many of them die, and you may as well restart the game, since you need a pretty high firefly count to reach the end.

Normally, you would argue that both below-average halves would combine to create a gameplay experience that's mediocre at best. For some reason, these two halves never mingle. The minute you are equipped with guns, you lose all platforming abilities except for a basic jump. You can't holster your weapons, either. Go into the platforming section of the game, and you can't access your firearms. The conceit is that your weapons weigh you down and prevent you from being acrobatic, and while that means scouring the map to find the hedgehog so you can stash and retrieve guns, it is tedious and inconsistent. There aren't enough of the hedgehog's locales, and you can enter some areas and magically get your guns back or have them whisked away. The game employs a Metroid philosophy, as you'll constantly see areas that are impassable until you get a certain power from your hedgehog friend in exchange for currants or insect tokens. The disjointed experience feels cobbled together instead of planned out.

Your mileage will vary greatly in the presentation. The environments can be picturesque, but the muted colors do a better job of hiding important elements to add to the game's overall lack of direction. With the ants lifted wholesale from Rare's old title and the other enemies lacking anything distinct, it's up to your tamarin to stand out, but aside from some fur shading, the movements and unresponsive face do nothing to make him endearing. The frame rate is solid, but part of that is helped by the mediocre texture work, while the particle effects seem nonexistent.

As for audio , a narrator for your brief combat tutorial catches you off guard because that's the first and last time you'll hear anything in this area. The effects are subpar for shooting, and the battle cries lack variety, so you'll get tired of hearing defeated enemies. The music is all over the place, as it goes for classic platforming fare in the exploration areas but something more akin to 1980s action films during the shooting segments. Like the rest of the game, it feels tonally cobbled together, but it is good enough that hearing it loop won't drive you crazy.

To put it bluntly, Tamarin is messy. The story isn't that interesting, and the characters try to make it sound important but come off as pompous. The platforming is decent once you learn that you have useful moves, but the finicky nature of some elements and the slippery physics mean that asking for precision is inviting frustration. While the thought of resurrecting a Jet Force Gemini-style game is intriguing, the execution fumbles greatly due to it casting aside the advances that have been made in third-person shooters in the last 20 years. Unless you're craving an exercise in frustration, steer clear of Tamarin.

Score: 3.5/10

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