A rambunctious trip through all things spooky is let down by its core gameplay mechanics.
Banjo Kazooie, Conkers Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong, whatever the hell Gex was. All relics of a dead genre of 3D platformers revolving around expressive cartoon animals bouncing and brawling their way through contrived, yet often hilarious and charming adventures. Only Mario truly survived the cull and, until Mario Odyssey, it had embraced its more Mickey Mouse mascot approach; attaching itself to every genre conceivable while trying to stay as far away as possible from 3D platforming. There have been some attempts to revive the genre: some successful classics such as A Hat in Time, and some more disappointing entries such as Yooka Layle, an attempt by the original creators of Banjo Kazooie to capture its old magic in a legally safe fashion.
But now we have a new contender grabbing at the old Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 nostalgia - Pumpkin Jack. Combining two of my favourite genres of gaming, hack slack and platforming, alongside my favourite holiday of the year, Halloween. It even pinched my name to boot!
A deceased con artist with a history of tricking the devil is presented a deal by his horned jailer. The overworld was dreadfully boring and far too peaceful, according to Lucifer, so he popped over to his favourite Halloween store to decorate the world with ghouls and ghosts and make a right old mess of the place. However, a wizard with the quest of putting the world right stands to ruin the devil’s dastardly plans, so enter Jack, placed into the body of a scarecrow with a pumpkin head, out to keep everything in chaos by slaying the wizard so he can gain a more favourable afterlife. It’s a goofy fun story that lends itself well to punnery, a staple of the writing in the classic 3D platformer genre. The goofy story combined with a bombastic soundtrack and the occasional spooky theremin is by far the game’s strongest assets. If you love Halloween and grew up with Banjo Kazooie and Grant Kirkhope’s particular brand of video game music, you’ll get a great nostalgia-fuelled kick from this game.
Framing Jack as the villain allows the game to bounce between zing after zing. Whilst in other games I’m eager to get back to the gameplay, Pumpkin Jack keeps things charming and funny enough that I want to read through it all. Even outside of the story, the game keeps true to the dynamic of the characters in minor details, such as counting your deaths with insulting messages to go alongside them - my favourite being “a new record”.
The game goes for the Mario Sunshine approach of aesthetics, opting to commit itself to the world of all things macabre like Mario Sunshine committed itself to the island getaway. I actually prefer this style. Most platformers see us hop between the classic world types; we’ll see the snow, we’ll see the lava; all the usual, uninspired, overdone levels. At least with a commitment to one, we see it explored in a more in-depth level than the surface-level ideas that most platformers offer.
Where the game falls short is unfortunately in the genres it is delivering. Jack’s movement options for a platformer are limited, though I have admittedly been spoiled by Mario Odyssey’s absurd amount of possible moves. What’s worse is that the level design hardly takes advantage of the limited movement he has already, leading to relatively easy and repetitive platforming challenges.
The game certainly excels more in its combat as a hack and slash game. Dodge rolling and shotgun-blasting your way through hordes of skeletons as the game quickly slips into bullet hell carnage is pretty enjoyable, and your limited health pool keeps it relatively challenging. What I wish the game could have done is marry its platforming and combat together, rather than often having them as separate challenges one after another.
Where this all truly becomes a problem, though, is in how linear the level design is. Without anything to really make the levels interesting, and the separation of combat from platforming, the levels start to feel like a series of minigames to do while trying to progress through the story. These “minigames” are hit and miss, with the worst offender by far being the minecart levels. I am so tired of minecart levels in platformers. I found myself heavily sympathising with Jack’s companion, the cowardly crow, who internally screams at the sight of the minecart, realising where this is going. Subsequently, this is where I saw the biggest increase to my aforementioned death counter - and here I was thinking that Jack had been released from hell!
Despite all this, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the game. Though the story and Halloween aesthetic of the game carried it for me for the most part, there’s simply a depressing amount of new 3D platformers to enjoy, so I eagerly enjoyed the game regardless of its faults. If it helps, Jack, I probably will play you again, and I would even go as far as to recommend you to people - hell, you’re twenty quid and a decent laugh.
Overall Rating: 6/10
Pumpkin Jack is available for the PC, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.
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