This Jungle Looks Familiar- JUJU gives players perhaps too good an idea of what the creators have been playing lately.
I’ve never been a huge fan of calling a game “a cross between thing X and thing Y.” It often depreciates the value of the actual game being discussed, but doing nothing but comparing it to other games instead of talking about it in its own right. However, sometimes there comes a game so obviously inspired by something else, and in such specific ways, that avoiding comparison becomes impossible. When your game is very clearly visually inspired by Donkey Kong Country Returns, with stylistic and level design elements pulled straight out of Rayman Origins, it can be hard to ignore those things, especially if little substance exists beyond them. In that regard, how does 2D platformer JUJU fare? Put on your tribal mask, and hop into the jungle.
JUJU is intended for a young audience, and as such has a very simple setup. You are a young (inexplicably pink) panda, accompanied by his cool snake friend (cool simply by merit of being a snake), in a journey to right a great big cosmic “oops” that you have so foolishly…well, “oops’d”. After accidentally causing your panda father to lose control over the seal he maintains, keeping a giant evil bat creature locked away, it’s your job to collect the four pieces of his mystic staff, scattered across four varied worlds, and lock away bat-satan once and for all.
Mechanically speaking, JUJU starts out feeling like your classic Mario-type platformer. Move and jump, often in conjunction. After the first couple levels, though, it becomes readily apparent that the game is actually far closer to eon of the newer 2D Rayman games. The focus becomes centered on collecting enough ambers – the game’s equivalent to collecting Mario coins and the like – while navigating areas based on plowing through enemies and moving through obstacles. Collect enough ambers in a level and you’ll get up to three special coins, signifying your overall progress through the game. There are also three optional challenge doors in each level, each taking you to a room where you have to get your furry paws on every amber in sight within a limited time, for the prize of more special coins. The whole game is playable with one or two players, with the second player taking up the role of the aforementioned Cool Snake Friend. The one annoyance comes from umping, wherein moving in a direction while airborn will move you much farther than a similarly small udge would do while on the ground.
The issue with JUJU‘s explore-and-collect nature is that there isn’t really a solid sense of a goal until late into the game. Once all four main worlds have been explored, a fifth will open up that requires a certain number of coins to unlock. However, this occurs after several hours of playtime, and can result in a lot of frustrated backtracking and replaying if you haven’t been the strictest about collecting all the ambers. And who can blame you? You didn’t realize there was a point to it, other than to have them!
Juju‘s world design is pretty solid, and has the basis for some solid creativity. You’ll travel from lush jungle to a Toy Story-like world, and eventually to a land of sweets and chocolate rivers. There’s plenty of potential for good ideas, and we see some great ones. Riding on the back of a wiggly snake made of interlocking blocks, and fighting a giant octopus with control over the sea you swim in, made for some very striking and cool levels.
The issue, however, is that these levels are less the rule, and more the exception to it. A quality of any good game with distinct, individual levels is a sense of uniqueness to each level. There should always be something that makes you go “oh yeah, it’s that (identifying thing) level”. The number of levels Juju has that evoke that sort of response can be counted on one hand, with the rest feeling like a big blur. What’s worse is that almost every level is far longer than it has any real business being, with many feeling repetitive or just generally dull and vanilla by their end. Even when a level does do something unique, it’s too often only visual. There are a couple night levels, for example, that could easily do some fun stuff with the limited light resources available. However, these levels feel more like regular levels…but in the dark.
For those looking for a challenging platformer, JUJU isn’t likely to completely satisfy. Intended for a younger audience, the game is steadily easy throughout the first two worlds. Difficulty does rise, but the increase won’t impress many older players until fairly late into the game. This is made up for, though, by loads of charm in certain areas, especially with some of the games enemies. Outside of bosses, almost all of your foes throughout JUJU can be taken out in a single stomp or headbutt, but that doesn’t stop them from having some cute personality to them. One feature lets the hero stop enemies in their tracks by playing on a magical set of bongo drums, forcing them to break into dance for a short period in rapturous enjoyment of the rhythm. Each enemy has their own distinct little dance, a nice touch in giving some strand of personality to foes that might otherwise be forgettable.
It undoubtedly detracts from one’s “journalistic integrity” (snrk) to do this, but in continuing to talk about JUJU I find myself having to go back again to the comparison to Rayman Origins. Structural elements abound are taken right from Ubisoft’s platformer, combined with some very similar combinations of concepts leading to one wondering just how much originality there really is in the experience. The water-based world has a jazzy, vocal based soundtrack, while the jungle area is full of wind chimes and pipes. The music accompanying the food-based world, in itself a unique characteristic of Rayman, is equally reminiscent of that other game. If you’re not a fan of the Rayman series, none of this will particularly matter to you, but its still worth noting that the list of elements similar to that other series is very long in JUJU; questionably so, in fact.
One endlessly puzzling thing about JUJU‘s presentation is the complete lack of communication. Apart from the logo and numbered save files, the game contains no text. Not a single word. Instructions on how to play are communicated in images, and the various items on the game’s menu have simple icons in order to communicate their use. None of the game’s worlds or levels have names, leading to an oddly striking lack of attachments to any of the places visited. None of them have names, which means they all have less of an identity. They’re just “jungle place,” and “beach place.” None of the characters have names, either. Is Juju the name of the main character? The world may never know. It’s reasonable to assume that the developers wanted the game to be enjoyed by those without basic reading abilities, but the choice of no text at all is just strange, and jarring to boot. The other big negative of the game’s presentation is a choppy framerate, frequently skipping and messing up coordination in many levels.
JUJU’s best moments are too often great because of the other games they remind players of. Some levels are clever in their own right, but these are sadly outnumbered by places where the game feels like an assembly of elements with no real cohesive structure. It’s still a charming game, though, and an enjoyable time for someone in desperate need of a decent platformer. It eventually gets challenging, but takes its time doing so. And you know what? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing once in a while. JUJU exhibits some creativity, but a combination of borrowed gameplay elements, many generic levels, and some technical video glitches keep it from getting far out of mediocrity.
Final verdict: 3/5
Available on: Xbox 360 (reviewed) , PlayStation 3, PC; Publisher: Flying Wild Hog; Developer: Flying Wild Hog; Players: 1 to 2; Released: Dec. 10th, 2014; Genre: Platformer; MSRP: TBD