Don’t Lose Your Head
I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where consoles like the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox are on the cusp of becoming “retro” in their own right. It makes sense if you think about it. The Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation are already there—it naturally follows that those three would be the next in line. Of course, another thing that helps them feel retro-esque is the fact that they had certain types of games which were very prominent in their day—the 3D action/platformer being one of them. Sure, we’ve still got games like that now, but they’re nowhere near as commonplace as they were back then. So, while I still love the gaggle of games inspired by the “true” retro consoles, it’s nice to see games—such as Pumpkin Jack—pay homage to these newer older systems (as oxymoronic as that sounds), too.
Unfortunately, Pumpkin Jack might do a little too well when it comes to mimicking bygone 3D platformers. While I still look back on them fondly, I’ll be the first to admit that, as a whole, they were a mixed bag. Some of them were great, and featured plenty of content, yet others were tedious and absolutely uninspired. Pumpkin Jack sits somewhere in the middle of that. Its gameplay has a noticeable degree of charm, and it does very well in presenting players with a spooky-yet-playful Halloween aesthetic. But, as a game that doesn’t manage to avoid some of the more dangerous trappings of that which it is trying to emulate, Pumpkin Jack‘s fate as being “just okay” is all but sealed.
Straight Outta Hell
Putting a fun twist on a timeless struggle between good and evil, Pumpkin Jack‘s story follows the aptly named Stingy Jack on his quest to sew havoc across the land. A once-famous criminal who found himself in Hell upon his death, Jack was given a second chance at life upon striking a deal with none other than the Devil. Having recently caught wind that a powerful wizard was on a quest to put a stop to the evils running amok on earth by Big Red himself, the Devil tasks Jack with putting a stop to any goodie-two-shoes acts, with the promise that, upon the wizard’s death, Jack will be able to roam the earth once more.
As with most 3D platformers cropping up a decade or so ago, Pumpkin Jack is a game that would rather focus on gameplay than any kind of a lengthy narrative. It features a story that has just as much exposition as it needs to, and not a bit more, and liberally coats every bit of said narrative with plenty of comedic sass. To be blunt, it’s the kind of story that you would expect from a game like this, which, in this case, is a good thing.
Pumpkin Jack‘s gameplay is, in a word, simple. The game is comprised of 6 rather generously proportioned levels, each with their own gimmicks, power-ups, and bosses. Despite any differences, however, most of the levels play very much in the same way. While the game does offer a bit of room to explore, mostly in order to sniff out collectibles or mow down hordes of baddies, the bulk of Pumpkin Jack is spent participating in increasingly dangerous bouts of platforming action. There really isn’t anything bad to say regarding the platforming in terms of execution. The timing for certain jumps can get a little tricky in the later levels, but, seeing as that’s par for the course for games like this one, that isn’t an issue at all.
My issue with Pumpkin Jack doesn’t lie with anything technical. Everything is designed well enough, gameplay is firm-yet-fair, and the controls are smooth and responsive. Rather, my issue lies with the game’s lack of creativity. I was being quite literal when I said that the levels played out in the same way. You run around for a minute, pick up some trinkets and kill monsters, spend some time jumping from one hanging platform or floating piece of debris to the other, play some kind of mini-game, rinse, and repeat. For the first few levels, this is fine—after all, it’s not good to dive into things headfirst. But the fact that Pumpkin Jack doesn’t add anything noticeably different for the player to do, regardless of where they are in the game, makes things quickly begin to feel stale. I’m not saying that each level has to be wildly different from the last, but some extra creativity regarding level design could have gone a long way.
Each of Pumpkin Jack‘s half-dozen levels also feature what could best be described as “mini-games.” Generally speaking, these side-activities (all of which are, ironically, mandatory), come in two different flavors. Every so often, you’ll come to some kind of dead-end—usually in the form of debris or Santa Claus’ house. In order to make your way through these, Jack needs to ditch his boring ‘ol body in order to squeeze into tight places. These “body-less Jack” sections of the game are, surprisingly, rather varied from one another, and feature activities like small physics puzzles, whack-a-mole, and even a battle against Father Christmas. If the rest of the game could have been as diverse as these sections, I think that I would have been a lot happier with it overall.
Some levels also contain mine cart segments (although only some of them use actual minecarts). Remember those auto-runner levels from the Crash Bandicoot games? That’s what these are, only way less deadly. These portions also suffer from the same design issues that the levels themselves do. They’re by no means designed in a way that I would call incorrect, but, in spite of how visually different many are from one another, they all basically feel the same.
You’d think that the Devil’s hordes of monsters roaming the earth would leave Jack alone, considering that they’re both working for the same guy. However, you would be wrong. Apparently, these monsters are not only strong and aggressive but incredibly stupid as well, and will attack anything even vaguely human-looking on-site. This, of course, means that your platforming antics will occasionally be put on hold in order for you to take on your fellow hellspawn.
As much as I feel like a broken record at this point, there’s not any reason to rephrase what I’m about to say; battles feel very same-y. And, once again, this is disappointing. Not only are enemy types varied from level to level, but Jack is even given a new weapon after beating that level’s boss. These weapons are honestly pretty awesome—including things like a shotgun, a sentient sword, and a magic spell that lets you summon crows—but their diversity feels very surface-level. Shotgun aside, the game’s weapons, despite all being very different from one another, didn’t seem to behave all too uniquely. Sure, they sport different combos, and weapon range may differ slightly, but new weapons didn’t truly feel like power-ups.
Boss battles fare slightly better. While many of the game’s bosses do share similar attacks and/or attack patterns, Pumpkin Jack‘s biggest of the baddies all have enough personal flair to them to make challenging each of them feel like a separate, unique experience. Personally, my favorite bosses were the ones who manipulated the environment, but you can’t go wrong with any of them… even if some of them are annoying (I’m looking at you, weird eyeball-platform boss).
Pumpkin Jack isn’t a bad game. But it’s not a good game, either. It’s just, well, fine. For some, fine is fine; I imagine that some people will buy this game and enjoy it, and that’s okay. However, as someone who really has a fondness for GCN-era platformers, I hold games like this to a higher standard. I expect, if you will, a certain level of greatness. Do I think that this game had the potential to reach said greatness? Absolutely. But it didn’t, and, unfortunately, it’s the end result that matters the most.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Headup Games; Developer: Nicholas Meyssonnier; Players: 1; Released: October 23, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Pumpkin Jack given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.