Jack Axe Review: Girls Get It (Mostly) Done
It was never really a question whether or not I would review Jack Axe, a cute platformer about a mischievous Viking girl. The question was when I would finish it and how much I would enjoy it. Developed by Keybol Games and published by the fine folks at Neon Doctrine, it’s an open-world platforming adventure. Featuring colorful artwork, a charming plot, and plenty of spunk, it easily could have been one of my favorite platformers of 2021. Keep reading this Jack Axe review to see if it lived up to its potential.
I should mention real quickly that I intended to cover Jack Axe closer to release. The reason I wasn’t able to was due to a game-breaking glitch I encountered prior to the official game launch. It effectively erased all my in-game data without warning. After it happened a couple of times, I decided to wait and pray that a patch addressed it. And as of the time of this writing, it seems clear that this unfortunate glitch has indeed been patched.
A Simple Game of Chase
Jack Axe starts when your sister Red starts teasing you. You chase after her, only to find yourself in a mysterious dungeon. After somehow safely navigating it, you come across a mystical axe. Unlike Arthur, you’re able to obtain it without issue, much to the surprise of the axe itself. It apparently was looking forward to cursing the first male that grabbed it, but you threw a monkey wrench in that plan by being the wrong gender. Thus armed with a powerful relic, young Jack sets off to save the day, while the male Vikings are off looting and pillaging.
As Mighty as Mjölnir
According to the game description, Jack Axe is a Norse/Filipino fusion, but I didn’t notice the Filipino influences. What I could see was how much love was put into the characters and setting. This is a very Girl Power-focused game, and that’s great. It was written in part by the creators and their three daughters. I’m all for empowerment and strong female protagonists. Hell, the other game I’m currently playing is a little something you may have heard of called Metroid Dread. So I’m all for spectacular heroes, regardless of gender.
What is less fine-tuned in Jack Axe is the challenge itself. I hit some serious roadblocks early on, and was startled by the difficulty spikes in the game. It can go from relatively easy to nail-bitingly intense without warning. Though the adventure is mostly open-world, and you’re left to your own devices, there’s a general path forward you have to take. Each world is comprised of a large HUB area divided into smaller secluded dungeons.
Gotta Catch Them All?
Your goal is finding enough Runes to unlock the gate to the next world. The catch is, you’ll also need coins to unlock the dungeons themselves, where many of the Runes are hidden. Though you don’t have to explore every nook and cranny to proceed, you’ll usually have to get through at least 80% of an area to find enough Runes to trigger the gate. And before you can do that, you’ll generally have to fight some difficult boss.
Though I’m fine with all of the above in theory, a couple of things keep it from being a complete success. One is the inconsistent difficulty I mentioned earlier. Jack Axe is very demanding, and one hit from anything will instantly kill poor Jack, respawning her at the last checkpoint. The other, far more egregious issue is the inconsistent controls.
Warping Towards Danger
I can normally forgive a lot in platformers. They’re one of my favorite genres, and I usually play them to unwind. And while I don’t at all mind losing cause of my own mistakes, I do mind losing cause of a glitch on the game’s behalf. One that kept happening involved an important feature in Jack Axe. Remember that mystical axe I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s not only key, but it’s the primary mechanic in the game. By tossing it in any direction, Jack can, of course, harm enemies. But she can also press the attack key again to teleport to wherever the axe is. It also provides a boost in whatever direction you’re facing, flinging Jack forwards. Which is awesome. What’s less awesome is how often that mechanic didn’t work. Instead of warping, Jack would sometimes do a little hop. And considering how often you’ll need to execute the mechanic in mid-air over a pit of spikes or the like, the more frustrating things would get.
While the game isn’t anywhere near as challenging as something like Super Meat Boy or The End Is Nigh, it’s also far from easy. I suspect those that aren’t confident in their platforming skills would have given up pretty early in the game. One of the starting puzzles nearly did me in, and I had all the tools I needed to solve it. And again, if the game was a bit more forgiving, I wouldn’t have minded as much. But when over half of my deaths were due to the axe warp not functioning properly, I started to question how much I was enjoying myself.
Yank It Out!
Another issue that bothered me was that the tutorial area didn’t explain Jack could retract her axe. See, often, you’ll have to lodge your axe in some switch to activate something. These effects can range from moving elevators to creating disappearing blocks and more. But then I got to the Desert area, and found a puzzle that couldn’t be solved without retracting your axe from a switch once you’re past a locked passage. Again, I nearly gave up after smashing my brain against the puzzle again and again, and only didn’t because I randomly discovered pressing X retracts my axe. And yes, I checked the options menu and couldn’t find a controls display there to help.
Oh, and did I mention that every time you die, Jack loses some coins? It was pretty common for me to enter a difficult area cash-flush, and leave without a penny to my name. I kept wishing the game took a page from Shovel Knight, and would give me the opportunity to recover some of my cash when returning to an area I died. And while you won’t need all your accrued coins, it’s annoying to lose them so easily. Especially since you need them mostly for unlocking dungeons. The other uses are far less important, including playing minigames and unlocking color changes for Jack.
Besides the warp mechanic fighting me at every turn, I also had issues from finicky control design. Jack can wall jump, but only at a sharp angle. This means you can’t use it to gain air unless you have a narrow tunnel to jump up. However, more than once I’d be trying to shift directions mid-jump, and suddenly Jack would ground pound all the way back down. Often this happened over bottomless pits, which really irritated me. Honestly, one saving grace in the game is that each save point also lets you fast travel to any other you’ve activated. You also (mostly) can’t lose Runes due to stupid deaths, so long as you manage to leave the room, you find them in after recovering them. Otherwise, death means you get to try again.
Cue the JAWS Music…
Before I forget, let me tell you how difficult the swimming sections in the game are. Unlike in classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, you don’t control how fast Jack swims. Instead, she propels forward rapidly in whatever direction she’s currently facing. You can’t slow her down, other than by throwing her axe, which stops her for a second. This is fine in larger underwater sections, but it’s a nightmare in cramped conditions, especially since those are typically cramped with spikes and roving aquatic foes.
Pretty Little Viking
Now, I know I’ve been complaining, but there is one area I really like Jack Axe. That’s in the visual style. It’s very SNES-inspired, full of color and spunk. While many of the characters, Jack included, lack a ton of detail, that in no way applies to the tremendous bosses. Ranging from angry yetis to homicidal cacti and even sneaky octopi, they’re all delightful, and a fun challenge to defeat. Likewise, the game worlds are really attractive, and it’s easy to just stop what you’re doing to admire the scenery. Not to mention the static character portraits are full of great personality. Though the music isn’t as catchy as the artwork, it does what it needs to, and helps you differentiate the style of each world. Aesthetics are definitely the game’s high point.
I know I spent a lot of time talking about the problems with the game. And much as I’d like to stop, there are a few more issues that I feel compelled to cover. One is that more than once, I would leave a world with more Runes than I needed to open a gate, but I got to the new area without a single Rune left. Worse, there’s no checklist for what’s able to be found in each world. After buying a color change for Jack, I also found it weird that I couldn’t change her back.
And though the final area is a worthy challenge, it’s also a test of patience. It has some really intense platforming sequences, including a couple where a fiery serpent chases Jack. Suffice to say, there’s no room for error, and I died more times than I’d like to admit. Especially against the sneaky final boss.
Only the Stoutest of Heart Need Apply
I really was hoping I’d love Jack Axe. And while it’s still a good game, the issues I mentioned earlier held it back substantially. That said, if you’re up for a sometimes unfair challenge, the game does let you play with up to 3 friends. Honestly, what Jack Axe does right, it does quite well, glitches and all. Here’s hoping the next game from Keybol Games is a bit more polished and balanced out of the gate. Because I think there’s the potential for something really special next time around.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Neon Doctrine; Developer: Keybol Games; Players: 1-4; Released: October 7, 2021; ESRB: E for Everyone – Mild Fantasy Violence; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.