PUMPKIN JACK REVIEW (XBOX SERIES S)
Pumpkin Jack, from singular/lone developer Nicolas Meyssonnier, tries to kickstart a resurgence of classic 3D platformers, and it’s not a terrible attempt at doing so either. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll see a tidal wave of 3D platformers, and maybe we’ll have titles such as A Hat in Time, Yooka-Laylee and Pumpkin Jack to blame.
To immediately put a spin on things, Pumpkin Jack puts you in the rotting boots of the bad guy. Bored with how peaceful the world is, the Devil sends the undead to ravage the Earth. Humanity finds a saviour in a powerful wizard and in a desperate attempt to maintain control the Devil sends Jack to Earth to destroy the Wizard.
Pumpkin Jack’s bread-and-butter comes in four familiar forms spread across six Halloween-themed environments. There’s platforming, combat, puzzles and on-rail mini games.
Navigating the spooky locales is as traditional as it can be with players puppeteering Jack over environmental hurdles such as raised platforms, rotating boats and narrow wooden beams that embrace the 3D space. There are crow skulls to collect, which act as the game’s currency to unlock new skins, and reaching most of them will test your platforming skills.
Puzzles are fun and engaging, and usually arrive if the form of quick minigames where you control Jack’s decapitated head to unlock a barrier standing in your way. They are a nice little respite from the traditional platforming, especially in the first half of the game, which unfortunately means their simplicity and repetitiveness grows weary in the latter half.
The combat is the most disappointing aspect of Pumpkin Jack. It lacks finesse and any sense of player intention. Fighting feels aimless (except when you’re using the ranged crow attack, which ironically auto-aims) and only requires you to hack’n’slash in the general direction of your choosing until everything is dead. Jack can roll out of the way but enemy attacks are poorly telegraphed. It’s easier to take the hits and farm your health back by smashing the generous number of breakable items in Jack’s vicinity.
Boss fights are satisfying but formulaic, following the 3-hit rule: dodge incoming attacks, hit the boss when it’s vulnerable, rinse-and-repeat 2 more times. The boss encounters are imaginative and require their own strategic approach but their existence in the world of Pumpkin Jack contradicts the plot because the monsters on Earth are supposed to be hollow, unintelligent vessels yet here is Jack, fighting off monsters that clearly have consciousness and malicious ambitions. It would have made more sense if all the bosses were manmade contraptions or creatures fighting on behalf of humanity.
The on-rail shooting segments are where a lot of the fun can be had. Not to be confused with the shooting gallery arcade genre, these on-rail sections let you relinquish control of Jack and go on a fun ride where your only responsibility is to shoot down barriers and hop over chasms. Some of them are better at the start of the game compared to those in later levels, which is an emerging theme in this critique.
The plot is paper-thin and doesn’t make any logical sense: as mentioned previously, the Devil’s zombie hordes are meant to be brainless canon-fodder but all of the interesting characters spit in the face of this exposition. Jack is also paraded about as a Loki-level trickster but none of his back story manifests itself in any practical way. You never get a chance to use Jack’s con artistry. It’s only ever hear about it and never get to see it!
However, Pumpkin Jack does have a fun sense of humour and does make jokes at its own expense. This usually involves breaking the fourth wall, which as been a hit-and-miss comedic tool since Deadpool 2. The relationship and banter between Jack and the Creepy Mummy is particularly good. Their conversations are laden with puns and the Creepy Mummy, who sells Jack character skins in exchange for crow skulls, becomes one of the most developed characters throughout Jack’s adventure.
Although it’s not an overly long game with levels taking between thirty minutes to ninety minutes to finish, Pumpkin Jack slightly over stays its welcome due to its core ideas and corny sense of humour becoming a little stale towards the finale.
For anyone wondering, the only difference between the current-gen (PS5/XBSX) and the ex-gen (PS4/Xbox One) is that Pumpkin Jack can be displayed in 4K at 60fps with ray-tracing but I played it on Xbox Series S, which is less capable than Series X. There’s a vague ‘Cinematic’ scale to adjust in the settings but it wasn’t clear if this ‘Cinematic’ scale adjusted the resolution or not. There certainly was no ray-tracing toggle on Xbox Series S though, so I can’t comment on any improved visual performances. As the base game doesn’t seem to have any major changes since its migration to newer consoles its going to be just as enjoyable on any console you choose to play it on.
Pumpkin Jack’s ultimate foe isn’t the Wizard; it’s Nintendo. With the Super Mario Bros. franchise Nintendo have been able to polish the 3D platformer into a shining diamond and the appetite for retro-inspired 3D platformers isn’t enough to overcome the allure that the modern 3D platformer has. Pumpkin Jack isn’t a bad game but compared to Super Mario Odyssey it can’t help but feel a little bare-bones. Again, this is not the fault of Nicolas Meyssonnier or that of Jack – it’s a perfect homage to the PS1 era, which is the whole point – I’m just not convinced it’s the one to tip the scales.
Should you play it? Maybe…
Why… As far as retro 3D platformers go Pumpkin Jack hits the mark and scratches the itch. It looks modern and feels like it belongs in a day-gone era. With simple controls it instantly feels familiar with anyone who grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie or Spyro, making it a genuinely decent homage to the early 2000s.
But… The story makes a lick of sense and Jack’s charismatic abilities are overlooked in order to fit the form of retro 3D Platformers. Gameplay becomes repetitive and boring towards the end, especially in the last 2 levels.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S
Developer: Nicolas Meyssonnier
Publisher: Headup Games
Playable on: PS4/PS5/Xbox One, Xbox Series X/Switch/PC
Released: 27th October, 2021