When it's spooky season I'm sure we all agree that the costumes, sweets and the occasional house teepeeing are all pretty fun.
What isn't fun though, are the themed videos games that release trying to snag some easy holiday cash. These games are often riddled with pathetically lit environments, convoluted or none existent stories and cheap jump scares achieved by blaring a pig squeal at 200 decibels, shattering your ear drums!!
As a result, this means streamers / creators fall in to one of two categories. They either play ALL the scary games for a solid week, or they don't touch a single one. There's rarely an in between.
Pumpkin Jack could fix that though as it brings the ghouly graphics, jovial music and most importantly, FUN!
Jack Of All Trades
"Jack of all trades, master of none" is a common phrase that describes somebody performing a wide array of tasks / job roles but rarely succeeding at any of them.
Pumpkin Jack isn't quite a 'master' of everything but it's certainly a highly trained apprentice ready to take over the business some day!
A viewer in my stream put it perfectly, saying:
"This game accomplishes everything it sets out to do"
From the ambient fog filled environments, to the whopping 36 song original soundtrack and charming characters to boot. It's hard to believe this game was developed by ONE person.
This game floods you with consistent waves of nostalgia even though its your first time playing through. A lot of things here feel familiar. That's due to the many game and movie influences that shine through but to my relief, they never feel like copy cats. It's such a lovely balance to strike.
If I had to choose one aspect where this game nears 'master', it would be the visuals. VERY closely followed by the soundtrack (which I'll nerd out about at the very end of the review)
I'm not the most eloquent when it comes to talking about how games look because I don't know all the long, so I'll keep this bit brief..
I really appreciated the clever use of dense fog and silhouettes on out of reach areas to create a sense of scale and mystery for the world. The ambient lighting coupled with a really popping colour pallet make for a real visual treat.
Imagine an entire game set in the Subcon Forest of Gears For Breakfast's A Hat In Time with contorted environmental objects like A Nightmare Before Christmas (particularly in The North level) but with even more polish, that's what we're talking about here..
(Be sure to watch the game's credits sequence to get a glimpse at early screenshots of the game to really appreciate how much the visuals evolved by launch)
Medievil Boulder Dash
✅ Action adventure hack'n'slash
✅ Spooky setting
✅ Undead protagonist
It would be hard to ignore the fact that these thing have been done together before. MediEvil, PlayStation 1, 1998.
That's about as far as the similarities run though because this product doesn't feel like a 90s remake, it's a real product of its time.
Pumpkin Jack gives players way more breathing space with wider play areas and swifter progression through its parts. You aren't routinely locked in to a small pen of metal fencing, having to finish menial tasks to move in to your next box.
In PJ it's slice, dice and split! The game has a great forward acceleration to it.
Once per stage things hit turbo with a chase sequence or mini game. These hearken back to the Crash Bandicoot era and are very much so 'if you stop, you die'.
Luckily, these aren't copy and pasted to fit each environment. They all demand something different. The first is a mine cart ride where you two goals are to hop gaps and blast down wooden blockades. Next, a burning barn that's collapsing around you as you dash to the exit and a personal favourite of mine was the kart racing versus 3 bumbling knights.
These segments were often accompanied by a much more upbeat and frantic musical piece.
Off With His Head!
The only time things screech to a halt is when Jack reaches by an obstacle too large to pass.
Clearly the only logical thing to do now is rip your own head off!!
Adorned with some slippery tentacles, your jack-o-lantern noggin' has to tackle a multitude of puzzles ranging from Simon Says to quick reaction match-up games all of which are simple but fun.
To memory, there was only one mini game repeated and I was a little disappointed at the lack of extra mechanics in Round 2. The goal was simple, 3 presents land in front of you of varying shapes. Whack the one that matches the glowing portal ahead about 10 times and you're done. Simples!
I'd have liked a curve ball thrown in of same shaped presents but colour changes to catch me off guard. That's more a game design note though.. Food for thought.
Are we the bad guys?
This game's story is VERY basic without too much in the way of twists or turns.
It's basically just one long chase sequence of "Oh, the wizard was here, you just missed 'em! On to the next area" a few times over, then it's finishes sooner than you'd expect and for some reason.... I didn't mind that.
Even though you're absolutely the villain in this game, the support characters and obstacles put in your way fit that traditional hero archetype. Even your own Crow sidekick questions who the antagonist is during the finale.
It was such a clever approach to give the Wizard an awful personality coupled with the traditional 'bad guy' Wizard appearance. You won't find any gold trimmed white robes and cries for justice here. Instead you're after a self obsessed, glory hungry mage with a bad attitude!
Some side characters felt none impactful like the middle management owl and the VERY brief interaction with your magic sword (you basically never hear from him again) but they played their parts as storytelling vehicles regardless.
No, this isn't an abbreviation of the above. It's just actually a separate point to praise the storyteller cut scenes that play prior to each level beginning.
They act as a really nice summary of the events that have just unfolded and set the stage for your next 20 minutes.
Players that decide to rapidly mash A through all the conversations (which they really shouldn't, they're often brief and have some giggle worthy moments) will be brought up to speed immediately.
Boss me around
Even though there isn't a whole lot of variety in the boss battles that conclude each level, one thing I did enjoy was the fact that the focus was on WHERE you are rather than WHAT you're doing.
Your position was more important than you DPS. In fact, each opportunity to strike the boss acted more as a moment of respite because the next wave of moving pain bringers.
All the classics are in there. Shockwaves from a ground pound, falling debris with a warning telegraph on the ground just before to indicate a hazard and crumbling platforms dwindling to safe field space.
The only mechanic that felt a little more unique were the humongous walls of pain with Hole In The Wall style gaps to slip through. THAT was fun but wasn't introduced until the finale.
There's a healthy blend of fixed camera and free camera perspectives across the fights but you never really have to leave the ground which leads to me my next point...
A few bones to pick..
One of my only gripes with the game is to do with the platforming. Jumping is a key part of the experience not only for traversing the world but for maneuvering in combat too.
When Jack's feet are plonked on the ground, he feels great, there's a gentle easing to his start up and slow down movements that was noticeable and felt thoughtful, his dodge is good enough and the attacks feel weighty.
When Jack's feet leave the floor though... You'd better hope your initial trajectory was right.
The double jump mechanic in this game provides the additional height as you'd expect but it does very little for helping to readjust your positioning for the descent to come.
It's not a deal breaker, and once you've made the mistake once or twice it molds your muscle memory to its will BUT, it really does feel as though the game could've explored more verticality if that mechanic was more advanced.
Every use of the double jump for necessary progression was often just a sequence of springy mushrooms that had grown to the same height above water or a forest dirt below meaning everything still felt horizontal..
It wasn't until the final area before the finale that I got a real taste of how fun ascensions could be when I had to scale a church right to its peak. I wanted more of that!!
Once per level you'll encounter a sleezy shop owner who enjoys skinning the dead carcasses of humans and re-purposing them as onesies. These transform Jack in to a Cowboy, Ninja and even a Lumberjack (ha, good pun!)
There's one teeny tiny problem though. At any point during the game you can hit pause to see how many you've discovered within the current stage.
What you can't see however, is your current purse amount. Seeing as you spend these to buy cosmetic changes, it'd be nice to know how close I am to my next goal..
WHAT'S WITH WEAPONS?
By the game's end you'll have a small arsenal of weapons available to quick swap between, all but one of them are melee based. (even the magic one is basically hand-to-hand)
As I started to accumulate these, I was pretty sure each would have a unique purpose eventually. Maybe one could be AOE focused for large hordes of enemies or destroying spawners. Something smaller and more sleek could be for single targets and maybe a heavy wielding 2 hander would make light work of shields but alas.. They feel almost entirely cosmetic.
The swing animations differ, as do the slam moves but there's no mechanical necessity to any of them. You'd get on just as well with the scythe as you would the introductory shovel.
If this game were to receive a sequel this is absolutely the sort of thing I'd expand on, as well as the enemy quantities.
Nine times out of ten I could stand still and mash Attack to survive the encounter. The game has a death counter every time you perish (90%+ was me failing parkour)
Holidays are coming
I know that Halloween is always swift to come and go, hell, some people ignore it entirely to build up to Christmas but this game suffers from the same fate as its holiday..
IT'S 👏 TOO 👏 DAMN 👏 SHORT!!
(by the way, how much does this weird flying mob look like Laylee?)
The fact this game only lasts about 4 hours and costs £25 will make it a hard pitch to some people.. Bare in mind, that was my duration whilst being relatively thorough, trying to find as many of the hidden crow skulls as possible.
Other games have innovated more, for longer durations, with more replay-ability and at smaller costs to the player. Celeste, Undertale and Journey to name a few.
We can't ignore the fact that Late Oct - Early Nov sees game releases left, right and center. It's a strange hurdle for the developer to put in the way.
All that said. If you want a halloween fix, fun for all the family and with high praise from myself / Steam (Overwhelmingly Positive) then you'll have a blast!
My hope is that this game sees the success it deserves and receives a sequel developed with a larger team so that all the ideas can be expanded on.
THE END, kinda
BONUS SECTION: Really Gourd Music
I thought I'd save this for last because I'm an audio geek but I know that isn't everybody's cup of tea so dip out now if you want 👍
It's not often I feel compelled to purchase a game's soundtrack but PJ's was something else!
A lot of the music here would work perfectly fine outside of a Halloween setting because as much as the composer leaned in to the jovial spooky tropes (which I fully expect) at times, all of those elements are used thoughtfully and sparingly.
For clarity, examples of these would be a tinkling xylophone as the lead instrument, ghostly wailings from a theremin, frantic sounding choirs and boggy bass notes.
This is clearly a trained ear at work.
This is further solidified the brave choice to tackle huge pieces of classical music like Rossini's William Tell Overture Finale, an incredibly recognizable piece and attempt to breathe new life in to it. I'm chuffed to say Yohan Jager nailed it! They even took a swing at In the Hall Of The Mountain King (which you might know it as the Alton Towers theme if you're from the UK haha)
The artistic influences I mentioned at the start of this post don't limit themselves to just the gameplay or setting, they extend to the music too.
I've no idea if this is the result of the developer providing examples of other game soundtracks and asking to match, or whether Jager was given full reign. Either way, I mean this as an absolute compliment when I confess that I had to ask my stream chat whether Grant Kirkhope or Pascal Michael Stiefel were involved in this project.
Tracks like Cart Ride, The Race and Horse Ride all scream Banjo Kazooie as well as Yooka-Laylee with the energy and banjo strumming of collect 'em all's:
Meanwhile songs like Escape from The Barn, Field Boss and Cemetery Boss took me back only a few years to when I first played A Hat In Time:
And again, this sits absolutely in the realm of 'inspired by' rather than copycat and these tracks only make up a small percentage of the soundtrack anyway. The remaining songs are brimming with diversity, energy and tone. Bravo!