Developer : Avalanche
Publisher : THQ
Release Date : October 15, 2003
Tak and Power of Ju-Ju (herein referred to as TPJ) is a game published under the Nick Games flag and developed by the design house Avalanche. Right off the bat you can gather the target audience for TPJ because of its publisher. While adventure games and platformers cater to a wide audience, TPJ is pretty much aimed at the younger crowd. While we currently have games like Zelda: Wind Waker for all ages and classics like Abe's Odd World, TPJ fills a necessary market sector of the PS2 brand: little boys and girls. So when moms and dads go to the Mall for holiday shopping, they won't be able to moan about how the only game they can get their impressionable little children is Rockstar's Manhunt.
TPJ begins with something very clever and humorous and to my memory something not yet tried in video games: cinema verite. Not a term you'd expect to come up in a game review? The camera pans slowly over a witchdoctor's lab and you can hear the ranting and raving of what might be an evil genius witchdoctor. When you are confronted with this old man, Gebulba is his name; he lets you in the story thus far as if he is talking directly to you. He even does a good job of looking you in the eye and camera's POV shifts as if you're looking around. You learn of what otherwise might be a standard lone-hero-must-save-the-day story, but what you soon realize is that the hero has been turned into a sheep. In fact the whole village is sheepified and the only one left is the hapless Tak, Gebulba's bumbling assistant. As you can gather, you must lead Tak through a series of missions to defeat the evil wizard/shaman (same thing) Tlaloc.
If there is one thing that immediately noticeable about TPJ is its lovable charm. The character design and overall aesthetic is very well conceived and executed. The environments are alien yet lush as the story takes place is a highly stylized rainforest where for some reason rhinos live and melon trees grow and drop melons in the most convenient places. The look of the game reminded me of a Pixar film which is not a bad thing. In terms of graphics, TPJ makes very good use of the PS2's capabilities. It may not dazzle some, but its graphics and animations are very competent and lively. Each character exudes a good deal of life through its different animations and expressions which is important for a game aimed at children. Little kids like to do impersonations of game characters so they need some inspiration don't they?
Gameplay is fairly standard. You have your double jumping platform puzzles and things get interesting with the addition of a pole vaulting function. Your first mission is to find a magical staff which allows you to fling yourself farther and higher, but renders you unable to double-jump. This same staff also makes a handy weapon and even a blowgun which later on allows you to zoom in on your target. As the game progresses you earn the use of various magic spells which perform all sorts of tasks ranging from adding a little spark to your strikes to instantly drawing every magic feather (health packs) towards you.
While TPJ plays well, it is still a game based off of platforming. Perhaps I am biased, but jumping around and swinging on vines doesn't make for a compelling game, but to TPJ's target audience I could see this game being a very fulfilling experience. Due to its nature as a 3D platform adventure game, TPJ runs into the same types of problems that rob this genre of its playability. Usually the downfall of any 3D adventure game is the camera, but TPJ makes the best of a difficult design decision by allowing the player control over the camera and the camera usually maintains a steady perspective in the direction you leave it. Jumping and double-jumping is handled fairly well, however I did notice some clipping issues in which I found Tak making his way into solid objects while trying to jump over them. Timing in a game like this is everything and Avalanche has timed the game well whether you're bounding on a spider web trampoline or swinging on a vine.
If there is one gameplay issue I take issue with, it is the health meter. Instead of the traditional health meter set off to the side, you have Tak's head feather. The feather symbolizes how much health Tak has which is a neat idea. The only problem is that the feather is not very big and its color scheme (purple and orange) blends too well with the background. It is also difficult to see the feather when you are running because it bounces and waves around. In times of fright and frantic maneuvering, it'd be nice to know where you stand in terms of your own mortality.
In spite of this, Avalanche makes some generous concessions to gamers. You may save your game at any point; so when you're called away for dinner you can not worry about putting down the controller and come back only to find your little sister polluting her soul with Britney Spears' Dance Beat. You also don't have a finite amount of lives or continues which most adult gamers are used to because we understand consequences and that if you are going to be an idiot and jump off a cliff twenty times because Tak makes a funny sound then you will lose the game. It is easy to see that these design choices were made for its target audience.
All in all TPJ is a sound game with sound game design. It is squarely aimed at a younger crowd and makes all the right moves for that crowd. The graphics and sound are rich and vibrant, but not epic. The character designs are cute and lovable. Your little buddy, Flora, is a nice little aid to help you along and Gebulba would remind any kid of their kooky grandfather if he happened to be a near sighted shaman. And in the end, throwing melons at monkeys never gets old. I would recommend TPJ as a great game for little brothers and sisters. There is nothing objectionable in the game's content and its violence is handled with PG level care. If you only have a PS2 and thus cannot get Zelda, TPJ will fill the gap adequately; however I don't imagine big brothers and big sisters will find it as magical and likeable as their annoying and bratty counterparts.