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June 2021

Pumpkin Jack

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Headup Games
Developer: Nicolas Meyssonnier
Release Date: Oct. 23, 2020


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PC Review - 'Pumpkin Jack'

by Cody Medellin on Jan. 15, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Join Jack, the Pumpkin Lord, as he runs, jumps, slashes, and blasts his way through the stunningly rendered eerie landscape, annihilating Good in the name of Evil!

If you were a platforming fan during the original PlayStation era, there's a good chance that you've at least heard of, if not played, MediEvil. A platformer with an atypically spooky aesthetic, it was a middle-of-the-road platformer in Sony's first-party library. It wasn't as popular or as polished as the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon titles, but it was leagues above titles like Blasto and Jersey Devil. It garnered a sequel before never being heard from again, but Pumpkin Jack's main developer has cited MediEvil as an inspiration for this title.

In a faraway land, peace has prevailed, which has made mankind happy but resulted in the Devil's boredom. To amuse himself, he places a curse on the world so monsters can spread terror wherever they go. To break the curse, the king employed the aid of a great wizard. To counter this, the Devil sends a wayward soul named Jack, who was a notorious charlatan who tricked the devil thrice. You play the role of Jack, who has a pumpkin for a head, and the mission is to find and destroy the wizard so evil can prevail.

It's an intriguing twist to play on the side of evil, since it is rarely done nowadays in a game that isn't a horror title. The story execution doesn't take advantage of this or feel exciting. You're given the excuse that monsters are all dumb, so it's fine to kill them, but since you're mostly fighting off monsters and a few humans, you don't feel that evil. With the wizard seeming more evil than you are, you are actually playing a hero role after all. The cut scenes do a good job of establishing things, but by the halfway point of the game, they simply recap the level instead of moving things forward. The only thing saving the story are the in-game conversations between Jack and everyone he interacts with. Like MediEvil, it ditches the seriousness in favor of light humor, even though the jokes and references aren't always a hit.

Like the title it is inspired by, Pumpkin Jack is heavily focused on 3D platforming. Enemy encounters aren't too frequent, so you'll spend most of the time running around and hunting for crow skulls to change out your skin. You have regular and double jumps at your disposal, and while a leaping ability means you can easily clear large gaps, your ability to fine-tune jumps in midair is more valuable, since you'll often need to turn to reach secret spots. The jumping and platform grabbing are very forgiving, so there's a low likelihood of falling to your death over water or bottomless pits, but the lack of fall damage means that you can afford to be more daring with your leaps.

The platforming suffers from a few issues. A few set pieces, such as tall slender towers with elevated platforms around them, are repeated quite often. The camera is more problematic because it often places objects in front of it. The objects aren't completely solid, but they don't disappear either, and the blur can sometimes obscure the pits in boss fights.

The good news about the combat is that it's simple and it works. You only have one attack button, but the moves you can pull off are largely dependent on your state. A standing or moving attack becomes a full-on combo if you are coming out of a dodge roll, whereas jumping before attacking can lead to a stomp or a rain of attacks from above. New levels give you a new weapon, so while you may start with a shovel, you'll soon have bladed staffs, a scythe, or even a rifle. You also have a crow that you can send out to get enemies from afar, which is useful if you want to do some sniping before entering an area full of enemies.

The bad news is that the combat never feels sufficient. The context-sensitive nature of your attacks leads to being unable to control the kind of attack you'll pull off. That might be fine if you're being mobbed by enemies, but it can backfire if you're trying to hit a particular foe and you accidentally end up doing an overly elaborate move. The lack of a lock-on system means you can also whiff attacks. While there seems to be a good variety of enemies, the attacks are pretty similar, so any distinctness is gone. Button-mashing seems to be the preferred way to go about fighting most enemies, since you'll likely hit everything and replenish lost energy with life orbs; the numerous checkpoints mean that it's rare to be low on health. Even though you can always change weapons on the fly, you'd only be compelled to do so if you want to make the game tougher. Finally, although the boss fights are some of the game's highlights, it quickly gets old that all of the boss fights are based in arenas.

Deviating from its inspiration for a bit, Pumpkin Jack breaks away from the standard combat and platforming with different sequences. There will be times when you'll take off your head to go to a separate area and solve light puzzles, so your full body can continue on. This varies wildly per stage; the first level might feature a section where you flip a switch, while stage five has you playing concentration with gravestones so they can be destroyed.

Another activity in the game is rail or chase sequences. Stage 2 provides a good example of this, as you're literally on a rail cart trying to time your jumps on broken tracks and sending your crow to knock down gates, while Stage 3 features horses that gallop in the air and a few ferry boat rides where you need to jump between boats, jump as they roll over, attack enemies that are rushing toward you, and jump off the boat to find an alternate path.

These sections break up any potential monotony, since they keep you on your toes by anticipating what's next. Unfortunately, the game loves to give you each section type at least twice. If you're doing the Simon Says-style game in Stage 5, that might not be so bad. If you're tossing the different-shaped boxes into specific holes while dealing with the lack of an aiming system and physics that can backfire on you like in the final stage, having to do this twice becomes a chore. For both the good and bad sections, there's the feeling that they would be even more special if they were edited down so you don't see them too often.

Despite the negatives, Pumpkin Jack doesn't drag on. The levels are a decent length, but there are only six of them, and they all mix things up between the different gameplay modes. The variety coincides with the game's average difficulty level in making everything feel like a little accomplishment. By the time the game bumps up the difficulty level, you feel invested enough to make the push to see the end credits. The collectible list isn't large, and the loading times are quick, so even if you die, you'll quickly return.

The overall presentation is good but uneven. In the sound department, there's only one voice, and it's in the cut scenes between levels. Not having voices for the cast is fine until things are said in battle; there's enough action going on that you'll miss the dialogue, making you wish voices were available. Most of the music goes for a Danny Elfman vibe, where it's both spooky and whimsical, and it fits well enough that you won't mind hearing the same songs since the tunes switch out often. That even goes for the repurposed material from classic composers, which seems odd to hear since that's more of a signature of very old arcade games.

Graphically, the environments may take on an almost monolithic appearance, where various shades of one color permeate a level, but you can still distinguish whether a surface is a platform. Jack looks terrific, as do the bosses, but just about everyone else that you can't converse with looks generic to the point where you feel like you're slashing away at bundles of light instead of something more distinct.

Speaking of light, that is perhaps the most striking thing about the game, since it fully embraces ray tracing for shadows and light, adding a ton of color to the environments while also doing a terrific job of accentuating the game's playful eeriness. There's even DLSS functionality to help weaker cards get in some ray tracing. The lighting without ray tracing still looks good, but turning on the option certainly provides more striking visuals.

In the end, Pumpkin Jack is a game that is flawed but still enjoyable. The platforming is solid if you don't mind the unsteady camera and loads of objects blurring your view. The sections where you can only control your head and the chase sequences add some variety to the adventure, but they feel overused. The combat is basic enough to get the job done. If these things aren't enough to drive you away from the title, and with the game running roughly six hours or so if you're thorough, it is easily digestible for a weekend and worth checking out for those who don't want something too deep.

Score: 6.8/10

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