Pumpkin Jack (Switch) Review
Pumpkin Jack, from one-man developer Nicolas Meyssonier, has scared up some good buzz over the last little while, mostly due to its colorful visuals and similarity to cult-fave MediEvil. Indeed, I myself was hyped to check it out for this review, and I am happy to say that my time with the game was a pretty good time overall.
Pumpkin Jack is a 3D platforming adventure, in which you play as the titular Pumpkin Lord as he mows down swathes of Halloween creatures in order to win his freedom from none other than the Devil himself. You see, the Cloven Hoofed One is none too impressed with all the peaceful vibes in Boredom Kingdom, and sends Jack above ground to defeat a powerful wizard and restore evil, turmoil and bloodshed to the land once more. Jack, with his orange jack-o’-lantern head aflame, slices and dices with glee through a number of combat, platforming and puzzle levels. It’s a sinfully thin premise but as they say, what the hell — let’s get to killing some bad guys.
Yes, bad guys. I know I know, isn’t Jack supposed to be a bad guy, working for the baddest of them all? Well for some reason the bad guys in Pumpkin Jack are your enemies and attack you on your way to meet the wizard. It doesn’t totally make sense but it doesn’t really matter; this is an action adventure and there’s lots of positives to make you forget any niggling details.
Spooky Good Visuals
Case in point: the visuals. They are drop-dead gorgeous. Done in an amazing cartoony, almost Disney-esque style, Pumpkin Jack is a delight to look at from start to finish. There’s so much color in every environment, from the pale green glow that permeates the fog-covered ground to the blazing fire that flickers from Jack’s pumpkin eyes and mouth. And all the little visual details are a consistent joy to behold, even down to the dust clouds that Jack kicks up as he runs. It is genuinely hard to accept that all of this was created by one man. While the Switch mutes the beauty somewhat in handheld mode, this game looked very nice when docked.
The levels are perfectly created, and Pumpkin Jack really feels interesting to be in and explore. While there is ultimately a linear path you must take to finish a level and hit a save point, there are lots of nooks, crannies and hidden areas that encourage you to wander off your path a bit. Careful, though — I often lost my bearings in complex levels like buildings, and there is no HUD or marker to guide you. With persistence, there is the reward of stumbling upon scattered collectible Crow Skulls you can find, which you can later trade in to a merchant who sells “skins” like the Samurai skin I bought. There isn’t quite the variety of collectibles and secrets that we love in some of the AAA games, but Pumpkin Jack’s world is a fully-realized one alive with detail nevertheless.
It’s very well written, too. Although, sadly, voices aren’t fully acted out, the written dialogue was so good that I often found myself voicing it in my own head, complete with accents and spooky delivery. Nicolas Meyssonier has matched up his great level design with a solid story and a host of quirky characters who could be straight out of a kids’ Halloween special on TV — and that soundtrack by Johan Jager accompanies the visuals perfectly.
As mentioned, Pumpkin Jack reminds many players of MediEvil and I understand why, but I got old-school God of War vibes as well. The combat is similar, with Jack swinging his weapon through successive hordes of enemies with impressive ballet-like moves and combos. And like Kratos you replenish lost health by smashing objects in the environment, like crates, absorbing their glowing green essence into your health bar. Mostly melee except for a ranged option in the form of a side-kick crow that you activate with L1, combat is a bit one-dimensional except for Boss Battles. Here, Jack must use dodges and rolls in addition to getting his hits in, learning a bit of the enemies’ movements in order to defeat them.
Victory over a Boss awards you a fun new weapon (you start with a boring old shovel) and you can switch acquired weapons at will. I didn’t see a need to ever do this, though, and I would have liked to see a clearer incentive in the game for using different weapons on different types of enemies. As it was, it just seemed that each weapon was better than the last, and I would have been dumb to not use the best one.
When he’s not engaging in combat, Pumpkin Jack must traverse platforming sections, and this is where things can get pretty challenging in addition to fun. The 3D environments can be tricky to negotiate, and your right thumb will get a workout rotating the field of view just so you can determine where exactly you are jumping. All of which is fair game, and I enjoyed these parts. But what I didn’t think was fair was the imprecise jumping mechanic that caused Jack to land on platforms with an annoying extra few steps forward, sending me falling off a precipice after a successful jump, and starting the whole thing over. Pumpkin Jack’s platforming is mostly a good kind of challenging but the controls could be tightened up a bit.
That holds true in the game’s puzzles as well. Often to solve a puzzle (in which you must take the form of Jack’s slithering disembodied pumpkin head), you must jump on crates or ledges, and again the edges seemed imprecise when landing. Puzzles in Pumpkin Jack are well-designed but simple, and you certainly won’t get stumped on too many of them, once you do get the hang of the jumping.
To mix things up further, Pumpkin Jack also throws in some levels where you are in a mine cart on rails. You have to jump the cart to avoid gaps while using your crow to take out ranged obstacles. It’s a thrilling experience where you have to do multiple things at once, all at high speed. If I had a gripe here, though, it’s that these levels go on way too long and they have no save points, so you pay a very heavy price for dying. After having so much fun bashing through bad guys with my cool weapons and jumping through heart-stopping platforming segments, it felt like the momentum of Pumpkin Jack slowed to a stand-still while I struggled to get through these long and unforgiving mine-cart scenarios.
Despite some irritations, though, I enjoyed Pumpkin Jack. There are a lot of things it does right — from the boo-tiful visuals to the haunting music, to the mostly-fun gameplay. It could use a bit more work in its jumping mechanic, and there are some segments that go on longer than they should. But I had a hell of a good time overall and Pumpkin Jack is much more treat than trick.
** A Nintendo Switch game code was provided by the publisher **
- Boo-tiful to look at
- Fun combat and platforming
- Great level design
- Janky jumping mechanic
- Mine cart levels too long
- Needs more collectibles and weapons