Pumpkin Jack Review
Developer: Nicholas Meyssonier | Publisher: Headsup Games | Genre: Action-Platformer | Platforms: PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Last year, Nicholas Meyssonier’s efforts to create a three-dimensional platformer caught lightning on social media as gifs and bursts of footage showing a Halloween themed title that would combine the best elements of Jak and Daxter and MediEvil made the rounds. Before long his quest to fully imagine an interpretation of the Pumpkin King on a journey to defeat a wickedly powerful mortal wizard would come to life in his one-man project backed by publisher Headsup Games. Pumpkin Jack is finally here, but how well does the tale of this horrific soul resurrected by the devil stack up against the market? It is a rather ripely squashed pumpkin patch, to say the least. While it holds the potential to be notable due to its strong skeletal structure, it never explores any significant ideas and settles for a minimal level of depth. With every treat Pumpkin Jack pulls there is always some unwanted trick around the next corner.
Pumpkin Jack is certainly not a horrible title by any means, but in comparison to the other platformers currently on the market that cost less than the $29.99 price tag being requested here, it pales as a merely mediocre and overpriced passion project that asks for too much and provides too little. In the same vein as other titles such as Yooka-Laylee, Pumpkin Jack just can not achieve what its inspirations worked hard to accomplish as it lacks any strive to reach greatness. For those looking for a game similar to the PlayStation hits already mentioned above, you will more than likely not find what you are looking for in this less than spooky personal redemption tale that is the equivalent to a fancy cadaver than anything else. Its trailers may seem frightfully action-packed and beautiful but do not let that mislead you.
Unlike Jak and Daxter or MediEvil’s approach to level design, Pumpkin Jack remains superlinear as it never allows players to explore open areas or backtrack between its environments. It stays focused on creating point A to B gameplay where slashing foes take up the majority of the runtime if you are not carefully jumping platforms. As you power through your maleficent quest to wreak chaos upon the land, you will unlock new weapons to aid you on your quest, except these weapons are the same for the most part. The combat cycle relies on dodge rolling to evade attacks and swiping down your enemies in swarms. It never gets more complicated or sophisticated than that. Besides the occasional special boss or two, the enemies you encounter during the opening hour of the game will be your cannon fodder for the rest of the adventure.
Outside of platforming and combat, there are several linear chase sequences and head games to tinker with. Every now and then you may have to hop on a horse or minecart to get to the next location. Packed with visual cues and very few button presses, these high-speed sections are rarely anything but a distraction to break up the expected activities. On top of this, we have sections where Jack must use only his head- literally as he pulls it right off his body- to solve short puzzles that typically involve following a beat, flipping a switch, or moving bombs. If there is one thing, however, that is magnificently executed during these sequences it has to be the orchestral score that never disappoints. Meyssonier has opted to use original renditions of classical music scores for many of these sections that help further individualize the game’s atmosphere. Hearing Ride of the Valkyries and the Fifth of Beethoven was a joy, but these occasions are disappointingly so far and few from each other.
As goes the usual with every platformer, throughout each environment lie the game’s main collectible, in Pumpkin Jack’s case these are crow heads. These circling severed bird faces can be obtained by either defeating groups of enemies, facing a series of actual thought-provoking platforms, or are simply hidden in plain sight. During the game’s first level, players may find themselves searching endlessly for these trinkets, but that will surely come to an end once they find out what the reward for their efforts are. The only item they provide is oddly found on the main menu where you can change Jack’s costume in exchange for a specific amount of heads. Outside of a new getup, there is no incentive to chase after the twenty items found in each stage.
The worst aspect where Pumpkin Jack is truly a scare is in its downright miserable resolution on Switch. The advertising for this title has been a complete deception and is the real horror esthetic of the game. Surprisingly, the framerate was never an issue once in my playtime, but the title always remained blurry from beginning to end. No matter whether you play docked or handheld, the screen’s resolution is a nightmare. While the game looks and runs at the bare minimum of “good enough” when docked, the handheld mode will make you question if you need eye-contacts or glasses. It might be one of the worst visual handheld experiences I have personally played on this system in a long time. The occasional hand-drawn character sprites are rendered efficiently across both modes and even the title screen seems initially fine, but a warning to any handheld only player, once you pick up your shovel and take your first scoop into this poorly optimized portable sham you might be digging a grave known as buyers remorse.
Pumpkin Jack distinctly draws inspiration from the beloved three-dimensional platformers and action titles of PlayStation’s first two generations, but it never attempts to build upon the acclaimed accomplishments those games established. Even with its vastly different esthetics and sometimes wonderful thematic appearance, it oddly chooses to stick to what works best even if it does not get that right to a complete extent. It is upsettingly, the most bare-bones basic action-platformer you could possibly pick up as it clearly never attempts to blend ideas or introduce new concepts that would potentially work in its favor.
Jak and Daxter, MediEvil, Sly Cooper, all these breakthrough titles had aspects that allowed them to conquer their own pillars. Pumpkin Jack is missing those definitive roots and indentations that could make it memorable or worthwhile and its day-one price is practically begging you to go pick up the titles that inspired it instead. It is shrouded in unique designs and an interesting narrative, but it never yearns to be that impressive scare that will have other developers running on the coattails of its practices. Pumpkin Jack may be worth keeping an eye out for at a discounted price on maybe Xbox One or PC in the future, but it will not be worth playing this Halloween or anytime soon on the Nintendo Switch where its persistent problems and overwhelmingly powerful competition lies. Nonetheless, for a one-man effort, it is impressive, but I could only begin to imagine what Meyssonier’s vision could have looked like had a whole team been working on this project.