Back during the days of the Playstation 2, the cheerful, charming mascot platformer was all the rage, from Spyro the Dragon to Crash Bandicoot, both of which have gotten remastered or remade. These days the cutesy platformer isn’t as popular as it once was, but every now and then a new one turns up and tickles the ol’ nostalgia balls. This time it’s Pumpkin Jack, a game that feels so much like a classic PS2 platformer that you could tell me it was actually just a remaster and I’d believe you. In fact, it’s so enamoured with evoking the spirit of those old platformers that it even has iffy combat and a naff story, just like them. So, let’s review Pumpkin Jack, the bastard offspring of MediEvil and A Nightmare Before Christmas.
The first thing to talk about is how this whole damn game was made by a single person over the course of 4-years. Not only is this a beautiful looking game thanks to it looking like it was summoned up from the head of Tim Burton, but it’s also remarkably polished. It runs great, and I only ran into two minor issues where I got stuck in some scenery. This is the kind of work that puts massive triple-A studios to shame, although in fairness Pumpkin Jack is also a much smaller project.
So, how does one become a walking, talking pumpkin called Jack? Turns out things have been far too nice and peaceful and happy, so the Devil decides to invade the boring kingdom of, er, Boring, and spice things up a bit. But even the Devil can encounter problems, and in this case the problem is a pesky human wizard who might be able to stop the demonic assault using a mystical amulet and the power of plot contrivance. And so the Devil decides to dispatch his own champion, none other than Jack, known for tricking the Devil when he was alive not once, not twice, but three times. Jack’s soul gets shoved into a pumpkin and he is given a body, and directed to stop the wizard. That includes ripping through the various beasties because in their mindless frenzy there’s no friend or foe, just victims.
Given the absurd premise, Pumpkin Jack isn’t as funny as I thought, and indeed hoped, it would be. That isn’t to say it’s some sort of grim portrayal of the end of the world, either. It’s more just mildly amusing with a few decent jokes stemming from Jack’s own snarky personality and his continuing annoyance with characters that need favours. Overall, I’d have to say that the writing is probably one of the two weakest aspects of Pumpkin Jack. It gets the job done, there’s a couple of funny moments and that’s about it.
But while the story might not hit it out of the park, I do love that we get to play as the bad guy in Pumpkin Jack. Sure, aside from the whole dooming the world thing you don’t do anything properly evil like murder a bunch of humans or kick a baby, but it’s still fun to just be the bad guy trying to help end the world.
Maybe I’m completely wrong, but Pumpkin Jack feels a lot like it takes many cues from MediEvil, a series which made a comeback in remastered form earlier this year. Check my review for that out, why don’t you? The point is, the same fantastical tone of Sir Daniel Fortesque’s adventure is prevalent throughout Pumpkin Jack.
A lot of your time is spent leaping and climbing. Right from the start Jack can double-jump and…no, that’s it actually. This is your classic platforming action, albeit much easier than the likes of Crash Bandicoot. You’ll rarely, if ever, die while you leap and clamber. That’s partially because the controls feel great. Jack isn’t very controllable in the air, but on the ground you can easily line up jumps and be confident about where you’ll end up before you ever tap the button. Over the course of the game, though, the platforming never really changes. It’s the same basic jumps over and over.
I mentioned earlier that Pumpkin Jack truly evokes the feel of the PS2 platformers by having a forgettable story and meh combat, so let’s talk about that combat. You have three buttons: one that you mash to attack, another that sends out your crow companion for a ranged attack, and a dodge. Getting into a fight with skeletons, ghouls, rats and other weird beasts is nothing more than a button-mashing festival with the occasional dodge thrown in for good measure. The only thing that changes is the amount of enemies that get thrown at you, and the enemies themselves. You’ll battle possessed Christmas trees, invisible knights and more. It’s a solid selection of foes to slay, but I never really looked forward to a fight.
The boss battles are different. While they don’t exactly thrown the design book at a passing child, they’re well enough executed and visually fun enough that you probably won’t care you’re doing the typical things like jumping over ground pound attacks. Plus, beating up the bosses that bookend every level means getting your hands on a new weapon. These don’t change the combat much, with the exception of the blunderbuss which naturally gives you a bit more range. You’re free to swap between weapons whenever you like. Personally, I quite enjoyed the talking sword that also makes Jack levitate.
Aside from the platforming and the massacring of anything in the way, there are a couple of other things thrown into the mix. Each level typically contains an on-rail segment that feels so much something ripped straight out of the Playstation 2 era that I briefly thought I’d travelled back in time and was going to wind up accidentally flirting with my mum or something. You’ll ride on minecarts, a spooky horse and more, using the jump button and your crow companion to break objects. These sections are fun at first, but I did find that having them pop up every level was a bit much.
Pumpkin Jack has more success with some of its other gameplay mechanics. Riding the boat of the dead, for instance, is pretty cool as it travels through walls and other objects, leaving you to leap across some gaps in order to get back to the boat. Jack also has the handy, albeit freaky, ability to detach his head and then use tentacles to crawl about like something out of a Hentai video you found after spending too long on PornHub. This little sections are used for some daft little mini-games, including pairing up graves with some very familiar names and even a strange battle against Santa Claus. These are a mixed bag but also add some great variety to the mix, helping the short 4-6 hour completion time whizz by.
Yes, I did say just 4-6 hours. Personally, I wrapped the game up in 4-hours, but I didn’t grab every skull and unlocked every costume, nor did I seek out all the gramophones hidden around the beautiful levels. If you’re the kind of person who feels like they need a lot of hours of playtime for their money, Pumpkin Jack ain’t for you.
Pumpkin Jack’s best strength and its biggest weakness is how light and breezy it is. On the one hand, it’s such as easy game to play and unwind with, the kind that you can fire up at any point despite the mood you’re in and have a good time. But on the other hand, that same simplicity is a curse because Pumpkin Jack feels lightweight and shallow. It’s combat and platforming never really change from the opening minutes to the credits, which is why the short running time is a boon. Any longer and Pumpkin Jack would need some new tricks.
Scattered around the levels like disguisting candy are Crow Skulls which you can exchange for new skins for Jack to wear. There’s about five or six different skins, including a detective and a samurai, so the collection isn’t vast, but each one looks great and they make picking through the levels feel worthwhile. In 2020, skins are usually sold to us for real cash, so it’s awesome to see Pumpkin Jack stick to its oldschool guns and just give them to you for playing.
Pumpkin Jack is a project borne of love and it shows in every gorgeous scene and in how it pays adoring homage to the platformers of yesteryear. While part of me wishes it tried to be more than the PS2 era platformers it imitates and evolved its gameplay over the course of its story, Pumpkin Jack is nevertheless a fun time. So, if you’re looking for a trip down memory lane to simpler times where Jack & Dexter, Spyro and Crash were all the rage, Pumpkin Jack is a damn fine choice.
- Lovely visual style
- Fun premise
- It’s like a modern MediEvil
- Maybe too simple
- Very short
- Writing is a bit lifeless