It may be a little late for a Halloween game – it being February and all – but Pumpkin Jack‘s charm and class make it a welcome addition to the PS4’s roster of action-platformers. Comprised of six different levels, the game is packed full of different gameplay features. Despite the number of elements it offers up to the player, its quality never falls off. Although not every bit of gameplay stands out, there is surprising consistency for a game developed by two people. While it may not be amongst the most original games I’ve ever seen, it successfully brings the style of classic PS2 titles to the present day without ever feeling outdated.
Story – Cheekily chipping at the fourth wall
From the very beginning, the game’s main narrative doesn’t aim for an emotionally deep or complex storyline. Instead, an illustrated opening, like something out of an animated movie, tells the tale of a happy, peaceful, and boring world disrupted by the Devil. Humanity finds its champion in the form of a wizard, while Satan sends out Jack, a notorious trickster. This generic plot isn’t a product of little imagination; however – it’s the setup for hours of self-deprecating comedy. The game plays around with its own clichés, mocking the convenient narrative devices that drive its gameplay.
Most of this comedy comes across in the form of a dialogue between the characters, whether it be a guiding owl, a (literal) skin salesman, or Jack himself throwing out quips. In keeping the tone light-hearted and humorous throughout, Pumpkin Jack stays well clear of any unnecessary attempts to create a deep story, and it pays off.
Gameplay – Combat to kart racing
As a platformer, Pumpkin Jack‘s controls are simple: jump with the “X” button, double-tap for a classic double jump. Other than that, there’s very little to pick up for just moving around, but the level design manages to turn these basic mechanics into a varied experience. By using a combination of verticality, and some well-concealed pathways, the levels become more and more entertaining to traverse the further in you get, as the game feels comfortable in challenging players more. The addition of some smaller mechanics, like a shuffle move for crossing narrow beams, adds to the fun without confusing players with complex controls. This might not be the most innovative obstacles players will have seen in the genre, but it succeeds in keeping things simple and enjoyable.
Combat, while not as strong as the platforming, still feels satisfying to carry out; after the boss battle in each level, Jack gets a new weapon, and each has a varied enough set of attacks to feel different from the others. Although the fighting can devolve into mashing the attack button, later levels feature much tougher enemies that require the protagonist’s dodge roll. Players can also use the cowardly crow as a ranged attack, adding another dimension to the solid fight mechanics.
The places these mechanics really have time to shine are the six boss battles, as every level ends in a climactic fight that tests what players have picked up on in the game so far. Although these duels may start off simple, they quickly start to add dimensions to challenge players. One particular boss features an on-rails riding section, some target practice, and a platforming section, all while continuing to attack the player. While this may seem like a lot to handle in one duel, it comes across as a test of what you’ve learned, rather than as a difficulty spike; by the time you reach later fights, the game has provided ample preparation.
Outside of jumping about and swinging a sword, there’s still plenty to enjoy in terms of gameplay in Pumpkin Jack. As layers move through various levels, they’ll encounter a number of minigames to complete. While these don’t all pay off – a particular name-matching section springs to mind – they’re overall fairly high in quality. What could be simple areas to beef up the game’s hours are far more than that: they switch up the pacing and consistently change the formula while staying simple.
From the second level, on-rails sections begin to pop up regularly a couple of times each stage. However, each time the player progresses, these become a little different (and more challenging). What begins quite literally “on-rails” with riding a minecart progresses to horse riding, kart racing, and even flying. Each of these variations feels like a step up in difficulty to match the player’s improving skills; in doing so, these breaks in the standard action-platforming remain entertaining without outstaying their welcome.
The other main minigames featured throughout are the puzzle, completed while playing as Jack’s pumpkin head. From the game’s own take on Simon (the musical pattern-matching game) to an obstacle course to move bombs through, there’s a huge amount of variety on display here. However, a few of these feel fairly tedious. Although they may work as a one-off to advance your progress, some of these games are fairly lengthy and appear a couple of times. As these bits are necessary to continue forward, they end up irritating because of how long they take. Out of all Pumpkin Jack‘s various parts, these felt the weakest and probably could have been removed completely.
Crow collectibles and stolen skins
At each level, there are a couple of things for completionists to seek out and some cosmetic options to try. The standard collectibles are crow skulls, with 20 to find around the various stages. Some of these are fairly easy to find; in fact, a few end up sitting on the main pathway. However, a few of these are pretty well hidden and help bring out some clever tricks in the level design. Looking around a corner might reveal a previously obscured path upwards to a skull. With plenty of these throughout the game, finding every skull is no walk in the park: you have to keep an eye out and look carefully.
As well as these, players can get their hands on a few cosmetic skins from either the main menu or from the skin salesman found tucked away in each level. While these don’t add any abilities for Jack, they do look pretty good. And, since they cost you the crow collectibles you’ve found, they provide a good incentive to scour each area. Or, if you’d like a bit of comedy, finding any of the six gramophones scattered throughout the game will have you watching a hilarious scene of Jack dancing along to the music.
Graphics and Audio – Cartoons and classical music
Pumpkin Jack‘s visual style clearly draws from the PS2 classics it’s based on. Its cartoony style is noticeably similar to the modern remake of Medievil and other updates of classic games. Each environment is striking while maintaining a distinctly spooky atmosphere. Areas are dark enough to feel foreboding without making it hard to see the level around you, and little additions to various parts add to the effect; tombstones in the graveyard, crows in the forest, and a ballista here and there on the town wall all added to the game’s richness.
Audio is another strong point; from haunting background music, with the volume turned up for combat, to the use of some classical music pieces, the game gets the balance right between comedic and serious moments. A minecart section features “Ride of the Valkyries” and feels wonderfully over the top, whereas exploration has more subtle music. Overall, although it’s less noticeable than the graphics or gameplay, sound design is another area in which this game succeeds.
Pumpkin Jack reviewed on PS4, with a key provided by Headup Games.