Long are the days gone where 3D platformers dominated the gaming space. They were the first real genre that got me into video games, around 20 years ago. First, it was Crash Bandicoot, then Spyro, then eventually Ratchet and Clank, and Jak and Daxter. These games all have a special place in my heart, and it’s mostly because they had a little spark that made them special. Pumpkin Jack has that in spades, and it’s a game I wish came out many, many years ago. To top it all off, it’s singlehandedly made by a solo dev named Nicolas Meyssonnier.
Pumpkin Jack is a game where you control a pumpkin… named Jack. Well, he wasn’t always a pumpkin. In fact, his real name is Stingy Jack (kind of a weird name for the character, but I’ll let that pass). Jack was reincarnated into a pumpkin because the Devil himself decided he needed a little more mischief and chaos in Arc En Ciel; he unleashed the Curse of the Eternal Night. This created mindless monsters that roamed the world and fought against the humans. The humans, however, didn’t take that lying down so they called upon their champion, the Wizard. The Devil decided to join in the fun, and that’s where Jack comes in. And if you haven’t realized it by now; yes, you do play the bad guy.
The story is rather entertaining, and that’s mostly because Jack acts with fifth freedom on his adventures — and that’s because the monsters are mindless, so they’ve no idea how to tell Jack apart from friend or foe, and because the humans despise monsters they’ll always take him on. So you sit right in the middle of the war, and everyone hates you. Jack makes sure to take that license to kill given to him by the Devil and murders everything in his path.
Another thing that makes this most entertaining is the quips Jack and his allies make in regards to his situation. In fact, every line of dialogue is well written. The comedic timing in some parts is perfect. Take when Jack meets the merchant the first time:
MERCHANT: Wait, wait! Don’t hurt me!
JACK: Eh? You can talk?
MERCHANT: Yes! I’m not here to hurt you, sir!
JACK: Are you sure? You look like a monster to me. Rotten, half-dead, soulless…
MERCHANT: Of course! I’m a salesman!
JACK: Ohhh. Well now I just want to kill you anyway.
There’s so much of this, and the writing doesn’t falter once. It’ll absolutely make you want to chat with every character and read every bit of dialogue.
The other thing this game excels at is the gameplay mechanics. Platforming is fun, albeit a bit challenging because it seems there’s a bit of latency between the controller input and the game (but nothing to diminish the fun), and the combat is fantastic. If Medievil for the PS1 had platforming, then this game would be neck and neck in similarities. Just like Medievil, the combat is relentless and challenging, but oh so rewarding when you’re clearing out dozens of enemies. There are 6 weapons to unlock, and each one has a great special ability. You can spam the attack button 3 times and do a generic combo, jump up then attack to do an AOE attack, or dodge and then spam the attack button to do something extra special. Each weapon you unlock is typically better than the last, but if you’re like me you’ll find a weapon you like and stick with it for the entire game. That, for me, was a literal gun (a bit out of place in a medieval game, but it’s fun and I shouldn’t complain). It’s so stupidly overpowered because you don’t need to reload and that AOE attack does massive damage to everything around you. Plus, that special dodge-into-an-attack attack lets Jack shoot the gun like it’s full-auto and it’s ridiculously amazing. Pumpkin Jack is a game that’s easy to play and even easier to master.
Jack also accepts the help of a talking crow that allows him to do ranged attacks. These attacks might be on a cooldown, but that’s for the best cause they do large amounts of damage and have the potential to stun certain enemies. Plus, he assists with the game by activating drawbridges and destroying certain obstacles. And, he’s just a great dude to have around. He acts as Jack’s sidekick and provides the more human/guide element to a rather ghastly situation. He’ll quip about how he’s terrified of certain enemies or predicaments, and remind Jack of what his task is in the slower lock and key puzzle portions of the game.
That’s all there really is in this game; great writing, great characters, great combat. Sure, there are unlockables and collectibles but you’ll likely find yourself being done with the game once you’ve finished it. And, that’s the other thing — it’s really short. Like, around 2-3 hours short. Given it’s $29.99 that means you’re spending around 10 dollars per hour played. This ain’t an arcade! Even though this game excels at the majority of things, I still wouldn’t recommend buying this game at full price.
My only other two grievances come by way of the soundtrack and on-rails portions of the game. I’ll start with the former. The soundtrack is normally superb and takes the best parts of the music from classic PS1 and PS2 platformers, but at some points it just falls short abruptly. Take, for example, the portion when Jack is on the minecart for the first time. The game goes from a gloomy, but fun music piece to joyous and energetic all at once. It would’ve been the perfect time to make this literal on-rails portion feel like a spooky, haunted house rollercoaster ride, but it feels like something that would play if Disney decided to make a platforming game for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
The other issue is the on-rails portion of the game. As with all platformers they’re, in essence, linear. Sure, you can jump and climb on a bunch of stuff, but in the end it’s about getting from point A to point B. The game does a great job of making you feel like you’re fully in control of the game and immerses you so well that you forget about that linear aspect. Then abruptly comes the on-rails scenes. There are around 2 of these per level, and each one is just about as boring as the last. And it’s really because there’s no challenge, zero. For the minecart scene, you can make the cart tilt left and right, but it’ll never fall off its rails. All you need to do is time your jumps between each break in the track and use your feathered friend to destroy obstacles in your path. Two buttons, that’s all you need, and it’s just so… eh. When you’re controlling a horse through this similarly-designed scene you now need to avoid oncoming objects. When you control a stone gargoyle, now you need to spam the jump button like you would in Flappy Bird. It’s just so repetitive and boring that I wish it didn’t make its way into the game, and it completely disrupts the otherwise fun and engaging flow of the game.
Given all of this, I still loved Pumpkin Jack. It’s a great 3D platformer that takes the best part of PS1 and PS2 classics like Medievil and Spyro and makes it its own spooky version. The combat is engaging, the writing never falters, and each minute of the short playthrough is mostly fun (those on-rails portions really do suck). I can’t wait to see what developer Nicolas Meyssonnier makes next, because this is an all-around fantastic first release.
Pumpkin Jack is a superb game, but its flaws come baring teeth once the glass shatters and you start to notice them. The combat is fun and rewarding, the writing and story are fantastic, but there are certain parts of the game that fall short. Plus, for no more than 3 hours of playtime to finish, that $30 price tag is pretty hefty. Putting that aside, every single moment of that short playtime is fantastic. I loved every minute of it, and there’s no doubt that developer Nicolas Meyssonnier made something extra special here.