I don’t remember how I came across Pumpkin Jack. I was just cruising around the internet looking for interesting ways to earn my salary, and suddenly I was looking at the most Halloween-ass video game I’ve ever seen.
The trailer was awesome - a mysterious figure with a flaming Jack-O-Lantern for a head sulking in an underworld prison cell, only to cautiously roll out when the entire door mysteriously falls on its hinges.
From there, a series of smash cuts showing fast combat, tons of spooky and festively-colored environments, and large platforming setpieces followed. It looked like a nod to games like MediEvil or Jak and Daxter, with little hints of The Nightmare Before Christmas sprinkled on top.
And when I got a hold of Pumpkin Jack and played it, it was everything I wanted it to be, and maybe even more. Pumpkin Jack is a smooth, solid, and spunky action-platformer with just enough stuff to do and find to hit a currently unheard of eight or so hours of breezy videogame.
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I went in not knowing what to expect, had a great time, and even went back after the credits and cleaned up the remaining achievements. It was like a PS2 game in style and design, but with the 4K resolution, color depth, and frame rate of a contemporary game. And one person made it!
Pumpkin Jack doesn’t really have an interesting story, but it makes up for it with charm. Jack is a criminal too troublesome for even Hell, but is let out of prison to stop a powerful wizard from acquiring an amulet that’ll give the humans a leg up on ol’ Satan.
Jack, a flaming pumpkin with tentacles, is given a body and a trip to the surface to cause some Underworld-sanctioned chaos. Along the way, he has to get through the mindless hordes of Satan’s monster army, which are too mindless to be effective.
The human world is all kinds of Halloween-like, with festive colors, twisted architecture and weird stuff like castles and magic graveyards. Jack also has a crow partner he basically threatens into subservience, but along the way they warm up to each other in an almost Banjo-Kazooie kind of way.
The best part of Pumpkin Jack is that everything just works. When you press a button you get the exact result you expect, quickly, and without any obvious jank. Jack can double-jump from the get-go, and has a degree of air control that lets you explore and progress comfortably without fighting the game. Combat is fast and sloppy, which is fun in its own right in a world full of Dark Soulsiness.
There are even several silly minigames inserted to break things up, and while those are where the deaths can start piling up, it never feels bad, or goes too far in the Donkey Kong direction.
There are no lives to worry about, and checkpoints are usually where they need to be. It’s just a solid package overall, and it runs so dang smoothly on the Xbox One X (We didn’t have access to the Switch version to evaluate performance there).
The second-best part of Pumpkin Jack is its collectibles. You only need to find two sets of things per level; there are a static 20 crow skulls and one phonograph in each. Some of them are in plain sight, some of them are combat rewards, and others are hidden around in blind spots and rewards for exploring.
You can replay levels to just grab the ones you missed, and you can trade them for alternate costumes for Jack. It feels balanced on par with the whole game’s scale, it’s fun to look for them, and the costumes are goofy enough to feel like good rewards for the effort. You also get treated to a totally meaningless but very silly dance sequence when you find a level’s phonograph. Why not?
The biggest drawback in Pumpkin Jack is its combat. It’s breezy like I said before, but it’s too shallow to be memorable or a motivating aspect of the game. You can get past it no problem, but there’s nothing about it that makes you want to seek it out. There are several weapons you get through the course of the game with slightly different properties, but those differences don’t matter much.
Enemies don’t take hit stun, and the weapons don’t serve any other purposes. The weapons feel more like cosmetic options thrown in to mix things up a little.
But they don’t really accomplish that. And since enemies don’t stun, you’ll be hitting a couple times then dodging more than you’ll ever get to experiment with combos. Boss fights are fun but they’re largely based on unique gimmicks, leaving the core combat mechanics aside for more engaging ideas. It’s a shame too, because all the animation and effects for the weapons are really well-made.
Pumpkin Jack is like one of those licensed IP action platformers you’d see in bargain bins back in the PS2 days, but it’s an original IP and actually good. It’s out just in time for Halloween, making this perfect seasonal content. And it’s just meaty enough to justify all of its levels and challenges without repeating too much or overstaying its welcome.
I wish the combat had a little more nuance to it, but the rock-solid platforming and silly minigames more than made up for it. It’s a great alternative to all the oppressive horror games coming out this month, and I’m super glad I tripped over it. It’s good!
- Great platforming
- Charming Halloween aesthetic and characters
- Great performance on Xbox One X
- Shallow combat
- Not much to the overall story
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.