Pumpkin Jack

I was nervous about the quality of Pumpkin Jack going into it. Its first level hinted that it might have embraced the concept that high difficulty makes a game better automatically, so they turn up the difficulty as high as they can get it by the game’s halfway point (or even earlier) and then they have nowhere left to go.

Fortunately, this proved not to be the case. The game is certainly tricky throughout, but never unmanageable. More importantly, the game never runs out of new ideas to throw at the player. Because the game is constantly introducing minecart races and memory puzzles and whac-a-mole and a steady stream of new enemies who require entirely different methods to fight (rather than the same but with less room for error), it doesn’t become tedious despite its difficulty plateau (the game keeps a running tally of how often you’ve died on any given playthrough, so I know I died about the same number of times on every single level). The game is consistently whimsically spoopy and fun to play through its entire 5-6 hour duration. I don’t think that duration can really justify its $30 price tag, but I got it as part of a Humble Choice so it was more like $6 for me, and at that price it’s certainly worth it.

Unfortunately, the graveyard level does have a very annoying bug. There’s a sequence where a gargoyle grabs you and you have to navigate through ruined debris while being carried by the gargoyle. It’s got a really catchy soundtrack and these sorts of interludes breaking up the main gameplay of platforming and whacking bad guys is generally a welcome bit of variety. Unfortunately, this one has a bug that causes gates you’re supposed to open with a ranged attack to be impervious. Luckily, ramming into such a gate deals damage but doesn’t kill you instantly, and it is possible to finish the sequence while ramming through every gate so long as you miss nearly all of the other obstacles. The frenetic camera of the gargoyle flight is annoying enough to deal with even before introducing the requirement of near-perfect play, but it is beatable. The bug only happened after I had failed the flight the first time, which means I have no idea if it applies to the second gargoyle flight, which I beat on my first attempt. This also means I have no idea if the second gargoyle flight is beatable if the gates won’t open. Turning volumetric fog off and setting the field of view as wide as possible help make the flights easier in general, so if you’re having trouble with this bug, try that.

The story is also very aimless and episodic. The Devil has put a curse on the kingdom of whereverstan and a wizard has set out to break it. You are Pumpkin Jack, the devil’s mercenary set to stop the wizard. Working for the Devil, who seems to be the regular old evil Devil and not one of those up-is-down black-is-white demons-are-the-good-guys type Devils, comes across as kind of edgy for its own sake. They still have to characterize the Wizard as being a jerk to make him satisfying to defeat, and Pumpkin Jack’s most talkative ally is a cowardly crow who plays the Samwise Gamgee “best friend whose loyalty comes out when it counts” role, so at that point why not just imply more heavily that the Devil is a good guy, and that the stability his curse disrupted wasn’t an unambiguously good thing? You don’t even have to be full good-vs-evil-but-reversed, you can do an order vs. chaos thing where the Devil is disrupting a period of stability that harms an entrenched aristocracy to bring frenetic opportunity to a dispossessed peasant class.

Ignoring the frame story, the story of each individual level is so disconnected that they could be in almost any order. The first level is about teaming up with your crow buddy, so it has to come first to get our party assembled, but after that we go to an underground mine to try and retrieve some magical artifact but the Wizard gets it first, and then we try to track down the Wizard by consulting a swamp witch but it turns out she just wants to make Jack’s pumpkin head into a stew, and then we wander into a city being besieged by curse monsters and beat up on monsters and humans alike pretty much just for lack of anything better to do, and it’s only when we arrive at the graveyard (level 5 out of 6) that we start making meaningful forward progress towards our goal of stopping the Wizard, since that’s the point where we catch onto his real trail rather than the red herrings in the witch swamp and the besieged city. The levels are well-paced internally, but taken as a whole they’re a mess.

Back on the positives, though, I like that at the end of each level you unlock a new weapon, and they give you setting appropriate weapons before you enter the level they’re appropriate to, not after. Sure, it would make sense to get the shotgun from the besieged city and the scythe from the graveyard, but it’s more fun to get the shotgun from the witch swamp so you can use it in the besieged city, and the scythe from the city so you can use it in the graveyard.

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