It may not feel like Halloween is really on its way this year - parties will be outdoors in the cold and sparsely attended, it'll be difficult to space people six feet apart in your tiny apartment and it's looking increasingly unlikely you'll get to take your kid out Trick-or-Treating this year. Don't give up hope, though! Nicolas Meysonnier's one-man development team brings you Pumpkin Jack, a spooky 3D platformer that will bring out the Halloween Spirit, even if just for a few hours.
The Spooky Vibe I've Been Craving
Pumpkin Jack relies heavily on atmosphere for its success; its energy is equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas, Luigi's Mansion, Disney's Haunted Mansion ride and Tumblr's inscrutable Skeleton War deep lore. Pumpkin Jack is spooky in the goofiest ways and silly in the creepiest ways, which is just how I like my October. If you're a fan of the whole "Spooktober" vibe the internet goes through for a month, you can't miss this game. If you're adverse the meme-ness of it all, this is likely not the product for you.
The dark color tones and soft, polygon art style combine to create something very similar in visual feel to Luigi's Mansion 3. The blackened sky punctuated with slivers of blue peeking through contrast the bright, neon greens of the spirits and the vivid reds of fire wonderfully. The aesthetic pleasantness of the color palette shouldn't be understated here - it complements the cartoon nature of the art style wonderfully and was clearly inspired by the Gamecube/PS2 era 3D platformers of yesteryear. The world is a delight to explore and I found myself stopping to admire the "incoming storm on an autumn night" feel of the various worlds.
For PC players, I'd like to mention that the RTX largely adds nothing to the visuals and, even with my GTX 2060 Super and Ryzen 5 3600, only served to create enormous frame rate drops every few minutes. Turning off RTX led Pumpkin Jack to run at 1440p 144 FPS flawlessly; I recommend foregoing the ray tracing until a patch comes along.
Delightfully Campy Characters
Jack has been tasked by the Devil himself to rid the world of a particularly pesky wizard, and if he's able to do so he's got a possible chance to escape Hell - that is, if you trust the world of the King of Lies (I didn't!). During his life, Jack was a murderer, so his particular set of skills will come of use wielding several different weapons to bust up ghosts, rats, skeletons and other undead spooks and the wizard himself. Pumpkin Jack has no voice acting, so characterization relies entirely on dialogue, and in that it succeeds.
Jack's two main cohorts are the unnamed Crow and the Owl. Crow will serve as your constant and faithful companion, floating over your shoulder, making quips when facing down bosses and acting as a ranged attack during fights and the on-rails segments. I enjoyed Crow quite a lot, and their banter with Jack helped carry the parts of the story that dragged. The impatient and mysterious Owl waits at checkpoints for Jack and Crow and advances the story reluctantly as the trio make their way towards the final encounter with the wizard.
It's so rare that I find a reason to laugh during a boss fight rather than clench my teeth in concentration.
Mostly Underwhelming Gameplay
Pumpkin Jack nails the Halloween feel, but gameplay issues end up holding it back from being truly great. Jack's double jump ability is utilized almost every time he jumps, but the player loses control of directional input after the first jump. This essentially means that Jack can't change directions from where his momentum is taking him mid-jump, which causes a whole lot of problems in practice. The result is that Pumpkin Jack feels clunky, and quite often I realized mid-jump I wouldn't be able to change to the direction I needed and simply fell back down to start over. Actively fighting the controller in this way killed a lot of momentum over the five hours of gameplay.
Combat was underwhelming to the point that I feel Pumpkin Jack might have been better off ditching it altogether. Jack acquires four different weapons over the course of the game, each one a bit more powerful than the last with very slightly different handling. There was never a need to go back to an older, weaker weapon though, so it seemed an odd choice to have them available to switch between at any time. Combat amounts to spamming the attack button and firing Crow; Jack's dodge feels clunky and imprecise. Since all enemies drop health when defeated, I found it more strategic to just button mash my way through encounters.
Mini-game Segments and Boss Fights Shine Through
Though some of the overworld combat and platforming is either clunky or repetitive, the highlights of Pumpkin Jack are the mini-games and boss fights. Every 20 minutes or so, Jack will arrive at either a ghost horse race, an on-rails mine cart race or a mini-dungeon puzzle. I actually had quite a lot of fun on the mine cart and the ghost horse, which were both dependent on precisely timed jumping and steering. The mini-dungeons consisted of an isolated area where Jack's pumpkin head scurries off of his body to fit into a small space. Solving these physics and memory puzzles provided a welcome break from the overworld area and a nice change of scenery as well.
I am often unimpressed by boss fights in platformers because many times they fall back to relying on combat when the focus of the rest of the game has been platforming. Pumpkin Jack mightily succeeds in this regard, making the boss battles platforming challenges rather than combat challenges. Each one was unique, charming and exciting, and the fight against the Witch and the Salesman ended up being one of my favorite boss battles of the year. Without spoiling it, the boss fight actually made me laugh while providing a real platformers challenge and leaning on the wackiness of the characters. It's so rare that I find a reason to laugh during a boss fight rather than clench my teeth in concentration.
Get Your Spook On
If you're looking for something to get in the Halloween spirit this year, I insist you pick up Pumpkin Jack. Despite the repetitive nature of combat and clunky platforming, the art, music, characters and mini-game segments make a playthrough worthwhile. It certainly stands a pumpkin head taller than the PS4 remake of MediEvil, another 3D platforming spookfest. Pumpkin Jack felt a bit too long at right over five hours, but if you're craving some of that Nightmare Before Christmas energy and have already rewatched the entire Halloweentown series this fall, look no further.
TechRaptor reviewed Pumpkin Jack on PC with a copy provided by the publisher. Pumpkin Jack is also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
- Beautiful Visuals and Music Reminiscent of Gamecube/PS2 Platformers
- Endearing and Campy Characters
- Unique and Innovative Bosses
- Combat is Repetitive and Feels Like Busywork
- Platforming is Sometimes Clunky and Imprecise