Game Review: Pumpkin Jack

It's hard to jump into Pumpkin Jack and not think of MediEvil. More specifically the remake from last year, which did such a good job at maintaining the spirit of the PS One original and bringing it up to date with all-new graphics. But while Pumpkin Jack might take heavy inspiration from the 1998 cult classic, the mark of a great homage is when it uses an established foundation as a starting point in which its own ideas can be built upon. This is largely the case with Pumpkin Jack, a spook-filled 3D platformer ideal for the Halloween season, which still manages to surprise and delight despite its brief running time.

Much like the era of games it so expertly apes, there are some rough edges littered throughout this 5-6-hour adventure. Pumpkin Jack isn’t some Triple-A, big budget title looking to be the next big phenomenon after all, and is in fact best taken at face value for what it actually is, which turns out to be a charming hack-and-slash with plenty of collectibles to find and some simple yet fun gameplay. However, it becomes even more impressive when you learnt that Pumpkin Jack is the effort of largely just one person, Nicolas Meyssonier, who has clearly worked tirelessly over the game’s 4-year development cycle to successfully transport players back to the late 90s.

Pumpkin Jack sees you play as the titular anti-hero, created and given life by the devil himself to do his bidding after a wizard threatens to maintain peace in the aptly named Boredom Kingdom. Soon enough you’re forced to track him down by slaying monsters throughout various realms as the fabled Pumpkin Lord, utilising a diverse range of weapons and puzzle-solving skills to keep your enemies at bay. In this sense, Pumpkin Jack absolutely nails the vibe its gunning for, with slashing, stabbing and even shooting just as satisfying as the general act of exploration.

I must say, it’s a nice touch to not necessarily play the hero here, especially in a game laden in such creepy yet charming iconography. Stingy Jack is, after all, doing the bidding of Satan, with the only reason for monsters viewing him as a threat being that they still recognise the small amount of humanity that’s left. The story in Pumpkin Jack is pretty basic overall but there are a few unexpected twists and turns sprinkled in. And though most of it is relayed via dialogue text that isn’t voiced, Meyssonier has done a great job providing every character with their own distinct personality.

Speaking of which, Jack has a few companions joining him on this journey. One of whom is a ghostly owl that’ll pop up throughout stages, primed and ready to spew out exposition and explain how exactly your actions are affecting the many goings on. The second, though, is a crow that is much more practical. Because while Jack can cope for the most part with his extensive weapon wheel, a tab of the left trigger makes it easy to get in shots at far-away foes by commanding said crow. Outside of this there’s a surprisingly degree of flexibility in combat here despite there being only one attack button, as a weapon like the shovel, for example, might be great for close-range hits yet it’s the phantom sword that’s ideal for raining strikes down from up high.

One area that Pumpkin Jack actually manages to improve upon the MediEvil formula relates to exploration. Whereas the PS One classic constantly urged you to push forward without much opportunity to ever go back, each of Pumpkin Jack’s 6 unique worlds feature 20 scattered crow skulls littered throughout waiting for you to hunt down and find. Gaining enough means being able to buy new outfits for Jack from an aptly ghoulish salesmen, which might be purely cosmetic but still act as a nice incentive. Then, for players who want to see Jack boogie, there’s are six well-hidden gramophone collectibles that force you to go further off the beaten path.

While laying waste to creepily cartoonish bosses and underlings is enjoyable for the most part, the developer has been clever enough to recognise that this old-school, PS2-style approach to gameplay could quickly grow monotonous. Luckily, Pumpkin Jack manages to offset this by way off 3D platforming sections that tread a good line between fair and tricky, brief puzzle sequences that require you to solely control Jack’s disembodied pumpkin head, and finally several on-rails set pieces that test your jump and dodge skills. Small note: riding through the night sky on horseback was never not cool.

The environmental design and presentation are solid for a 3D indie game such as this but tying it all together is the excellent soundtrack. Full of haunting choral chants, fiendish string sections and triangle chimes galore, it successfully evokes a strong sense of whimsy and cartoonish without ever straying too far out of the Halloween realm. Again, it is in part inspired by what you’d expect to hear while traversing graveyards as Sir Daniel Fortesque, yet it appropriately knows when to amp up and wind down depending on where you’re at with the story.

Obviously, as alluded to earlier, Pumpkin Jack being the effort of just one person does mean that there is a slight lack of polish, mostly seen in the lack of proper texture detail and a bit too much reliance on conveniently placed fog in certain areas. However, a lot of this can be forgiven as it’s reminiscent of the early PS One and PS2 platformers the game is attempting to evoke, while light and shadow is well implemented. Sure, fully voiced cutscenes and some smoother character animations would have been nice, but it doesn’t take away from the inherent charm found in most other design aspects.

Pumpkin Jack is a nice reminder of a period when 3D platformers like MediEvil, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon ruled the world, where it didn’t take blockbuster budgets or 20+ hours of content to hold players’ attention. The fact that such a feat is now replicable by a sole developer speaks to how far we’ve come. As for the game itself, Jack’s adventure through the nightmarish realms is an ideal Halloween treat, boasting simple yet effective combat and progression that should delight anyone craving a shot of early PlayStation nostalgia.

Rating: 4/5

Pumpkin Jack is out now on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC

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