Pumpkin Jack Review: Simply Spooktacular
I remember the first time I learned of Pumpkin Jack. The game's sole developer, Nicolas Meyssonnier, shared a GIF of the work-in-progress on Twitter and it just happened to hit my timeline — thank you, algorithms. I was immediately enamored.
Visually, Pumpkin Jack seemed both nostalgic and modern, like so many of the 3D platformers of yesteryear recently remade, and it enticingly walked this line in what looked like a perfectly ghoulish setting for October. It seemed like an amazing concept, but there's only so much you can glean from a GIF.
Flash forward many months and the frightfully fun game has arrived on schedule, just in time for the Halloween season. Thankfully, this headless horseman rides to town with all its charm intact.
Pumpkin Jack Review: Simply Spooktacular
This is a game built for, and quite clearly by, fans of Halloween.
Pumpkin Jack is a 3D platformer that any fan of the genre will instantly recognize. The pumpkin-headed anti-hero is new to games, and it's a never-before-seen Halloweentown in which he jumps about, but the mechanics of his traversal as well as the enemies who stand opposed to his tricks and treats are all of a piece with the genre greats.
Meyssonnier hasn't shied from the comparisons in pre-release. In fact, Pumpkin Jack is advertised as a homage to games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter especially, though it's MediEvil that will draw the strongest comparisons to anyone other than the developer. That's because like the defunct Guerrilla Cambridge's undead adventure, Pumpkin Jack fits the Halloween season like a Fortnite costume on a pre-teen.
Every single aspect of Pumpkin Jack is designed to be appreciated right now, in October. On his exploits to rid the world of good, Jack bounces about cemeteries, explores haunted mines, and even invades Santa's Village to inject a bit of Burtonesque macabre into the snowy hamlet, all while the excellent original music paints a scene of frightful fun.
Every level glows like a fresh Jack-O-Lantern with vibrant oranges, greens, purples, and more, and a hint of foggy haze envelops the world, ensuring every level feels like the lighthearted holiday hit it wants to be. This is a game built for, and quite clearly by, fans of Halloween.
Though October is clearly the ideal time to soak in Pumpkin Jack, its mechanics ensure it can be enjoyed year-round. A platformer lives and dies by a combination of its jumping fluidity and its camera controls. Joyously, I found no problems in either case.
The double-jump ensures Jack always hits his target and the level design carries players through smartly, using environmental cues rather than any guide arrows. It's a surprisingly immersive game for something that feels like a reverse episode of Scooby-Doo.
Combat is similarly enjoyable, and while it can be a bit button-mashy in some instances, there's always just enough skill in knowing when to dodge-roll around a horde of skeletons and other ghouls to ensure it's not a totally brainless affair.
Every level delivers a new weapon unlock to your radial menu too, like a scythe, a shovel, or a magic wand that fires off a burst of spells like shotgun shells. I found which weapon you use mostly comes down to personal preference, as they are about equally viable in almost all cases, but the creativity and aesthetics behind each weapon are fun throughout the roughly six-hour game.
Each of Pumpkin Jack's half-dozen levels guarantees a few gameplay beats. They all focus mainly on the aforementioned well-designed 3D platforming and beat 'em up combat. They each introduce puzzle sections of a familiar type, like building light bridges or playing something like Memory. They each also make time to break up those sections with on-rails moments like a runaway mine cart, a dash through the woods atop a ghostly horse, or a rickety kart race against fiends who stand in your way.
These are mostly fun and forgiving enough, except for the roller coaster-like mine cart, which sometimes requires a precision that feels unfair, especially when its one-hit-kill fail state can push players frustratingly back to start often.
Every level also ends with a boss fight, the likes of which are more full of tropes than a stadium of red barrels, but I didn't mind. Pumpkin Jack doesn't reinvent the wheel designed by its genre predecessors, but it doesn't seem interested in doing so.
When boss battles consist of jumping over this attack, dashing that one, then hitting a glowing spot, you get it right away. It uses the language of video games seasoned players will know and new players will understand quickly, which is good since the game is usually such a treat for young and inexperienced players too.
With levels reminiscent of beloved 3D platformers and an irresistible audiovisual experience, playing Pumpkin Jack this Halloween is exciting...
When it's not so suitable for that audience, it comes down to two things. On one hand, there are no difficulty options, and while it's not a hard game for anyone who has played the games that inspired it, Pumpkin Jack can demand a modest mastery of the controller smaller hands just won't have yet.
Secondly, while the game has no voice acting, there is a story told through speech bubbles, but Jack treats everyone rudely that as a parent, I found some of his impatience for literally everyone he meets a bit tiring. There are funny moments too, like when you face down a pair of witches concocting a vegan brew, but I did find myself wishing for a version of the anti-hero where he wasn't so mean to everyone when my son was playing with me.
I think that approach also comes from the era that brought about Pumpkin Jack. It feels very 1990s, very Ed, Edd, and Eddy, to have your lead character constantly talking down to everyone. But today's cartoons, like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, are more about expressions of friendship and honest feelings.
It's been a revolution, and as Pumpkin Jack takes so much from a bygone era of mascot- and cartoon-led fiction, it misunderstands — or willfully ignores — this welcome sea change. In turn, it can feel a bit at odds with itself, hostile to the younger fans that will unavoidably be drawn to this game like their nostalgic parents.
Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't consider Pumpkin Jack dazzling to look at, and as the gameplay holds up too, it makes for a fantastic alternative Halloween stream for those looking for something totally festive without the scares.
Pumpkin Jack Review — The Bottom Line
- Reliable, sensible controls make for fun 3D platforming
- Familiar but enjoyable puzzles, boss battles, and mechanics
- A gorgeously spooky setting and excellent original music
- A somewhat hostile, condescending sense of humor
- No difficulty options
I've written a lot this season about the many fitting games launching ahead of Halloween. Normally I focus on horror games, the genuinely frightening stuff that players love to find ahead of the candy-filled, unofficial holiday. But in Pumpkin Jack, players both new and old will find an alternative way to celebrate the bewitching season.
With levels reminiscent of beloved 3D platformers and an irresistible audiovisual experience, playing Pumpkin Jack this Halloween is exciting and youthful like trick-or-treaters finding the house giving out full-size candy bars.
[Note: Headup Games provided the copy of Pumpkin Jack used for this review.]