What would you do with a talking frog-gun that could lick things from a distance? Actually, don’t tell us. We probably don’t want to know.
Renata, the lead character of Frogun, has an earnest and innocent plan for Frogun. Her archaeologist parents have gone missing in the jungle, and it’s time that she went after them. So, she opens a chest and claims her parents’ best Frogun, and begins to lick her way through dozens of levels. There’s no good way of writing that.
It’s a sliver-thin premise that’s an excuse for some good-old retro 3D platforming. It’s one of our favourite complaints, that modern gaming has forgotten all about the 3D platformer, but that complaint is starting to look silly now. In the past couple of months alone, we’ve had Kao the Kangaroo, Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series and the Toree’s 3D Platformer Collection, all partying like it’s 1999. It’s more truthful to say that 3D platformers are having something of a 2022 renaissance, and Frogun is here to add to that.
Frogun’s levels get an awful lot right. They’re cute dioramas that remind of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, making you feel like you could pick them up and spin them round to find secrets tucked within nooks. They’re tactile and fun, but also dense with secrets, and that makes them extremely fun to navigate. It’s very possible to find yourself spending minutes on the same tiny section, jabbing at the right-stick to try to find an angle that will reveal one of the game’s dozens of fly-based collectibles.
They’re capable of sprawling, too, with levels that keep going when you think you’ve broken their back. They are far from identikit, too, with new mechanics being dropped in at a rate of roughly one every other level, and the designers clearly having fun with different motifs. One level might focus on invisible platforms, while another might lean on timed switches and crossing chasms within that time frame. Frogun has a neat habit of finding a hook and exploiting it for one level only.
And there are dozens of levels, too. Frogun has plenty in its locker, and there’s eight-or-so hours here if you’re just beelining to the end of each level. If you’re more of a completionist, looking to snag some achievements, well, you can double that to sixteen.
Presentationally, we’re fans of Frogun. It’s authentically retro, not retro seen through a modern filter. And while it’s not going to be giving TUNIC sleepless nights, the chunky, Sega Saturn-like graphics have an easy charm. Characters like Hatter, the shop in Frogun, and the Frogun itself are all strong enough to momentarily dazzle.
It really does have all the ingredients for a Banjo Kazooie retread. It should be an unmitigated win. But the abiding feeling of playing Frogun, at least in our case, was a kind of weariness; a resignated sigh that there was more of Frogun to churn through.
The problem stems from the controls. It just doesn’t feel good enough, joyful enough, or precise enough. We’ll start with the Frogun itself, as it’s rather a large part of the game. The Frogun does an awful lot: it’s how you defend yourself from enemies, as you can grab them and hold them in your mouth like a Yoshi; it’s how you traverse gaps, as you can thunk it onto walls, and then pull yourself over; and it’s the means of grabbing a lot of collectibles. It’s your Swiss-army-knife.
If it’s that versatile, it needs to feel good to use, and it just doesn’t. You can fire it off-the-hip, neglecting to aim and hope it hits what you want it to hit, but – too often – it will miss. There’s a lack of precision to this method of using it, and you can feel defenceless as a tongue slobbers past an enemy. You can hold LT to aim, with a Predator-like laser sight displaying your target, but this too is imprecise. The arc of the beam is clumsy and sensitive, often feeling like you’re trying to coax a cat with a laser-sight on its head to look the right way. At speed, all of this is fatal. Worst still, because the tongue interacts with pretty much anything in the world, you are often licking a wall when you were meant to kill an enemy, and suddenly you’re swan-diving into some pixelated waves.
There’s something about the jumping, too, that feels off. Perhaps it’s the small arc to the jump, or the way that perspective and depth perception are hard to judge. But we never quite felt in control; we were wrestling with limitations, and at no point did we feel like we had complete control over either Renata OR the Frogun.
There aren’t many checkpoints in Frogun, which makes failure – thanks to the jumping or the licking – more painful. Collectibles get redistributed around the level when you die, which is fine enough, but for a game that focuses so heavily on hidden treasures that are way, way off the beaten track, it can be frustrating to find that your hard work has been undone by an unfair death. We found ourselves changing our approach to the entire game: it wasn’t fun to hunt for collectibles any more, since one bad step would reset them, so we stopped bothering.
In small bursts, we enjoyed Frogun. We wondered what Past Dave was complaining about, as we completed a couple of levels that were hitch-free. But, without fail, Frogun would remind us why we had such a love/hate relationship with it. One of the game’s many race levels might appear, for example, and we’d butt our heads up against unskippable dialogue, one-hit failures and collectibles getting completely reset. We’d rage-quit, and the cycle would begin again.
To get the most out of Frogun, we would suggest that you need to be checking a few boxes. You need to have lived and loved in the peak period of ‘90s 3D platformers. That love needs to be deep enough to ignore some reasonably core control failings. And you have to play in short bursts, as Frogun fatigue is definitely a thing. But reach this point with three checked boxes and we would be happy to recommend Frogun to you. Frogun is deep, charming and podgy with collectibles. Just be aware that this frog is not fit to lick Mario 64’s boots.
You can buy Frogun from the Xbox Store