Molty Mole should get hold of his union representative. As a postman-mole, he’s forced to get from place to place by cannon, of all things. He’s expected to navigate all sorts of whirling blades and tumbling rocks to deliver a single letter. Plus, when a gangster turtle starts stealing from the natives, he’s the one who’s expected to fight him. Poor Molty is a subterranean creature who lives in the worst possible world for that kind of creature, living as he does on a series of floating islands, and his customers are animals who could do his job twenty times better than he would. His main customer is an owl, for heaven’s sake.
If you can ignore the injustice, Mail Mole is a jolly, harmless little 3D platformer that could happily have come out in the genre’s heyday of Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro, Croc and the rest. You start in your hubworld, a homely place called Carrotland, where a giant energy pylon is supplying enough power to keep the cannon network going. You can imagine there’s a fair number of snooty letters sent to the council about that eyesore. As Carrotland’s mail mole, this hub is how you get to the various ‘worlds’, split, as you’d expect, into different grass, water, desert and ice terrain types, like Spooky Swamp and Yeti Ridge.
Unfortunately, chaos comes to Carrotland, as a turtle called Pukat arrives to steal the pylon. This powers down the various cannons, and it’s left to you, the mail mole, to hop into the one that remains functioning to deliver requests for some battery cells, bringing those battery cells back to Carrotland. With more power cells, more cannons can be reactivated, and more worlds become open to you. It’s the Banjo playbook, and we’re A-OK with it.
Each world has four levels, and each level has three hidden radishes to find. Gold, silver and bronze medals are offered if you complete the level in swift enough times, so at least Molty gets food and bling if he does his job well enough. Every five or so batteries, Pukat the turtle will arrive in Carrotland on a giant flying saucer (?), and you’ll be forced to take him down in a boss battle that’s effectively an obstacle course with salvos of missiles fired at you. Step on enough ‘off’ switches and the turtle goes back to his sewer.
Everything else is frills around the edge. You collect carrots in the level, and those carrots can buy hats and costumes from Rick the Racoon, who clearly hasn’t twigged that an emergency is unfolding. Nor has Scarlett the Skunk, who makes mechamoles, but not to take on Pukat – oh no – as instead she constructs bots for you to compete with in eight different races. She holds back batteries until you beat her, and presumably the mechamoles have been built to put you out of work when this is all over. The union rep should definitely hear about Scarlett.
You play a mole, not just because it’s one of the few animals remaining that hasn’t been featured in a platformer, but because Mail Mole makes a show of using its skillset. You play the majority of the game as a moving pile of mud, as Morty stays underground. Tap A and he will do a short leap out of the earth, while a long-press will make him do a longer jump. Press RT at the top of the arc, and you will ground-pound, which helps when clearing crates or bouncing higher on rubber platforms. You can also speed up by holding down X, which helps with races and slalom levels.
We say that Mail Mole ‘makes a show’ of using its skillset, because it’s actually all smoke and mirrors. There’s nothing that Molty can do that a Mario or Banjo couldn’t do, as Mail Mole doesn’t actually make any use of you being a ground-dweller: you could swap out the model of the moving molehill for Spyro, and you wouldn’t have to change a thing. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with things that could have been unique to Molty – collectibles under the surface, tunnel systems to navigate, sections to burrow under and appear on the other side – but Mail Mole bizarrely adopts none of them. It’s an oddly missed opportunity, and could have helped to make Mail Mole a little less generic.
The levels themselves are linear experiences rather than 3D sandboxes, and tend to be about five minutes each to complete, with a checkpoint at the halfway line. There’s a sprinkling of ‘rush’ levels that send you on a downhill slalom through a level. The levels are all decently designed, above-par in terms of the platformers we get to review on a weekly basis, and there’s some strong variety according to the different worlds. Coconut Island has bouncy balls and rotating discs with holes in; Dry Canyon has rolling cacti and quicksand. They’re pitched well in terms of difficulty, too. If we’re being overly critical, the first few levels are dirt-easy, while everything else spikes up to ‘reasonably challenging’ and stays there, so it’s less a difficulty curve and more a difficulty shelf.
It should be noted that Mail Mole presents itself as a child-friendly adventure, and that’s certainly true of its themes and story. There’s nothing in Carrotland that would trouble a PEGI 12. But it should be noted that the cuddly wrapper hides a challenging platformer, and my 5-year-old had no chance with it. It needs some strong reflexes and persistence, so keep that in mind if you are hoping for a benign Spyro-a-like. It does raise a question of whether Mail Mole aims for an audience and misses it, as there’s a mismatch between the difficulty and how the game presents itself.
Notes too on some niggles, as Mail Mole is definitely not flawless. The races are pure devilry: they’re pitched at an extremely difficult end, and the mechamoles take any opportunity to cheat and boost. If you make a single mistake then you may as well restart, and – even then – there’s no guarantee of victory. You HAVE to come first in at least two races to complete Mail Mole, since Scarlett supplies two needed power batteries, and we just about squeaked through.
Part of the reason that the races are so cumbersome is that Mail Mole has some control issues, which are at their worst when you can’t take your time. Molty has a habit of auto-jumping when he’s near a ledge, so if you don’t time your jump perfectly (or stray close to an edge) then Molty will lemming-it off a cliff. If you jump onto some obstacles, you will lamely bounce without the ability to jump yourself, and it can take a moment to notice that you’ve entered this weird paralysed state. The ‘run’ button is X while jump is Y, and you will often have to hold both at once when playing at speed, and this becomes all kinds of awkward, while boosts – triggered by pressing X after a jump – are often triggered accidentally, or get missed completely. Altogether, these are all problematic when you’re playing at speed, and the races, plus the fiendish last level, are absolutely when they come into focus.
Mail Mole is great at letting you play in the order you choose, but it all suddenly grinds to a halt when you trigger a boss. You can’t do anything else: you have to fight Pukat. It feels like someone’s suddenly grabbed the wheel from you, and it didn’t really have to be that way. On a personal note – and this might not bother you even remotely – Mail Mole overuses the haptics on your pad. I was getting vibration-sick, if there’s such a thing. We’re getting to minor gripes, but they can sting.
Altogether, Mail Mole on Xbox does the job of offering a ‘00s-era platformer – nothing more, nothing less. There’s no innovation here, not even capitalising on the fact that you’re a mole, and you may well groan at the landslide of cliches. But as we came to the end of Mail Mole, we kind of dug it. Aside from the odd control molehill, Mail Mole is a smooth ride and it may well scratch an itch that you forgot you had.