For a while, I’ve been falling out of love with point-and-click adventures. As someone who grew up on The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, it’s a hard sentence to write. But very few modern graphic adventures capture the magic of peak LucasArts. They can be on the stale side, with familiar interactions in every game (we’d love to tally how many jails we’ve escaped, or makeshift grappling hooks we’ve made). They’re often slow and overlong. And virtually all of them are clumsy with a pad in your hands.
Sound the trumpets! In strolls Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City. While it’s not the second (or third?) coming of Tim Schafer, it debunks all of my previous statements and creates a lovely blueprint for future point-and-clicks. If developers could play Mr. Pumpkin 2 and steal a few things that it does, that would be great.
So what does it do that’s so different? It’s not a revelatory game, but it just gets out of the way, so that the important things can shine through.
It has almost zero exposition. That might seem like a fault, but it’s the opposite here. So many point-and-clicks grab a ladle and start pouring on cutscenes and backstory. All that’s here is Mr. Pumpkin has a pumpkin head, and he’s whisked from his fantasy world to the very real-world area of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. He doesn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by that fact – he doesn’t talk much at all – but there’s no doubt about the objective. He needs to get out, and that means riding away on a mythical dragon. Like you do.
It felt so good to play without this rigmarole. And it means that the focus moves away from Mr. Pumpkin, and towards the people of Kowloon Walled City. It’s about their problems, and what they need to survive in this congested urban sprawl. You’re exposed to their poverty, but also their will to survive. By choosing a real-world location for Mr. Pumpkin to get lost in – and a place that Hong Kong developer Cotton Game knows intimately – there’s the feeling that characters and situations are drawn from life.
It also means that the game’s focus shifts from Mr. Pumpkin who, let’s face it, has a single defining characteristic. An arcade owner just wants his TV to work; a cleaner wants the water in the pipes to flow; a gang member wants a gun. It’s never unclear, it’s easy to remember, and it makes sense for a graphic adventure. In a genre where everything is externalised – you’re using items to solve puzzles in the environment, rather than resolving any internal problem – it’s a perfect fit.
And Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City isn’t interested in being sprawling or telling an epic saga of one pumpkin’s journey through our world. This is broken up into five chapters, and each chapter is no more than thirty minutes long, with seven or eight rooms and seven or eight people. Helping one person will likely lead to an item that will help someone else, and the dominoes fall towards an exit, where you can move to the next part of the Walled City. These compact playgrounds are a joy to explore, first as a sweep to pick up all of the loose items, and second as a puzzle to be solved. While Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City isn’t outlandish or highly imaginative, there are some cute observations about the people there. And the soundtrack is a barrage of bangers on the way. Honestly, Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City is one of the best-sounding games out there.
By being so compact, the number of permutations never goes off the scale. You’re not getting lost, you’re not using thirty items on thirty things in the hope of a reaction. We never used a walkthrough, and we rarely felt bored by slowly trudging from one end of a map to another.
Which is where the controls come in. By keeping things simple, Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City is friction-free on console. We’d go so far to say it feels like it’s made for Xbox. First of all, cursors are ditched. Some console graphic adventures will retain the mouse cursor, and require you to sloooowly crawl over to an item of interest. Second is that there’s no need for a system where you ‘cycle’ through the interactive elements in a scene, often with a shoulder button. Nothing is placed out of reach to warrant this kind of system, and there’s never any question about what you can interact with. All you do is wander over to something or someone, and press RT to open your inventory, or A to pick up or chat. It’s this simple and binary, so there’s no need for an extensive library of verbs.
You might worry that it makes Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City easy as pie, and there’s a little bit of truth to that argument. There are attempts to catch you out with Professor Layton-style puzzles, including things like pipe runs and cog puzzles. But they’re rarely new or challenging, and – in a few cases – they are solvable by spotting codes and clues on the walls around Kowloon Walled City. It’s worth acknowledging that the challenge-o-meter is dialled down to a two or three out of ten, which might be off-putting enough for puzzle-hounds.
We’d also argue that Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City lacks something. It’s never funny enough to raise a giggle, real enough to be social commentary, or high-stakes enough to get the emotional engine running. It’s not abstract or particularly imaginative. It can often simply pass by: some curious characters with lightweight problems, and Mr. Pumpkin strolling through to solve them. With more confidence that there was a supremely strong engine and game structure here, perhaps Cotton Game could have pushed on to create something truly memorable. But there’s plenty to enjoy: its observations are sly and wry, which, while not being outrageously funny, are still pleasant enough for a three-hour ramble through Kowloon Walled City.
It’s taken a small indie game from Hong Kong to create the template for graphic adventures on Xbox. It’s taken a while, but we’re finally there. Mr. Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City is compact, frictionless and a joy to play from start to finish. It’s story might be throwaway, and it might not raise much more than a smile, but it’s got enough colour and real-world observation to make it worth the very small investment. Mr. Pumpkin, you’re welcome back on Xbox anytime.
You can buy Mr Pumpkin 2: Kowloon Walled City for £4.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.