Arriving just in time for the spooky season, Pumpkin Jack represents both a long lost artform of whimsical Halloween-themed games, and that of a surprisingly starved action platformer genre. Certainly, if you own a Nintendo console then you’ve got plenty of choice, but Xbox One owners don’t exactly have their pick of platformer mascot efforts given that Rare is still busy swashbuckling and preparing for the promising Series X exclusive, Everwild. The Xbox brand, even in the absence of a real Banjo-Kazooie title, had its fair share of platformers especially on the original Xbox, with games like Voodoo Vince being quite notable. Pumpkin Jack arrives at an opportune time, but more than just being the right game at the right time, this is a strong title worth a play by anyone.
Pumpkin Jack has you play the role of the bad guy on a mission to maintain chaos in the world, keeping things interesting by being joined by the likes of a ghoulish owl as a guide and a crow who, although never stops talking, proves their worth both during combat and platforming. The spooky atmosphere is vibrant and colourful even in this ghoulish presentation and colour scheme. The story is told through comic book-style cutscenes and such, but the presentation overall has the markings of a Halloween classic for all ages.
Many will probably immediately draw comparisons with MediEvil, which was recently remastered for PlayStation 4, but a more accurate comparison would be with Capcom’s oft-forgotten Maximo series – a pair of games on PlayStation 2 serving as a 3D spiritual successor to their seminal Ghouls and Ghosts (some may remember it as Ghosts and Goblins) arcade IP. Maximo was awesome; an underappreciated and highly satisfying action platformer, featuring memorable ghoulish visuals and timeless gameplay, and so Pumpkin Jack is quite possibly the first video game in a very, very long time to even emulate that style, whether intentionally or not.
Pumpkin Jack is as wholesome a 3D platformer as they come, and although it has many familiar design tropes, they all come together to create an adventure experience that has great pacing to keep players engaged throughout its playtime. The combat elements add variety to the gameplay, borrowing character action game conventions of combo attacks, dodge rolling, and some cool weapons to play with. Pumpkin Jack has great control overall, and even the 3D camera rarely ever bothers the experience.
As players progress through the adventure they will face plenty of double jump platforming, a bit of exploration for collectibles, and a range of fun segments such as minecart sequences. The boss battles are a lot of fun; simple in their design and yet memorable in their presentation, with later battles being more interesting. The titular Pumpkin Jack is quite versatile to adapt to any situation, and this even includes the ability to detach his head for certain puzzle platforming segments. As interesting these segments are as a diversion, controlling Jack’s head isn’t very fun and you can’t help but hope these moments end quickly. It doesn’t tarnish the experience overall, but it is certainly the weakest aspect of an otherwise solid and engaging game design.
Video games these days are either frustratingly difficult or they are cinematic experiences running on rails. Pumpkin Jack on the other hand is a rare remnant of the sixth console generation (PS2/Xbox/GameCube) when games were moderately difficult – a kind of balancing game designers have perhaps forgotten to achieve. Here players will find no shortage of checkpoints, but each segment in-between checkpoints is carefully and methodically designed to provide an achievable challenge. It’s tough enough to make you retry a few times, but it’s one of those things where you can genuinely feel like you’re getting the hang of things.
Pumpkin Jack is both timely and welcome on Xbox One. As a Halloween-themed action platformer, it fills a niche and void nicely and delivers a brilliant adventure in its own right. From its great pacing, solid gameplay, and consistently engaging design with only a few minor annoyances, this is one spooky adventure that can potentially achieve cult status, even among the bigger releases of October 2020.