Sony is known for having a strong lineup of unique rhythm-action games on their consoles. Parappa, Lumines, LocoRoco; these games have a variety of music and a fun, relaxing gameplay hook that allows you to feel immersed in it the entire time you play. None of that is present in Jungle Rumble for the PS Vita. Instead, I felt nothing but stress, frustration, and ultimately, disappointment.
Jungle Rumble: Freedom, Happiness and Bananas is a new title on the PS Vita, but not an entirely new game. It was originally released on smartphones a year earlier, and it shows. The game requires you to hold the PS Vita vertically, and all of your controls consist of tapping the front touch-screen. At first I enjoyed the novelty of having to hold the Vita like a phone, as no other game I had played on the console made me do that. Unfortunately, the game never implements any other control elements or hardware unique to the PS Vita, so the intrigue of holding my Vita like a phone quickly turned into “oh, this is just a phone game”.
In Jungle Rumble, you play as monkeys from the Mofongo tribe that are trying to stop their bananas from being stolen by a rival tribe. “Mofongo” is a Puerto Rican fried-plantain dish, so seeing that in the end-of-level score screen confused me for the longest time until I finally realised it was the name of the monkeys you play as. There are three worlds in the game, and while the first two are made up of six to eight chapters with four small levels in each, the third world only has three chapters with two levels to them each. This means that you can finish off the game in just a couple of hours.
And what do you do in those few hours? Well, the game tasks you with tapping along to a constant drumbeat in order to move across the treetops and finish the level. The drumbeat is a constant four beat measure, and you utilize two or three different four beat taps in order to do things like move to another tree top, throw coconuts, or hop over enemies. The consistent beat helps make it easier to immediately jump into the game and play, but it also contributes to the monotony of it.
Jungle Rumble is billed as a rhythm-puzzle hybrid game, but the rhythm aspect is incredibly weak. Not only are you following the same beat for the entire game, but there is hardly any music present to speak of. Instead, the game has a constant drum beat, and each level and environment layers on the most royalty-free sound effects imaginable to try and diversify the sound.
It helps in the first world, with intense drum beats reminiscent of the soundtrack to the film Birdman. But in the second and third worlds they start throwing in random gear-clanks, leaf-rustles and water driplets that serve as more of an annoyance than anything. On top of that, the beats are on a constant four second loop, and in some cases either sound very choppy, or don’t even match up with the actual four beat measure that you’re meant to be tapping to.
That’s only a piece of the puzzle concerning what makes this game so hard to play though. Awkward background music is one thing, but it’s coupled with incredibly unresponsive controls. Numerous times I found the game failing me or refusing to move my monkey, despite perfectly tapping along to the beat. The pause menu also consistently required about 3 or 4 taps before it finally opened, and with how often I was attempting to retry levels, that’s a huge issue. Levels and menus also lag noticeably when loading, and on one occasion my game even crashed due to an application processing error, something I had never even seen before on the Vita.
Even if these responsiveness issues were to be fixed, the game is still riddled with poor game design. Retrying levels is a frequent event due to how easily failure comes. In most games with consistent fail-states, like Super Meat Boy, it’s vital to give the player an instant respawn with little or no loading or waiting. Jungle Rumble, upon tapping the replay button four or five times until it actually registers the button press, will force you to sit through another twelve seconds for a monotonous countdown.
This countdown lasts for twelve beats, and is meant to get you back into the rhythm of the game. While it seems like a good idea, the implementation only serves to sour the experience. The entire game uses one beat; I know what I’m doing. If you’re going to give me a countdown to try and ease me back in, at least shorten it to four beats. I found myself turning off the Vita out of frustration during these countdowns a number of times.
Thankfully, the puzzle elements of the game work well. Enemies move in certain patterns, and keeping track of these patterns while you tap to the beat and collect bananas or fire coconuts at them is satisfying. The game introduces new gameplay elements and enemy types consistently, though the short length of the overall experience makes you wonder if it would’ve served better to introduce them all sooner.
There are enemies that come right at you rather than move in predetermined patterns, scrolling levels that constantly move in order to force you to do the same, and enemies that you can hop over in order to shortly stun them. The game combines all of these elements in interesting ways, but poor gameplay holds them back from feeling fun or interesting.
Failing a tap forces you out of your rhythm, and you have to wait for the next beat to start while enemies still get to move around. Additionally, with so much going on at once and a constant beat to tap to, it’s hard to find the time to think about your next move. I frequently found myself starting to tap one treetop and then realising another would have been better to move to, only to either fail the beat or be forced to move to the first treetop and fail anyway.
The game lacks a strong amount of replayability, but medals for each level give you a slight reason to go back and take the optimal path in order to get gold. On top of all of this, the game features a light narrative hook and some quirky writing that go together with the simplistic art style really well.
Jungle Rumble is an interesting game that, were it not for the incredibly frustrating lack of responsive controls, would be a fun time waster. A low price for two or three hours of rhythm-puzzling sounds fair, but I worry that if it weren’t for having to constantly retry due to poor controls, my time spent with the game might have been much shorter. The story takes a weird turn in the third act which made it seem less like LocoRoco and more like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, making the game a somewhat strange and interesting experience despite the incredibly frustrating levels and annoying control issues.