Despite the vast range and variety of protagonists available in games, it’s still surprisingly unusual to play as a villain. Most of the time you’re tasked with saving the world, or at least temporarily postponing its downfall. Pumpkin Jack, however, is not a good guy. Summoned by the devil to foil the annoying plans of a heroic wizard, the soul of the trickster Jack is set within a pumpkin and sent out to do his master’s bidding. Such dastardly deeds certainly make for a different background, but does the game really let you do bad things?
It is clear that solo developer Nicolas Meyssonnier has been hugely influenced by the adventures and aesthetic of the hapless Sir Daniel Fortescue, as Pumpkin Jack looks and feels like a spin-off from Sony’s series. This has both positive and negative consequences though, as it immediately faces comparison with the recent remake of Medievil. On the whole it comes off surprisingly well here, although it lacks the particularly British sense of humour that is so characteristic of its influence. Rather than abusive gargoyles, Jack is accompanied by a magical crow and an expositional owl.
For a single developer title, Pumpkin Jack is a beautiful looking game. The gothic aesthetic and Tim Burton-esque characters are well designed and animated, although some more variety would have been welcome. Dark and spooky surroundings are balanced nicely with colourful magic effects and there’s an impressive use of DLSS and Ray Tracing in the PC version. The latter is a massive plus, especially when you consider how few big studio games are taking advantage of this technology. If you have a compatible graphics card, these effects give everything an extra layer of shiny and the cartoony graphics really pop with everything turned up to maximum. Although this was a little buggy in the first build, everything is running nice and smoothly after a series of pre-release updates.
I did encounter a few issues with controlling the camera in-game, and this led to some frustrating platforming sections, which was an aspect of the inspiration that perhaps would be better left in the past. This same problem was present in the far bigger budget Medievil remake however, and it’s probably just part of the classic, and ever-so-slightly-dated gameplay. This was my only real complaint, although there were some overlong endless runner sections which stood out for all the wrong reasons. Level design is good, with optional collectables scattered around the environment for completionists. Collecting these allows you to purchase different skins for Pumpkin Jack, a nice old-school approach to cosmetics that is refreshing in these days of DLC and microtransactions.
Much like Medievil, Pumpkin Jack is a third-person platformer with combat and light environmental puzzles. I genuinely meant it earlier when I said that this feels like a spin-off, and everything here will feel familiar to fans of Dan. The aforementioned runner sections, which see you riding in a mine cart, on a ghostly horse, or kidnapped by a gargoyle, are regularly featured but can be a tad annoying. The latter, in particular, controls like a 3D Flappy Bird, a reference that is almost as dated as the camera. These aren’t gamebreakers but they felt too much like trial and error and dying meant having to do them all over again. I certainly wouldn’t have missed them not being included at all.
To foil the plans of the noble wizard, Jack must take arms against an assortment of human and monstrous foes. Beginning with a simple spade and then working up to more magical and effective weapons, combat is a fairly simple but enjoyable affair. Dodging and swinging your weapon is smooth and arcade-y -this is no Dark Souls-like – and you also have your magical crow to send into battle like a feathery guided missile. This attack is particularly well suited to picking off enemies from afar and is a nice addition to the melee focus. Bosses generally require a combination of ranged and close quarters combat with the usual timing, avoidance, and pattern recognition.
The six levels of Pumpkin Jack take you through the usual swamps and graveyards before you end up in a surprising location that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say that you have to defeat an enemy by being far more naughty than nice before you finally meet up with the object of your quest. The levels are fairly sizable but this isn’t a sprawling epic of a game; instead what you have is much closer to the length of traditional action adventures. I finished in around 5-6 hours which, to be honest, felt about right for this kind of title. The relatively short runtime does mean that I’ll be replaying to find all of the collectables, something which I often struggle to find motivation for with longer games.