Tried and True
I’ve played quite a few metroidvania games in my time, and in recent years we’ve been no stranger to spectacular indie productions of these titles. When another entry joins the fray, though, I’m more than happy to see it come. Enter JackQuest: The Tale of The Sword, published by Blowfish studios from developer NX Games, released on January 24th of this year. The version I played through was on the Switch, which really has become my indie machine lately. You can also see it on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
I was initially drawn in by the simple wrapper of retro graphics, followed by seeing the gameplay trailer, but most endearing of all the over-sized sword wielded by our hero Jack. However, the whole reason I was so excited for JackQuest is the reason it falls short of earning a recommendation: it doesn’t quite have the polish needed to compete in the crowded space it belongs to.
Our hero is called to action when his love interest is kidnapped from a date in the woods. Past that there is no story to speak of, but hey, we’ve done more with less in other titles, haven’t we? And so, we dive into the underground dungeon to begin our quest.
A Tender Stare
Longtime friends and maybe soon to be lovers Jack and Nara talk sweetly to each other of their memories, but just before the confession of love is delivered, a big green hand scoops Nara underground.
That’s about all of the setup, but gameplay itself offered me no extra nuggets of who we are, why we’re here, and why the big bad Korg has our girlfriend, but gosh darn it this transgression will not stand. I hunted all around the dungeon and spoke to every NPC I could locate to drum up a little more background and a little more setting, but outside of a few compliments on my boots there was just nothing else to discover.
In fairness, not every game needs a fleshed out story, but JackQuest definitely needed a little more something to make me care about being here. There was nothing to uncover in the background or details to pick up from boss battles either. You gain a talking sword pal called Kuro, but don’t ask him to do more than repeat a few funny canned lines.
The Dark Infested Dungeon
The absolute basic game play of JackQuest is actually not bad. You run around doing light platforming alongside the slaying of bats, slimes, spiders, and fish that populate the dungeon. Cutting down your enemies is fairly easy and not much of a challenge. You’ll die a lot, mostly because your last save left you with half a heart and sometimes there aren’t many places to replenish them. The game caused so much frustration in those moments where I was re-spawning with almost no health next to a ledge, with no idea where the next potion was, that I kept wandering in different directions dying accidentally to a random spike or unexpected enemy.
The reason I had no idea where I could replenish my health is because I had no idea where anything was in general. You start the game off without a map and every hallway, save stone, ledge, and background looks the same from one screen side-scrolled into the next. My mental map couldn’t establish even a loose idea of how the game map worked for a while, and I ran in circles multiple times.
There are a few useful power-ups to gain from the dungeon that made my time a little easier, but the mini-map I found eventually was largely unhelpful. As I scrolled along the mini-map to look up where a key or save point or familiar looking set of platforms might be in the simplified view, the game doesn’t tell me where I am in relation to what part of the map I’m looking at now, so I’d get lost even in the mini-map that one expects to help you find your way in games such as these.
The retro art style of JackQuest does well with the character and enemy presentations. The bees are cute, your sword feels mighty as it swings along leaving a giant arcing animation trail, and the waterfalls look great. The presentation falters in a few areas though. The walls in the background are dull and bland, which left every room feeling like the next. There was an overall sense of monotony building as I had nothing to visually break up the similarity between the beginning of the dungeon and any of the far corners.
The background track that follows you along your adventure is good. It feels nice to bounce around to the adventure-laden tune that excites without adding too much urgency to the game. My weird complaint for the audio experience of the game has to be that it sounds like there is a dog barking in the distance every time I swing my sword. This sense of a puppy friend seeking your attention from possibly the other end of the dungeon is so strong that someone in the room I was playing in also wondered where the barking was coming from.
Back to the positive side of things, I’d say the controls are all presented to you fairly well. There are cues on screen at shops and save stones which aren’t intrusive and are appreciated in the design.
I think I’d be less chaffed by the lack of any world building if the game didn’t start off by making me feel like there would be more in that aspect. Why have a talking sword that just delivers the same 3 or 4 lines randomly? Mix this with the frustration of the dungeon design and mini-map issues and I soon wondered what reasons the game was giving me to want to get through this struggle. There wasn’t really anything.
So unfortunately, while I wished I could go on, I just felt no glimmer of hope that it would be a rewarding and fun experience to pour over every pixel of the mini-map and run around aimlessly until something shook loose and presented me with a path toward progress. I still look forward to seeing other titles in the future from NX Games and Blowfish Studios, because in JackQuest: The Tale of The Sword we see at least that there exists a proof of concept from which more fleshed out titles can be born.
Review copy provided by Blowfish Studios for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots courtesy of Blowfish Studios.