Jackquest: Tale of the Sword Review (Xbox One)

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“Holy FUDGE!”, I thought as I watched the trailer for Jackquest: Tale of the Sword, “Pixel art? Platforming? GIANT SWORD!? Download faster, blast you!”

I was unaware, however, that the other shoe was yet to drop.

Jackquest is a cute, fast paced pixel-art platformer about a young man named… well, Jack.

The title was developed by Netox Games and Blowfish Games, with Blowfish also publishing the game. It was developed using Gamemaker Studio 2.  

Jack starts his quest (see what I did there?) with his friend Nara enjoying a nice fire in the woods by themselves. Then, because protagonists can’t have nice things, a giant green monstrous hand rips through the ground and snatches Nara away mere moments before Jack confesses his love for her.

Jack jumps into the ground after them, landing in a cavern just in time to see the giant hand disappear through a portal. Soon after, he finds a giant sentient sword by the name of Kuro. He explains that he was sealed in the blade by the same creature that captured Nara. Together they go off to save Nara and release Kuro from his steely, albeit pretty cool, prison.

Gameplay

The combat in Jackquest is traditional with this genre so most people familiar with this type of game will adapt to it very quickly. With that being said, simple doesn’t mean bad. Gameplay and flow feels good in Jackquest.  The movements are tight, the attacks are prompt and the baddies are easy to learn and deal with. The effects, animations and the shower of coins after defeating baddies makes combat feel very satisfying. Two big thumbs up from my lizard-brain!

Being a platformer, Jack starts with the ability to wall-slide and wall-jump, then later gains the ability to double-jump. He has his standard two-hit attack combo with his sword, and eventually he finds a bow-and-arrow. Each weapon has a special attack, metered by Jack’s magic gauge. The sword has a windmill attack area around Jack, making him invulnerable and cancelling projectiles while the bow has your run-of the mill invincible dash attack. Each special uses a point of magic and can be increased by finding upgrades along your journey.

This aspect of the combat is done well.  You’ll never be wanting for magic gems, which is the method of refilling Jack’s magic points. They’re fairly common to be found without being so prevalent that the player will use them exclusively.  

The health aspect of Jackquest can make it difficult. Health potions heal half a heart and enemies damage the same amount per hit. Yet, finding health potions is a bit rare if you’re not purposely farming them. They are also very expensive to buy. It took me about 30 minutes worth of gameplay to amass enough coins to buy a single potion when I started. Since, they only heal half a heart and you don’t heal on loads or death, maintaining your health is a constant concern.  I noticed that if you are fully healed and pick up a health potion the spare potion will be stored in a pocket in the HUD. As soon as you are dealt damage the potion will float downwards and you can pick it up to heal. Considering how rare health potions are, this is a pretty good implementation.

The bosses aren’t especially difficult. It’s the typical “fight once and learn their moveset, come back and dominate them” formula. Although towards the end, you energy bar is upgraded so much that you can dang near spam specials until they die, if you came in with full health.

 

Jack uses his sword’s special technique to defeat a giant buzzkill, I mean a giant bee.

I rarely felt cheated or that an aspect of the combat was overlooked or broken. Soon after beginning the game you have all the upgrades to your platforming and found the bow-and-arrow.  So don’t expect weapon upgrades or purchasing gear. This is a very short game so there’s not a whole lot of time that necessitates upgrades, so go ahead and drop all your coins on health potions and magic gems.

Art and Design:

The pixelated direction of Jackquest is endearing and does well for the game and the gameplay. I am big fan of pixel art and I believe the team did a good job. Players will find everything one might expect to find in a cave of a Metroidvania style game. Jack encounters bats, slimes, skeletons, and even some fish and clams when you reach the water areas.

While the general design is decent, I can’t say it’s great. There’s very few original ideas or concepts implemented in the level or character design. As a matter of fact, so much of the cave that Jackquest takes place in has the same design scheme. This resulted in me occasionally getting lost and referring to the map quite often.

As far as the map design goes, it’s bad. I can’t sugarcoat it. Only a small portion of it can be seen at once and you can’t zoom out to see the whole map. Its design and colors are so bland and generic that I…actually got lost looking for certain locations in the map. Not to mention that you have to unlock it after defeating the second boss. Which isn’t bad if I wasn’t getting lost in the meantime.

Music:

There’s not a whole lot to say here. Jackquest is a short game, so there’s only four tracks. The general theme that plays as you traverse the cave is upbeat and fits the “Let’s fight and jump at a fast pace” atmosphere just fine. I even go as far to say it’s a good song.

The rest of the music is decent. It’s a bit derivative of other games in the genre. You’ll feel like you have heard that song before, but you won’t be able really place it. Like a pop song you heard in the mall. You’re not sure if it’s a new release or something that came out a couple years ago, because (and let’s all say it together) pop music all sounds the same. In the end, the game’s soundtracks could be worse, but it could be better.

Navigation and Conveyance:

Like I said earlier, the level design is repetitive and the map helps in the slightest way. So, if you’re not paying attention, it can be easy to get turned around. This indirectly lead to a more irritating problem. The conveyance, or lack thereof, made it aggravating to know where I should be going next or where certain items or paths are.

The paths branch, as they tend to do in caves. Both in games and in real life; or so movies have shown me. I’ve never actually gone into a deep, strange cave before, as I am a fan of both the light and not getting eaten by things. However, I feel the game could have done a better job of either soft-locking areas better or conveying the optimal path for progression.

There’s certain obstacles that are best circumvented with a special item that I missed in the very beginning of the game. As a matter of fact, I almost beat the game without ever getting it. The only reason I found it was because I wanted to fully explore the cave before I beat the final boss. I was left to wonder if this affected my experience with the game, being as I missed a significant item that was meant to be used from early on.

Another special item allowed Jack to explore certain areas unimpeded (I’m not telling you what the items are because I don’t want to spoil aspects of the game). I happened to find the soft-locked area first. So, being the hard-headed competitive gamer I am, I charged headlong into the area hoping to find loot and goodies that I was not supposed to have yet! Plus, I wasn’t sure if the special item was down there anyway. It wasn’t and I wound up dying a lot in the area, eventually backtracking far away and taking the intended path.

Issues With the Viewing Area:

Netox and Blowfish Games described Jackquest as a fast-paced 2D platformer. Which, as a fan of the Megaman X series, I was stoked to read. However, while the pace is fast, there are some elements that work against this aspect.

Platforming in Jackquest is fast paced and executed well.

Fast paced gameplay can be a great thing, but if your screen isn’t pulled back far enough to see where you’re going or what is coming at you, then it’s a recipe for frustration. On more than one occasion I found myself jumping up into spikes that I couldn’t see because the HUD covered them. However, what really bothered me was the “look-down” mechanic. Usually, you merely pressed Down on the D-Pad to look…well, down. In this game, it requires you to stand on the very edge of a ledge (haha, look at that. I rhymed). Remember where it’s fast paced? Well, you have to creep to the aforementioned ledge, cutting your baddy-bashing momentum, then wait for the screen to slowly scroll down. This is fundamentally counter productive to the basic design of the pacing. It is frustrating and I usually ignored it, carefully sliding down the walls instead. I did notice that enemies who shoot projectiles tend to shoot them while you’re off-screen. Which isn’t terrible in of itself, but grouped with smaller screen size, fast speed, and usually no conveyance of their presence when first entering an area, you may get unfairly damaged.

Where’s the Health?!

Okay, so all hits from enemies take away half a heart. You start Jackquest with two heart and have to hunt around for more a la retro Zelda. Same goes for his magic meter. Restoring your health is another matter. I have noticed others referring to this game as “Hard” for the fact that it is hard to refill your health. You either have to break crates to find potions that restore half a heart or buy the same potions with coins you’re awarded for fighting enemies and smashing crates. Well, those potions are very expensive. It took me a half an hour of gameplay to amass enough coins to purchase one. And before you ask, no. Your health isn’t restored after dying or spawning at a save point.

This caused me to either: A) Find areas that had a lot of crates, backtrack to them, smash them, save, reload, repeat, or B) Save and load six times to smash the lone crate next to my save point.

This made getting hit by an enemy on the way to a boss room infuriating. Though, you do get torches that allow you to save anywhere and are easy to farm as they respawn on loads.

In my opinion, this doesn’t make the game hard. It makes it tedious. If all it takes to render the main difficulty mechanic moot is to do tedious backtracking and farming then, in my opinion, this creates artificial difficulty and gives a time-padded game the illusion of being difficult.

This is, for example, opposed to strategizing weaknesses or utilizing limited resource management. After farming health and refilling magic points, the game becomes fairly easy. Though, there is enough magic refill gems around that Jack’s special moves can be used freely, but not enough to be abused. So, good job on that developers.

There’s a Story?

The story is lacking, but honestly, that’s not why I wanted to play this to begin with and it didn’t bother me. I only mention it as feedback for the developers. Boy likes Girl, Girl doesn’t notice Boy’s love for years and years, Boy finally decides to declare love, Girl gets kidnapped by giant green monster. Platforming ensues. It’s cool, Jack. We’ve all been there at least once in our lives. The ending is a bit anticlimactic with an easily exploitable final boss fight, but it does leave a little bit of material for a sequel to use. Roll credits.

Jack is underwater and about to dispatch a wily skeleton with his trusty bow.

In Conclusion…

With this being made by indie teams with a large chunk of the work being done by a single man in his spare time, I think this game is pretty solid. It could use some polishing here and there with some much needed originality thrown in, but it was the first step into the genre for Jose Neto, of the one man team of Netox Games. So, I’m not going to give the game too much flak. Personally, I feel like it could have benefited greatly from more playtesting from those outside the primary development team as I believe most of the issues with the game could be very easily overlooked by people working too close to the game. I’m usually not so critical, but I believe in honest feedback and I want indie developers to succeed.

It’s a short game, I beat it in one sitting after about three and a half hours, with other gamers completing subsequent speedruns in as little as 40 mins. Do I think you should get it? Yeah, I do. Do I think it’s a tad expensive at $9.99 for such a short game? That’d be a another yes.  

If you like the art and the genre, get it. You’ll like it. I did. I liked it even more on my second playthrough. It has it’s foibles, but nothing game-breaking or terrifying (I’m looking at you Bethesda) that would make you quit.

If this game gets a sequel, I’m going to be sure to pick it up. Jackquest is my style of game and I love to see a development team’s skill and style grow over time. Not to mention… giant sword? I mean come on, what more do you need?