There will always be those games that feel far too long and others that feel much too short. The longer ones can often make you feel exhausted by what can seem like an overwhelming amount of content while shorter ones can leave you just wanting more. It’s a challenge that’s become even more relevant as modern gamers have come to expect a certain value for their hard-earned dollar, regardless of genre or platform.
Striking just the right balance is hard, almost impossible really, and something even the best developers often struggle with. JackQuest: The Tale of the Sword could easily fit in both categories; a single playthrough is roughly 2-hours, meaning it could use a little more meat on its bones. And yet, I’m not entirely sure I wanted more of what it was serving up.
JackQuest uses the instantly-recognizable side-scrolling retro look – sprites are everywhere, so you know it means business. It’s also a Metroidvania-style platformer, meaning you’ll explore a huge world as you hunt down baddies, discover and equip new weapons, and backtrack back to places you’ve been already.
You’ll control Jack (surprise!) as he goes on a quest with the help of his talking sword to save the love of his life, who just happened to be kidnapped by the bad guy. Admittedly, it’s not the most novel of concepts, especially in modern gaming, but during the initial cutscene I found the story heading in a decidedly more personal direction.
At the very beginning Jack stammers over his words trying to profess his love for the girl he’s been infatuated with since they were kids. His announcement is cut short by the kidnapping, but I felt ready to help this little guy out. We hop down into the mysterious hole created by the big bad and here we meet Kuro, our massive talking sword, who also happens to be a spirit trapped by the same baddie that took your girl. Very convenient.
At this point I was interested to see where the story would head, as I’m a sucker for innovation in narrative when I can get it. Anything to add a sense of intrigue or build off of. Unfortunately, those opportunities were squandered as the game never takes any chances after the fun, quirky introduction. Instead, during the adventure Kuro spouts random quotes to help add context to situations with lines like “Do you love her?”, but never anything really useful. It’s all interesting – until you’ve heard the same line a dozen (or more) times.
The effort to make an engaging story is heavily front-loaded and once you start getting into the game all of the story goes out the window for fairly rudimentary mechanics that take inspiration from classic Metroidvanias of old.
The actual combat in the game feels fine but your gigantic sword can initially feel heavier than it should at first, meaning you’ll get bopped by enemies while attempting a swing. But once you get the timing down it starts feeling a little more intuitive. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all there is to say about the combat as a whole, other than a few special moves that can be performed (a spin attack makes you invulnerable and causes damage, etc.). Combat typically feels a little more like something to slow you down than it does a chance to add a challenge.
The enemies are your typical usual suspects like green blobs, blue blobs, bats, and skeletons. The game loves its blobs. It’s what you’d expect from a game that takes place solely inside of a cavernous dungeon. The bosses themselves add some welcome variety to the mix but are still nothing unique and, and once you figure out their patterns are fairly easy to take down.
When it comes to puzzles, JackQuest relies heavily on triggers and keys. Find the trigger or key and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to progress. But as with most in the genre, there’s little to no freedom to go through these doors when you want. Instead, if you find yourself stuck in a place with no way to get in, rest assured you’ll be lead back here eventually – if you can find your way back, that is.
There’s no full map which can add to the disorientation. Instead, we only get a narrow circle that prohibits you from seeing further outside the field of view, requiring you to keep moving frequently to get a real sense of direction. What makes things difficult is that everything starts to look similar on both the map and in-game, making it feel your sense of direction is stifled by the developers lack of foresight into how players might feel disoriented.
The decision to add Torches, which act as a temporary save anywhere on the map, is a novel idea. In a game where saving is scarce and backtracking is perilous, you’ll want all the help you can get. Curiously, the map is already entirely filled with save points that can be used multiple times with no charge and without penalty, so why would you need to spend 250 gold to buy a Torch when you can just find one of the many save points?
I played as thoroughly as I normally do with games like these, exploring every nook and cranny I can find, collecting hearts and gems to expand my inventory until the inevitable second-half of the game presented itself. At least, that’s what I was expecting. You see, throughout the entire game, after each death you’re presented with a loading screen of Jack with a bow. Seems handy! Can’t wait to make that happen and – BOOM. I hit the end of the game. Final boss beaten. I win. Congratulations!
But wait a second…where’s my bow? I quickly looked in the achievements list and after a quick internet search discovered I missed a boss battle, and the missing bow just happened to be in one segment of the map I’ve yet to visit. So, post credits, I loaded up my save and went to go grab it. Would it have helped? Probably. Was it ultimately inconsequential to my success? Yes.
JackQuest: The Tale of the Sword is over far before it’s able to begin. It’s a shame the quirky story is never developed past the introduction as that might have resulted in a richer, more rewarding experience. With any luck, a sequel might be required to help develop some of its smarter ideas into a better experience, or maybe flesh out this world or its characters. The indie community is notoriously fickle, and I’m not sure there’s enough here to sway curious adventurers from choosing any of the other, better, Metroidvania clones out there instead.