Comic Jumper (XBLA) Review

We around here at BrainLazy have always been big fans of Twisted Pixel. Maw started our interest, and 'Splosion Man cemented them on our list of favorites. Their latest offering is Comic Jumper, a comic book inspired action game. After just a few minutes of gameplay footage and a short interview at PAX East, we were absolutely drooling to get our hands on it. Now it is time to see if all of that anticipation has been worth it.

Getting Started

We around here at BrainLazy have always been big fans of Twisted Pixel. Maw started our interest, and ‘Splosion Man cemented them on our list of favorites. Their latest offering is Comic Jumper, a comic book inspired action game. After just a few minutes of gameplay footage and a short interview at PAX East, we were absolutely drooling to get our hands on it. Now it is time to see if all of that anticipation has been worth it.

Visuals

Graphics are an important part of any game, but for Comic Jumper such is the case several times over. The whole gimmick of the game is its shift in visual style from one level, and thus comic, to the next. It would have been easy for Comic Jumper just to slap the player character in a different skin and call it a day, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the depth to which the game adapts from one book to the next. It isn’t just the look, but the whole presentation of the game that changes. From its starting point as a decent, if slightly generic action game setting, you move to a Conan (the Barbarian, not the talk show host) inspired landscape in the first guest comic. Rooftops become ruins, fembots become villagers and sabertooth raptors. Even your on-board sidekick Star becomes an ornate medallion. Everything takes a pretty heavy shove toward realism, though still keeping the trademark zaniness. (The tribe you are battling is obsessed with chickens and golf.)

Next comes a shift to the Silver age of comics. From shader-heavy, realistic detail, the game moves to the stylized art of the 1960’s. Now our hero and his foes are cell shaded masterpieces, each individual frame of the level easily capable of being a panel from a Jack Kirby comic. Sound effects are printed onto the screen as the classic “Boff” “Blam” we’ve come to associate with the Batman TV show.

The third primary portion of the game is a Shojo Manga, black and white and chibi-filled. Lip sync in this game is never exactly nuanced, but for the manga it takes on the traditional mouth flapping dialog and exaggerated emotional expressions you would expect from the art form. There are giant floating heads that shoot heat seeking boogers, a magical unicorn with rainbow trail, and a gun that shoots magical hearts and bubbles. You know, standard manga stuff.

Despite the steady change, there are a few aspects of the visuals that remain constant. Every inch of the screen is packed with gags and references. Signs, billboards, plaques; everything is there for a laugh, with visual nods to other games and pop culture in everything from the backgrounds to the death animation. Also, play this game long enough and you WILL know who the developers are. They show up as modern art paintings, ads, and the mandatory full-screen-kill (more on that in game play). Major screen transitions are rendered as launching from the comic page and having it turn beneath you. Your health comes up as a progressively more distressed character portrait losing color as you are damaged. It serves to give a common structure to the game, keeping you from floundering or losing track or needing to relearn things from one level to the next.

Overall, the graphics are a real treat, and even more so if you are a comic book fan. Through it all, the patented Twisted Pixel charm shines through, making all of that variety blend together. Top notch.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Comic Jumper shifts from comic to comic as well, though nowhere near as drastically as the art. Most of the gameplay is reminiscent of Contra or Gunstar Heroes. You have a pair of guns that are controlled with the right thumbstick and fired with the trigger. Meanwhile, the left thumbstick and A button let you run, jump, and climb. You have a slide maneuver to help you dodge, and when things get really hairy, you get a “Help Me” that calls in the actual developers to assault the screen with punches, kicks, and the most heavily bearded headbutt ever. In addition to that, there are short stretches of melee where you earn the aforementioned screen-kills, on-rails shooters where you control a reticule and player separately, and the odd quick-time event.

Each gameplay element isn’t terribly complex by itself, and while they work, they aren’t noteworthy. But with each new setting they are rearranged into shooting galleries, asteroids-clones, shmups, and half a dozen other game types. The boss fights are epic and numerous, and are easily the most varied parts of gameplay. Some are standard shooting and dodging drills. Others are level-long running battles. It is easy to brush the gameplay off as simple on the surface, but before long you are forced to split your brain in half, assigning one side to keeping your character out of harm’s way while letting the other side keep your shots on target. It makes a good performance extremely satisfying.

Here and there you will be given a challenge to keep your readers happy. Most of them take the form of making a flawless run through a certain piece of the level, though a request to kill all of a certain type of target comes up as well. They earn you extra points if you pull them off. Good accuracy, a high kill count, and few deaths or calls for help boost your score as well. This score is used to unlock bonuses and upgrades. Obviously the upgrades are useful, allowing you to take more hits, do more damage, and otherwise play better, but the bonus material is easily the more important of the two to spend your money on early in the game. Not only do you get sound files, concept art, models, and the like, you also get exclusives. These include gamer pictures, a premium theme, and levels for ‘Splosion Man. Why am I talking about this in the Gameplay section? Because buying unlockables also gives you a score multiplier, netting you more money faster. Brilliant.

Each level is revisitable, either for full play-throughs or for specific challenges, and all told you can power through the game in about 5 hours. However, digging through all of the gags, unlocking and watching all of the goodies, and playing your complimentary ‘Splosion Man levels will take hours longer and make this a very economical purchase indeed. My one problem with the gameplay is that it can get a tad repetitive within each level, but I have a feeling I only feel that way because of the way the game spoils me with the flood of variety elsewhere.

Sound

There is a certain quality to the audio in a Twisted Pixel game that is unique. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but whatever it is, Comic Jumper is flooded with it. The music and sound effects are good, mutating along with the visuals from level to level to a form that fits the setting, but they show up in the must unexpected places, too. Check out the stats menu, why don’t you? You’ll be serenaded by a goofy little song about how many shots you’ve fired and chastising you for skipping cinemas.

Generally speaking, the vocals are spectacular. Smiley and Star have fantastic banter throughout each level, and the designers were even kind enough to prevent them from hurling the same scripted one-liners over again too often if you are replaying from a checkpoint. The villains are all very well-characterized, with my favorite being Mistress Ropes and her 1960’s no-nonsense, strong willed woman voice. It is like duking it out with Lois Lane from the old Superman show. We’ve come to the consensus that Dr. Winklemeyer is a bit much, but even he has his moments. The characters in this game had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion, and that is very rare for a game.

Story

The story of the overall game is that Captain Smiley is floundering. He’s a generic, forgettable superhero with a failing comic and laughable villains. He and his Star, who is attached to his chest and is the world’s least supportive sidekick, have just had their comic canceled. In jumps Twisted Pixel, the actual developers of the game, to save the day. They offer to allow him to jump into a guest appearance of three more popular comics and lend a hand in their stories, earning money and readers along the way with the intent of re-launching his own title. The individual comics have their own stories, usually revolving around the rescue or aid of the series’ own star.

The presentation comes off almost like an episode of The Muppet Show. Every character is both playing a role on page and existing as themselves back stage. You see them grow and adapt to new roles and styles, and you get little slices of development and interaction with Captain Smiley between each chapter. Considering Smiley’s Daffy Duck-esque self-absorbed diva attitude, you’ll easily find yourself commiserating with the villains. As a whole, it feels less like a tale of us versus them and more a tale of a repertory cast of actors struggling to put on the best show they can. It is very distinctive, and it really works well. There is something about the constant fourth wall breaking and self-reference that makes me feel like Twisted Pixel is the Tenacious D of the game world.

Summing Up

This game is excellent for anyone, but it is infinitely better if you are a comic book fan. Every aspect of the source material is lovingly mocked in both obvious and subtle ways. There is a letters page in the silver age comic, drawing attention to the nerdy two pages at the end of every issue that allowed the comics of old to be delivered at the magazine postal rate. A character called The Origami Kid is an example of the outrageous, over-the-top racial stereotypes that were a staple of 1960’s comics. (I sincerely hope that the public takes this as the satire that it is, because otherwise there is likely to be some serious hooplah) The entire level is plagued by constant fines from the COC. It is an anti-obscenity commission that punishes you for not only profanity and sexuality, but any action taken by a hero against an authority figure, just like the real life comics code. The Manga takes place partially at Hent High, and their mascot is a tentacle. (If you don’t know what tentacle hentai is, consider yourself lucky.) Even if you hate the gameplay, which I doubt you will, you’ll find yourself compelled to play just to experience the next piece of fun the game has to offer. This game has got the highest pop-culture reference density I’ve ever experienced outside of a Family Guy episode.

Even with this big ol’ review, I feel like there are a dozen things I didn’t manage fit in that are worth mentioning. Trust me. Pick this up. If you like action games, you won’t regret it. If you like Twisted Pixel or comic books, this is NOT to be missed.

For those of you who like a second opinion, our own Phawx has collected his own thoughts into a second review, this time in video form. Check it out below.

Verdict

9.1 / 10. Decent action game with enough style, humor, and variety heaped on top to make it excellent.



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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.