Apple Jack may not be part of this balanced breakfast

Review of Apple Jack on XBLIG: Try
The “core” of this puzzle platformer is fun, but later levels become frustratingly difficult.

The “core” of this puzzle platformer is fun, but later levels become frustratingly difficult.

If I had to grade this puzzle platformer based only on the concept and gameplay, it would unquestionably be a Buy.  Gameplay is solid, controls are generally tight (with a few minor exceptions), and puzzles are smartly designed.  However, the game’s difficulty level was a huge turn-off for me.

The concept is simple—clear each level of enemies by tossing them at each other—but the game packs quite a bit of variety into this formula.  Some levels have the added twist of color-coding enemies, so that only matching colors will eliminate each other.   There are a number of different types of enemies, and in most levels, they’re a key element of the puzzle.  Enemies that follow Jack’s horizontal movement might need to be lead out of mazes, or floating enemies might provide a ride through a treacherous vertical passageway.

Visuals are interesting, if a bit surreal.  Jack, the apple-headed protagonist, faces off against enemies such as pandas, moving washing machines, pigs in tutus, owls that fire lasers from their eyes, and floating eyeballs.  But much of this whimsical game is oddly normal—each level is named for a real place in England (as Jack is trying to get to Wales to rescue his dog) and is set to a pleasant acoustic guitar soundtrack.

Although the design of the puzzles is excellent, they soon become painfully difficult.  Despite having infinite lives and checkpoints, the puzzles often require a series of complex actions that can be erased with the tiniest misstep.  Only 20 or so levels into the game’s 100 levels, I began to get consistently frustrated.  I’m not talking just mild annoyance; I’m talking wanting to throw the controller through the screen because I died two or three times within a minute. I finally gave up after I finally gave up after spending about half an hour on level 49 without even a glimmer of hope of success.

It usually wasn’t hard to figure out how to solve the puzzles, although I did feel challenged.  However, executing a solution is where the real difficulty lies—the puzzle-platforming mix is weighted heavily towards platforming.  There’s often a lot happening on-screen, requiring good reflexes to handle all of it.  While the game’s controls are generally solid, hit detection is occasionally wonky.  When trying to jump onto a moving enemy’s head, I would sometimes die because the angle of my jump was imperceptibly off.  (It doesn’t help that color-coded enemies are surrounded by a circular bubble which is much wider than their bounding box.)

The game also has a scoring element.  Enemies drop coins, and successive kills rack up exponentially higher numbers of coins if done within a certain amount of time.  I’m not sure a high score is truly a factor (with 100 levels, just finishing the game would be an accomplishment), but I did feel a certain sense of achievement maxing out the multiplier and filling the screen with a ludicrous number of coins.  But this was distracting, as I’d often move too quickly trying to beat the timer in places where I should have been using more care.  Combined with touchy hit detection, this led to a lot of deaths I could have easily avoided.

Apple Jack gets a Try from me.  I like the gameplay, love the music, and I’m impressed with the thought that has gone into the puzzle design.  However, the game goes from fun to (almost) impossibly hard too quickly.  Some gamers may like the challenge, but if you’re a platformer lightweight like me, you’ll be better off skipping this one.

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