Review: ToeJam and Earl Back in the Groove

Disclaimer: The author of the review is a Kickstarter Backer and received a copy of the PC version through the campaign. A Nintendo Switch review copy was also provided by the via the game’s PR team.

ToeJam and Earl have returned during a time that could not be more appropriate for not only SEGA fanatics but also for the roguelite genre’s recent surge in popularity with ToeJam and Earl Back in the Groove. The game serves as a return of the adventure-like aspect from first game, serving as an all-star tribute to the history of the franchise and provides a strong artful representation of the culture with it’s cast of characters and musical appreciation. Starting as a Kickstarter project in 2015 this allowed the developers to stick closer to the first game without having to bend to publisher direction and create the long awaited follow-up to the original ToeJam and Earl. Despite the long development time, having to shave off a few goals, (Sorry Wii U) and going through two publishers, the game succeeds bringing the first game’s roguelike experience up to date with bigger multiplayer opportunities while struggling with performance issues on consoles.

The main factor for Back in the Groove comes from multiple playthroughs. Whether with friends or solo, or whether you succeed or fail you are constantly unlocking features that can change up how the game is played. You can save your progress at any point, but should all players lose all their lives before the end, the game is over, the playthrough save is deleted and you’ll have to start over. Even after losing progress, players are still able to unlock and find items that will make future playthroughs easier to complete. Much like the first game, you need to pick up ten pieces of the ship to go back home to Funkotron. Most of the new features over the original pull from the second game re-purposed for this adventure, making the game feel like the initial sequel the developers intended for all those years ago. Funkotronians from Game 2 (ToeJam and Earl – Panic on Funkotron) will appear to initiate dance off sequences to help generate more cash and presents. Bushes, trees and houses decorate the suspended stretches of grass, roads and lakes hiding more collectibles and harmful obstacles that you can search through. How you accomplish this can change with each playthrough, even by playing the game using the “Fixed” worlds where all the levels are the same. You even get a mix of gameplay variations from Game 3 (ToeJam and Earl – Mission to Earth) via experience points that you earn as you explore and perform actions. Some stats include faster speed, better luck, more health and so on that will make it easier for your character to survive later levels in the game. Presents make a return and can be helpful or become a major hindrance if not used carefully. Using one will identify them so you or other players will know what does what though you could run the risk of having your presents shoot out, make you lose experience or outright lose a life. The stakes are higher as hazardous obstacles have more variety and are more plentiful especially on higher difficulty modes that can be avoided or dealt with using the right present. Will you pull something that lets you hop across ledges or did the present just set you on fire? The game will always throw curve balls that makes you rethink your strategy as you move forward. You can make use of helpful items but what are the odds that holding onto them would help avoid harder situations ahead?

Of course these situations would not have any consequence if not for the denizens of planet Earth; the Earthlings. Lots of returning and repurposed Earthlings come back from previous games including the Boogie Man, Santa Claus and even the naked man in a cardboard box from Game 2. You’ll want to keep an eye out for friendly earthlings surrounded by sparkles that can give you presents, can attack nearby earthlings and even heal you. The most important friendly earthling being the Wiseman (or the man in the carrot suit) who will let you turn in experience for higher levels of funkitude and boosted stats. Hostile Earthlings not only cause pain but can also push you around, steal presents and even affect your stats and funk levels. Talking to friendly Earthlings, jumping in pools of water or hiding behind sunflowers is key to survival and being aware of your surroundings in the world map is very important. You can also make use of certain tomato and funk based weapons or good Earthlings that can eliminate hostile Earthlings. Though these can also destroy good Earthlings if not used carefully. The game plays up the parallels of the game design’s tabletop roots moreso over the other games with some of the new Earthling types such as the internet troll, which is analogous to archer type of units that are lethal at a range, but up close they’re so harmless that your alien will slap them, revealing their true colors and cause them to run away. Of course if you really want to be hit over the head with the references there’s also a friendly group of Earthlings that are playing a tabletop game in cosplay and will reward you in cash if you can successfully roll a D20. Sometimes you’ll see special dialogue opportunities appear from friendly Earthlings that can either help or hinder you depending on how you respond. The outcome in typical roguelike fashion means there’s no true answer to give yourself the best benefits nor is it going to outright end your game, but they’re worth looking for when the opportunity appears. Being that this was a game funded by a successful Kickstarter, there also exists a number of Kickstarter Earthlings made after high donors of the game that are not directly accessible. The addition doesn’t feel obnoxious or game breaking as they usually require a mode of transportation to approach them and can otherwise be safely ignored. Some will give you a ton of cash while others will give you presents or randomly select ones to ‘amp’. Alternate versions of hostile Earthlings will begin to appear in later levels and can even go so far as taking out players with one or two hits. Even with boosted experience it almost feels as if hostile Earthlings don’t scale as evenly as players who gain experience overtime.Coming prepared for later levels will net greater chances of a successful run but can feel at times the difficulty spikes relentlessly unless you can work around it.

However the player chooses to play, there is plenty of agency that lets players decide on what to ignore and toggle features without being directly upfront about it. The game requires very little time to set up with the only rule the game will prompt you for are power-up hats once during gameplay. Outside of that, all other features are rules that you can choose to make use of and go with a character that fits your playstyle. The high risk-reward for certain unlockables comes from beating the game in the four modes of play with plenty of new present types and achievements to discover. While losing a playthrough can be frustrating, the short length of the game makes it enticing to just try again or make use of additional power up hats and unlockable presents the next time around. The mix of abilities each character possesses encourages taking advantage of certain gameplay elements, such as being able to eat bad food or have unlimited money for cash meters can even lead to interesting strategies when working with other players. Power hats are earned for each successive playthrough that will randomly assign players helper powers such as immunity to Hula Girl dances and the ability to float over water and sand hazards. While this can be used to make it easier to work around certain situations, you’re not able to choose which hats will be in play and can be turned off altogether. Mini-games and features from Game 2 are scattered throughout the world with both dance mini games and the Hyperfunk Zone making a return that are also randomly generated (Or static in Fixed Mode) for each playthrough. You can easily choose to ignore these as well (Unless a player enters the Hyperfunk Zone, then all players are sent to the minigame) and each playthrough can be done by what the player decides would be the most effective and fun way to do it. You are free to ignore the mini games, present searching and can even avoid Kickstarter Earthlings if you feel those elements would break the game, make it too easy or make the game too difficult. You can even avoid using presents since the game will always ensure through the use of hidden pathways you can go between all levels and not run into an “impossible” game session. There’s no one right way to play the game and the end goal can be achieved openly to a point where you feel that you’ve outsmarted the game and yet still come away with new strategies and ways to go with your own flow.

Of course the best help you’re going to get is interacting with other players and the game features a host of flexible local and online features.The game supports a maximum of 2 players local and up to 4 players online across all platforms. Both local and online players can join and leave at any time. Switch owners can even play with two players in portable mode via split joycons making for a great game to play on the go despite the lack of local wireless options. Naturally all console versions will need an online subscription for the platform of their choice with no cross platform play. That said online options allows you to play with friends or total strangers over the internet. Plus setting options for other players to join is very easy. When you create or load a game you’re allowed to set the game to private, friends only or allow the public to join and up to two local players per system can join if there is room. Communication between players can be executed using the quick chat command that can let players know of most of the important elements of the game, such as elevators, let others know where you are and the dialogue appears either over your character’s heads or onscreen if players are split up. PC and Steam users have the added benefit of being able to text chat with other players if they want to be more specific which makes present strategies much easier to perform.  Of course the rule from Game 1 carries over, where using presents next to each other means all nearby players will share the same benefit… or demerit. Characters will even talk to each other to give hints to players on what they can do to help each other out, such as if players are low on health or to encourage other players to make use of or share their inventory of presents. However in non-splitscreen games this can appear as if your character is talking to nobody in particular. Likely due to a leftover from the developer’s original goal to allow online games to feature the dynamic and permanent splitscreen modes as if you were playing a game locally.

The game isn’t afraid to play with the fact that the game’s production comes from a more indie approach with comic book styled characters. Each character comes with their own flair, personality and are easily identifiable. Unlike Game 3 which focused on a gritter tone with characters that didn’t seem too friendly with each other, the light-hearted approach works well with the game’s atmosphere of being freeform, goofy and not taking itself too seriously. Characters animate using a smooth-motion animation technique seen in titles such as Rayman Origins which can look strange in spots as limbs can move into strange positions but gives an easy sense of movement while making use of limited frames of animation. The game operates in a 3D environment with 2D “billboard” textures dotting the landscape representing the players, fauna and denizens of earth that helps the exaggerated artistic intent of the alien’s choice of urban clothing and ridiculous caricatures of the humans. The lack of voice acting in favor of on screen text can be a detractor for some but can lead to funny (If not aggravating) moments where you’ll use a present and find that you’ve just randomized your entire inventory. The sound design seems to lack a set volume making it tough to determine the position of certain offscreen elements which also leads to some sound effects playing louder than they should given the position of the player’s screen. A selection of remixed music from the entire series performed by Cody Wright plays randomly, capturing the humble, mellow nature of the characters and setting.

The game does have its share of technical and game design flaws but none have been as game breaking as playing the game online with others at the time of this writing. Players getting stuck in elevators when joining a game, preventing all control which can end up softlocking their game. This makes it impossible to quit the game without force closing it. The gameworld can fail to update with other players causing them to start on the wrong level, objects failing to interact with players or worse forced to disconnect from the game. When characters chat with each other, this can interrupt PC users who are trying to type out a message, causing them to lose their message and unable type when characters are constantly engaged in conversation with each other. The technical issues don’t stop online as Earthlings can spawn over the air, coin meters and buttons can end up producing nothing. Players using certain movement items such as spring shoes will usually lead them on top of the elevator more times than inside of it  Coin meters and buttons also have a tendency of spawning on top of houses, bushes and other searchable items that makes it difficult to get to an interactive item that you want to use. One could say that given the nature of the game some of these problems are actually quite fitting for a roguelike. Nothing has been truly game breaking but one major problem the game has shown given that due to the fact that it is a multiplatform game developed in the Unity engine, performance is not consistent. Even on a powerful PC the game still manages to hitch up every now and then especially when playing on later levels. The PC version also appears to sport more features over the console versions such as being able to see levels directly below the one that you are on, more complex shadow work as well as sporting 60 frames per second. Console versions lack some of the more decorative features and faces more problems hitching up especially when a second player is involved. The developers seemed to accommodate for this as they could as fallen players won’t go down a level until other players are not interacting with mini games or more ‘intensive’ situations. Across all platforms the biggest issue comes from font sizes. The lengthier sentences will shrink the font to accomodate for long strings of text making it very difficult to read whether you’re playing splitscreen or on the Nintendo Switch’s 6.2 inch screen with no options for bigger fonts or alternate text orientation. While you can get away with the game not having to read anything, interacting with certain Earthlings this can make game ending situations unavoidable. These issues have the potential to be resolved overtime through patches, though they do add to the frustration and can make playthroughs harder than they need to be. 

Very few games gives you the option for how you choose to play through it. Back in the Groove’s off-handed nature emits a charm that makes the player feel more confident in how they choose to play through the game. There are no options for turning off Kickstarter Earthlings, the Hyperfunk Zone and the game only prompts you about Power Hats once through your playthrough and requires next to no setup time so you can start playing with other people. The vibe of “going with your flow” resonates from start to finish with each session you play as nothing is forced on the player as to how you collect the ship pieces. Instead it’s up to the player to decide how much harder or easier they want to make the game play and still manages to provide a fresh experience over the original game that Back in the Groove is heavily based on with the multiplayer features greatly expanded upon over previous titles. While the game’s technical and fundamental shortcomings hold it back, what is there makes it easy to just play a session and gives plenty of reasons to come back and find more surprises. It’s the purest return to form ToeJam and Earl fans have been asking for and retains the same charm as the original. Back in the Groove seized on the return of the roguelike genre and made a comeback for the franchise that lets you play as you feel like it.

Positive:

  • Return to form sequel to the first game
  • Single player, local and online multiplayer quick to start and drop-in
  • Easy cooperation options through quick chat
  • Multiple playthroughs provides plenty of extras and encourages experimentation
  • Comic book style visuals with funky chill beats

Negative:

  • Unstable online multiplayer
  • Console versions behind in terms of performance
  • Text can be difficult to read which features important gameplay elements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Despite technical shortcomings, ToeJam and Earl return to their roots with a funkified adventure by yourself or with friends.”

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2 responses to “Review: ToeJam and Earl Back in the Groove

  1. Bertodecosta says:

    Glad to know that it’s that good. I’m still waiting for my physical copy from Limited Run Games.

  2. gun mayhem says:

    You can save your progress at any point, but should all players lose all their lives before the end, the game is over, the playthrough save is deleted and you’ll have to start over.

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