Review authored by Matthew Lee.
Title: ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove
Format: PC/Steam, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Publisher: HumaNature Studios
Genre: Action Adventure
Crash landed on Earth. Again! Looking for scattered ship parts. Again! You would think two rad alien rappers would have learnt by now. Let’s get off this floating rock and back to Funkotron.
You have not been deceived; ToeJam and Earl have returned to our screens. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is an isometric exploration game staring everyone’s favourite 90s alien rappers. This is a direct sequel to the previous four ToeJam & Earl games, and has been developed by HumaNature Studios, which was founded by the series creator Greg Johnson. It ran, and successfully funded, a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in 2015.
Players will choose one of eight characters and explore a series of levels, collecting presents and finding the scattered pieces of their wrecked spaceship. The central gameplay draws heavily from the original ToeJam & Earl, with the character wandering an isometric landscape. However a number of elements of the sequels are introduced, such as searching objects for hidden items, such as presents.
As with previous ToeJam & Earl games presents grant abilities or bonuses. Initially presents are unidentified, but as the player uses them or has them identified they remain known for the rest of the game. Money can also be collected, which can be used to buy services of friendly humans or on scattered parking meters.
Of course the humans are back, this time in greater force. A large collection of friendly and enemy humans wander the levels. Friendly humans provide services like allowing the player to level up or fixing broken presents, while other friendly humans can be hired to do things like find hidden items or get rid of enemy humans.
There is a large cast of enemy humans. Some series regulars return, while new opponents are also introduced. Effects caused by enemies can vary. Some remove health from the player’s character, while other might mix the controls or banish the character to the previous level.
Scattered about the levels are all kinds of secrets. Psychedelic doorways occasionally appear, which grant players access to an endless runner style Hyperfunk Zone. Hidden pathways can be uncovered, sometimes leading to extra loot. And a number of Kickstarter backers can be found on floating islands, offering the player extra goodies if they can reach them. Plus much more besides these.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has really surprised me in how fun and modern it is, while retaining a lot of the original series elements that people feel nostalgia for. First and foremost it looks like a ToeJam & Earl game, with bizarre character designs and a skewed approach to level design. It incorporates 3D and hand drawn elements seamlessly together to create a vibrant world that harkens back to the original games. Not to mention the music is pretty awesome.
The game has been jammed with surprises and options. There are a number of secret areas to discover, some in very unexpected places. A swag of game modes are available, with tutorial, set and random levels all included. Plus players have the option to invite others along on the adventure for a bit of co-op fun!
Characters have different abilities and start with different presents. Which largely doesn’t play into the game, particularly in the later levels. Apart from Earl, who while slow, has the infinitely helpful ability to eat poison food. But they do give each character their own personality, and provide players with a reason to unlock characters and try everyone out.
I’m particularly impressed with how the end of the game is handled. There are no bosses in the game, so everything essentially stops once the last ship piece is found. But rather than just throw players suddenly into a cut scene, players are transported to Funkotron, where they can explore the planet before activating the end game bonuses and credits. It’s a cool idea and nicely wraps the adventure up.
If anything, one of ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove’s biggest drawcards is also its greatest flaw. There are a lot of options in this game. A lot. So many in fact that some players will be paralysed by choice. I mean, single player itself has at least four distinct game mode choices, with each having sub-selections. Even coming into the games title screen presents players with ten menu items.
There is also some annoyance with the level barriers. Each level is floating in space, above the last level, so players can fall off the edge or be cast to the previous level by other means. It’s not too bad when it happens a couple of times, but due to how some levels are laid out and how presents are randomly generated, there can be times where players feel trapped or lacking options, being forced to constantly fall and elevate to the same few levels.
On these occasions the characters quips about having seen this level already don’t help at all. Still, these are very granular and specific issues, and do more to illustrate just how much of the game is well executed rather than being deal breakers.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a fantastic modern sequel of a retro classic. It smartly incorporates classic elements and combines them with modern techniques to deliver an enjoyable and challenging experience. Fans of the original series will feel at home with ToeJam and Earl’s latest adventure, and those unfamiliar with the titular alien duo are in for a wild and fun ride.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was developed and published by HumaNature Studios. It is available now on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.