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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Despite being a Jack Axe at times, Jack Axe is a satisfyingly difficult indie platformer

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Sometimes being a person who plays video games means being masochistic. Some games are built to test the mental fortitude and conviction of those playing. Even with cheery art design, emotionally resonant stories, or any other unassuming qualities, games can just break you.

I'm far from a masochistic gamer... but sometimes I dabble in the lifestyle, because there's one part that I feel is truly worth the pain.

The satisfaction of finally breaking through. The joy of seeing your stubbornness pay off. That feeling is unparalleled.

Super Meat Boy. Celeste. Hollow Knight. All these games gave me that gratifying feeling. And I'm ready to add Jack Axe to the list.

An in-game screenshot of Jack Axe, an indie platformer featuring a Viking warrior. The main character is standing under a wheel, after having spun it and landing on a money prize. Coins are flying everywhere. They are on a pirate ship.

Just The Facts

Developer: Keybol Games

Publisher: Neon Doctrine

​Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac

Price: $14.99

Release Date: Oct. 6, 2021

Key provided by Neon Doctrine.

Jack Axe surprises right out of the gate, by telling a story that mixes cultural mythologies.

Norse and... FILIPINO? Kapamilya!

Filipino developer Keybol Games slid a few cultural references into an otherwise lacking plot, which earns a few brownie points with me. For example, in the game's opening moments, the two main characters (Jack and Red, two Viking sisters in blue and red armor respectively) are seen playing taguan, a traditional hide-and-seek game. It's small and subtle, but it felt amazing to see Filipino representation, especially considering it came out of left field in a Viking game, a genre that draws pretty exclusively from one set of cultural mythos.

That game of hide-and-seek brings our two leads into a hidden temple, where a cursed axe floats in wait. Jack nabs it and is interrupted by the voice of a god. Upset by the gender of the new wielder, the god demands that you explore the world with this axe in hand and prove your worth. But then... that's it.

An in-game screenshot of Jack Axe, featuring dialogue from a character named Red, a female viking in red armor. The main character is laying in a pit and Red says "Wow! You're still really good at it!"

It leaves you with the impression that the story could be a fun diversion all throughout — with potentially this weird disbelieving god following your adventures and a sister accompanying you. But there are basically no necessary story intrusions from that point forward or an explanation as to the greater journey you find yourself on. Even Red is nowhere to be seen beyond the temple.

It was disappointing to see the story evaporate, because it showed some promise in its potentially goofy writing and I would have loved more Filipino representation. Screenshots from older builds seem to feature more story, but it clearly got left on the cutting room floor.

But story in platformers is rare. Rarely done, rarely executed well. So the meat of it is: How does Jack Axe handle the actual platforming?

"The juggling act of dodging one-hit-kill obstacles, dispatching enemies, and nailing teleporting axe throws teeters on the edge of too hard, but keeps it just attainable enough to keep you going."

Jack Axe is definitively a hardcore platformer. This precision platformer stands somewhere between Super Meat Boy and Celeste, with the floaty jumps of the former a dash-esque mechanic like the latter. Instead of pure dashing though, this game pulls a Mario Odyssey; you toss your axe and can teleport to it on command.

It makes for a pretty fun platforming experience, allowing you to fly through levels if you time things just right and toss your axe at the right angles. Seeing the path ahead of you, knowing what moves you need to pull off, and executing them is the best in games like these. But let's not get things twisted. This game is HARD — at least on standard difficulty, which is described as the "way we intended you to play." There are modes that apply Assists and extra health, so if you aren't stubborn, the path is clear.

But here, standard is definitely harder than the average "Normal" difficulty.

You've got one-hit kills and only a handful of checkpoints in each area. In my four hours with the game, I died over 400 times. I didn't tinker with the difficulty and even avoided using the game's manual save option that allows you to drop a checkpoint as needed in the stage. (Platformer masochist strikes again!)

An in-game screenshot of Jack Axe. It depicts the player character getting hit by a pickaxe and dying. Coins fly out of their body as they fall off screen. In the background there is a waterfall and the enemy who threw the pickaxe, a red guy with a pickaxe in his hands, stands to the right.

Tackling a difficult game can be frustrating, sure. But for the most part, you know your own faults. You're impatient: rushing your jumps, not waiting for the right moment, and generally trying to force your way through zones. We've all done it. But what really gets under my skin is when a game causes unforced errors.

Playing with a controller can get a bit touchy. Tapping down at any point while in the air can send you flying straight down via this game's ground pound mechanic. Some combination of directional buttons and the jump button will send Jack flying horizontally in some form of long jump. Both can ruin momentum or otherwise mess with your internal expectations about where Jack will land, and this time, by no real fault of your own.

Tie that to a few painful too-far-back checkpoints and you've got the makings of actual frustration instead of the fulfilling kind.

At the very least, dying is fairly meaningless. You'll lose some coins, but those are only used to purchase new outfits, which amount to color swaps and minor aesthetic changes for Jack.

Progression is simple. Each of the game's six worlds features a series of short challenges with runes you need to collect before moving on to the next.

Each world culminates in a boss fight — another vaguely erratic, but still enjoyable, piece of the experience. They are fun multi-phase battles that test your platforming (and axe-ing) skills up to that point, but the difficulty curve of these bosses is super inconsistent. The first boss was way harder than it needed to be and the final boss was surprisingly easy, landing somewhere in the middle of the pack difficulty-wise. A little side-note here before I wrap up talking about gameplay, Jack Axe technically supports up to four-player local co-op... but I wouldn't recommend it. The camera stays fixed on Player 1 and with a game about precise and quick movements, that means all other players have to simply keep up with whoever's in charge, making this fairly difficult to play with a pal. The only benefit I can see here is for speedrunners, who can use this co-op mode if their partner knows the map inside out and can blindly find their way to an obstacle trigger or something else. Not for anyone looking for something fun to play with pals.

Jack Axe is best as a solo adventure.

An in-game screenshot of Jack Axe, depicting the desert area of the game. The player character stands in front of a caravan and two catcus characters.

Jack Axe's aesthetic isn't nearly as intimidating as its platforming. The pixel art and animations are nice and smooth, at times feeling like a super polished and higher quality GBA-era game. As with the story though, the Viking veneer falls away pretty quickly. After starting in a classic wintry Viking village, you end up in a mythical jungle, a beach-y underwater world, a pirate ship, a desert with adorable cacti villagers, and a classic fantasy wizard's castle. It feels like a missed opportunity to commit to one theme, but the artists at Keybol are clearly talented either way.

Similarly, the soundtrack is upbeat and inoffensive. It's got some fun loops. Tracks keep to each area's overall theme but otherwise fade into the background. Without the weight of a more engaging story to help anchor some moments musically or the ability to stand on its own outside of the game, it's nothing to write home about.

On the whole, the Jack Axe juggling act of dodging one-hit-kill obstacles, dispatching enemies, and nailing teleporting axe throws teeters on the edge of too hard. But Keybol keeps it just attainable enough to keep you going, pushing you forward despite the pain points. A few control issues make for a more frustrating experience that departs from the "if you fail it's your fault" experience of games like Celeste and Super Meat Boy. But if you and your axe can hack your way through it, there's a fun platformer waiting for you underneath.

Non-masochists need not apply.

video games are good and Jack Axe is . . . GOOD. (7/10)

+ a satisfyingly hard platformer with a pleasant aesthetic and intriguing cultural set-up

- all context is thrown out the window as the story quickly disappears, touchy controls hurt it, difficulty can be inconsistent

An in-game screenshot of Jack Axe. It shows the player character standing on a moving platform, to the right of a swirling spike trap. A gem floats on the right side of the screen. The area is jungle themed.

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