RecommendedReview by Love & Thunder

7 Jul 2021, 02:58 (edited 7 Jul 21, 03:56)
For: Episode One: The Invasion of Deserto
Level rating: 9.1

This pack is pretty much a legend by now. Back in the day, I always wanted to play through EvilMike’s five-part level pack, but could never make it far due to the immensely high difficulty. I finally decided I’d actually complete the entire five-part saga and have indeed just beaten episode one. So, what did I think?

Episode One did not live up to the hype at all.

It’s a “Hard” level pack. So what does that mean? “Hard” should mean that, if you play this pack, you will find it very challenging to beat, but all too often in my experience, “Hard” actually means “Loaded up with impossible bullshit that will kick you in the nads repeatedly for no reason when you’re trying to play.”

That is to say, Super Meat Boy is challenging. Many levels will take you 30+ tries before you beat them, but if you fail, it’s never because the design is unfair, and you get an unlimited number of retries to ensure you can get good at the game over the course of playing it.
I Wanna Be The Guy is bullshit. You will repeatedly get cheap deaths from hazards you never knew were there, everything is going to kill you, and any death means you restart the entire game from scratch, meaning it’s impossible to learn and improve by playing.
Both of these games are hard, but only one is fair, and only one is a game I would recommend people check out. Sadly, this level pack leans far more on the I Wanna Be The Guy end of the spectrum than I would like.

In this level pack, you will very frequently be presented with situations where it is impossible to venture forward on your first go without taking damage. Carrots are only very sparingly given, 1-ups even more sparingly, the levels are massive, sprawling labyrinths, often ending with their hardest sequence yet — for instance, in The Castle, there’s a section very reminiscent of a Test, requiring very precise manoeuvring or you’ll be sent back to the start. Except in this level pack, because “Fair” is an alien concept, you will be insta-killed. There is a checkpoint very shortly before this Test section, but unless you’ve completely aced the entire pack up to this point (which would mean you don’t have much pack left), you will only get 3 or 4 tries before you run out of lives and are forced to start the entire level over again, with none of your ammo or fastfire.
And I haven’t even gone into the fact that a few of the levels just have a really poor sense of direction. “Okay, where do I go next?” was a question in my head a good few times while playing this, and it wasn’t a question that I was able to answer for several minutes in a few cases. That’s never really a good sign; to my mind, good/fun design requires clear goals, but with obstacles along the way that the player must clear. Navigating a giant maze trying to find which door was opened by the crate you stomped after you’ve already searched extensively two or three times over (not counting your first go-through that led you to the box) is not fun gameplay.

While writing this review, I was discussing the level pack with Seren over on the Discord, and they pointed out one section in The Castle where there’s a very, very difficult jump. Screenshot courtesy of Seren:
A bat is present in this section (killed before the shot was taken) who you can stomp on to gain the height necessary to clear the jump, but it’s not a generator, it’s a one-and-done. If you kill the bat without using it for the jump, or you stomp it but whiff the jump, then you’re pretty much buggered.
The wall to the left is a ricochet wall, so you can’t use RF missiles to clear the jump, and it’s set up such that Spaz’s double jump won’t make it. The only way, according to Seren, is a golden jump, which is a fairly advanced technique that I don’t imagine most players are aware of.
So, if you fail at this jump ONCE, then you’re effectively softlocked out of progressing unless you can pull off an obscure, difficult technique… Or if you save-scum, which wasn’t possible when this level was released (the level is too large for vanilla JJ2 to load saves properly. JJ2+ fixed this, many many years after this pack released).
This is a pretty good example of the kind of bullshit this level gladly throws at you in the name of being “difficult”. To my mind, this isn’t true “difficulty”, because it’s not a challenge, it’s the level simply being unfair. In most games, a difficult challenge is presented after a checkpoint and you usually wouldn’t have a limited number of lives. This way, you can repeatedly try this difficult challenge and become better as you retry. This level isn’t interested in being fair in this way; checkpointing is sparse, 1ups are almost never given, and even carrots are rare. I’ve harped on this already, but it bears repeating: This is not a fair level pack.

Frankly, I can’t imagine why this level pack is so well regarded, because back in the day, you couldn’t save during levels in this pack. Nowadays, you can easily save scum it to take the edge off, and honestly, despite getting very frustrated with this pack at various points, I did find myself enjoying many portions of it, but the tedium of save scumming doesn’t do the frustrating nature of this pack any favours. And yet, without save scumming, I would never have managed to beat the pack.

This sounds pretty awful, and it is, but there is a lot of good in this pack; the story is told well, the environments are well chosen and work well together, the music is good, the variety of gameplay styles and environments is good, and the way you essentially return to earlier levels at various points creates a strong sense of continuity and the illusion of a connectedness of the world that the pack creates. I probably should have just walked away on my 20th or 30th save scum in the temple, but I felt oddly compelled to soldier on. Playing this level pack wasn’t a joyful experience, but it was certainly a compelling one. Perhaps just out of spite for the level itself; if it was going to be relentless then so was I.

This is not a bad level pack. It’s one that could do with a once-over to remove some of the most unfair/unavoidable hazards, tweak a few weird obstacles (such as the bat in The Castle not being a generator), make the direction in certain levels clearer (in The Castle in particular, there isn’t a strong indication that you have to use the TNT to blow up the gargoyles, which can easily lock you out of progressing. There’s even a text field that tells you about this, it just isn’t used in the level), add more checkpoints, and grant infinite lives in AngelScript. Most of this could easily be applied only to the “Easy” difficulty, to preserve the original experience for any masochists out there (or the few people who are just that good at the game), but personally I would put these improvements on as standard, only taking them away on turbo and maybe hard.
But for me, these problems impede my enjoyment too much for me to say I liked the pack.

If you’re very, very skilled at Jazz Jackrabbit 2 (and I’m talking speedrunner levels of good at the game), you will probably get on fine with this pack. If not, you will find this a very frustrating experience severely lacking in fun, and as that was my personal experience, I can only possibly give this pack a 3/10, for my personal enjoyment of the pack. Harsh, yes. But so is this pack, so it bloody deserves it. :P

And yet, despite only giving this pack a 3/10, I’m giving this a download recommendation. Why? Many people in this community are just that good at the game (just look at the other reviews), and for those of us who aren’t, this is still a highly-influential Jazz 2 custom level pack, and to a certain extent its reputation is deserved; it’s full of interesting ideas, its story is well-woven, and the way you return to previous levels is very cool. There’s a sense of immersion, and you really feel like you’ve been on an adventure by the end of it.

I do not like this level pack. But if you’re reading this review, you should probably try the pack out anyway. Don’t be ashamed of save-scumming, because this pack is very unfair at times, and don’t feel bad if you decide it’s just not worth continuing; for many people, it will not be worth it, because for many, it will not be fun. But you should try it anyway, because if you do like it, you’ll probably like it a lot.

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