If it wasn’t clear in this week’s preview, one thing you should not expect in JAZZ: Trump’s Journey (Out January 19, $2.99) is an accurate biography of legendary musician Louis Armstrong. The inspiration is apparent enough: like a young Armstrong, our plucky hero Trump has little more to go on than his grandma’s love, a trumpet and the brightest smile you’ve ever seen in his quest to make it big as a jazz musician in early 20th century New Orleans. Beyond that, things diverge pretty drastically. For starters, I’m 99% sure Louis Armstrong didn’t bound from wall to wall on Bourbon Street or conduct daring jailbreaks with the help of time-manipulating music.
That’s also part of what makes JAZZ a watershed platformer. Tucked deep within the game’s story are morals about racism, but just as important is the subtext that Trump jumps as high as Mario, stops time as well as the Prince of Persia, and kicks off walls with the same skill as Ryu Hayabusa. Bulkypix and Egg Ball Games have splashed some more color on the backdrop of white, ambiguously white, and Asian videogame heroes we grew up with. The developer took no small risk in their choice of premise, and on that note I’m still trying to figure out whether some of the narration suffers from translation errors that lend the script unfortunate implications, or whether all its oddities can be attributed to well-researched colloquialisms. The latter is certainly the case in some instances, and players will come away with a fair helping of turn-of-the-century jargon. Whatever else we read into it, however, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating that JAZZ gives us an African American hero with a darn cool moveset.
What virtually everyone will end up agreeing on is that JAZZ’s puzzle based gameplay is a real blast! Levels are absolutely gigantic, introducing new twists at seemingly every turn. One moment you’ll be carefully threading a block through a complex vertical shaft for use at the bottom, and the next might see you freezing time so Trump can leapfrog over suspended musical notes. Meanwhile you’re supposed to keep an eye out for collectible photographs tucked into secret nooks and crannies, but other than achievements it’s not entirely clear what rewards await the perfectionist. All told, it’s difficult to see how any 2D platforming fan will come away dissatisfied with the level design, though it’s worth noting that JAZZ takes a little while to ramp up to full speed as a matter of accessibility to genre newcomers.
Indeed, platformer veterans might have misgivings about how generously checkpoints are distributed — there’s essentially one at the beginning of each challenge, making for over a dozen per level. That may sound like an awful lot, but once the player reaches the third level set there will be few complaints: bulldozing walls and spiked trapdoors will claim poor Trump so many times, it would be impossible to think of JAZZ skimping on checkpoints! The player feels a constant forward momentum here, with the emphasis on developing new insights rather than memorizing the solutions to a long string of previously mastered puzzles. Factoring in human error and the imperviousness of certain objects to Trump’s time freezing ability, the player will also get a surprising amount of use out of a “rewind” button that resets all in-game objects to the state they were in when the player crossed the most recent checkpoint.
We’ve seen interfaces that change according to in-game situations before, but JAZZ takes this idea to a new level. Two directional buttons, the trumpet button, and the jump button are always present, but object interaction and climbing buttons swoop in from left and right as Trump approaches movable crates or automatically grips ladders and ropes. This takes some getting used to but players will definitely appreciate how it keeps the screen relatively uncluttered.
On the downside, the buttons used for climbing ladders and ropes reveal their weakness during segments that demand swift vertical movement. Not only are these climbing buttons fairly small, but their position relative to the right and left movement buttons will feel unnatural to console veterans. As a result, the player has to divide his or her attention between the buttons themselves and whatever the hazard of the moment is. Lengthening the touch areas of these climbing buttons could improve the player’s experience in updates.
JAZZ has the kind of presentation that reminds me I should reserve the word “whimsical” specifically for titles like this one. When you fire up JAZZ you’re stepping into a world of dapper shadow puppets that seem to shine with their own brilliant light, their movement set to the backdrop of watercolor cityscapes and more traditional hand-drawn environments. The charming soundtrack by Bande de Sons blends just as well with the game’s environments as you might expect, and is utterly well suited to the long listens that come with the size of these stages. Depending on how much of a completionist you are and just how much use you get out of those checkpoints, you can expect a good seven to ten hours in a first playthrough of JAZZ’s thirteen stages.
iFanzine Verdict: A fun puzzle platformer that will get your brain working just as much as your fingers, JAZZ enjoys level designs that are as impressive as its production values. Highly recommended to action adventure fans who aren’t looking for combat beyond the occasional head bopping, and especially to gamers on the lookout for creative action and logic puzzles. Most players will probably hope for a little more work on the left-hand vertical controls in updates though.