Thanks to HumanNature Studios for the review code
Title: Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove
Release Date: 03/01/2019
In this hip and rad adventure, you take control of Toejam, Earl and Latisha as they explore a destroyed earth in order to repair their ship and find their way back home. Some very funny cutscenes play out before and after a game begins, although they’re few and far between and are fairly simplistic.
Using a 2D digital art style, Toejam and Earl look absolutely gorgeous in this newest installment, with vibrant colors, great animation and a bunch of visual flair that easily make this look a lot better than the original Genesis game and the Xbox sequel. While it may seem like the original with a new coat of paint, this game actually has a lot of different lighting effects and environments compared to the limited ones from the original, which helps this game look a lot more new than your typical sequel would.
The soundtrack is pretty decent too, with catchy funk that the series is known for and plenty of funny voice clips for a variety of characters, from the main trio, the unlockables, several NPCs, and even enemies all spattering funny lines or goofy reactions depending on what’s going on. Sometimes it can get a bit on the annoying side, but honestly the balance manages to be just right enough that the characters don’t get grating.
Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove is a roguelike that plays pretty similarly to the Genesis original, although it’s a lot more friendly to newcomers and adds a bunch of quality of life improvements. The game starts you off in a Tutorial world which is pretty straightforward and teaches you all the basic mechanics of the game. Basically, your ship is in a total wreck and you must travel up each of the layers of Earth in order to rebuild it one piece at a time. This is done by finding an elevator hidden somewhere on each floor, along with a ship piece on certain floors. If you ever want to go down a level, then falling off the edge of the world will do that, although this can also mean that you will sometimes get knocked off by an enemy against your will.
You have three characters to choose from, each of them having a couple of variants, (some locked, some unlocked from the start) and the differences between them are relatively minor, mostly being stat based. Whoever you pick, you still have to navigate the floors and find your way to the elevators and ship pieces. Earthlings and other enemies will either follow the player to distract or slow them down, while a few of them will deal damage to you.
Luckily, you have plenty of items to counter these pesky foes, with the main gimmick being that they’re all hidden in wrapped presents, where you have no idea what’s in them until you use them, kinda like what some ancient RPGs such as Dragon Crystal did. Sometimes an item can be incredibly helpful and heal the player or allow them to take a shortcut to the next floor, while other presents such as rocket shoes that shoot you off the floor cause can cause trouble. Luckily, you can find items that identify presents ahead of time which helps with the randomness factor. Once you clear the tutorial world, a bigger fixed world is presented to you, which is followed up by a completely randomized world, so the game opens up the more you beat it, with some funny unlockables and a lot of achievements to go after, leading to plenty of replay value.
By far the best parts of this game comes from the co-op aspect, which can be done locally or online. I focused exclusively on local 2P for the sake of this review, and I’m happy to say that it works tremendously well. Each player takes up a side of the screen and can basically do their own thing, as they both work together to go up the elevator. This means that one person could focus on finding the exit to a floor while another hunts down a ship piece or other hidden treasures, or you could simply have your buddy be the lookout for enemies to speed through the floors.
Whichever strategy you take, I found myself much more engaged in co-op and playing locally led to some of the unpleasant surprises becoming absolutely hilarious! (Nothing beats having someone use the rocket shoes and then getting sent 3 floors down) The single player experience is perfectly enjoyable, but Toejam and Earl really benefits from the co-op and it’s a must-play mode for sure. Even if your partner isn’t too terribly good at the game, it doesn’t really matter much since you’re able to sacrifice lives to them if they’re in need, along with being able to choose one of the easier fixed worlds if you must.
Outside of the main game, there are a few minigames sprinkled around that reward you with experience or more presents. One of them is a simple rhythm minigame that gets progressively harder as you clear it multiple times, while the other is a very, very long autorunner known as the Hyper Funk Zone, where you hold a button to phase through certain obstacles, timing it so you can collect all the goodies while avoiding all the teleporters and hazards that will kick you out. It’s a great way to build up items, but only extreme patience and focus will lead to actually clearing the minigame, leading to it being a pretty fun challenge!
In conclusion, Toejam and Earl is a great example of a retro revival done right, taking a clunky roguelike and polishing it up, making it absolutely gorgeous while also continuing to provide an incredible co-op experience. While playing solo can be kinda dull, especially in the longer games, when you’re with a buddy or get a handy item to cause absolute chaos, the game becomes an absolute blast to break in more ways than one, and the random nature of the items (and later, the entire world) help keep players wondering what’s next. This review may have been a good while coming, but I’m happy to say that if you’re into roguelikes and have a friend around, then this is an absolute recommendation, even if for single player experiences it comes off as a bit flat, the game’s still well worth it for the co-op alone.
I give Toejam and Earl: Back in the Groove an 8 out of 10.