Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove (Xbox One Review)
Toejam & Earl, while not a cult classic, has slowly garnered fandom since its initial 1991 release. For many this was their first introduction to the funky duo’s beat driven adventures. I however, was a little late to the show. Having only stepped into Toejam’s iconic hi-tops in the duo’s least critically acclaimed adventure, Toejam & Earl 3: Mission to Earth, my perspective was skewed by the modern mechanic’s and designs that the original lacked. 3D environments, hip beats and funny characters were all it took too reel me in. While disliked by many, my time with the game was wholesome and humorous – mainly because I was too young to understand the racial stereotypes. Now, with Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, a glorified love letter to the original, I thought I’d see where the magic and funk came into form.
Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a remaster of sorts with a few extras. The world in which you roam, and the overarching story, all remain the same with a few tweaks here and there. The main premise of Toejam & Earl remains unwavering, it’s about exploration and recovery. ToeJam and his hetero life mate, big Earl. travel to Earth in order to impress the lovely ladies in their lives by converting Earth’s inhabitants to the ways of funk. However, the trips goes awry leaving them trapped on Earth and their ship in disarray, from here it’s a matter of picking up the pieces.
There’s always a crux, everyone and their neighbour will be out to get you. Turns out that most Earthlings don’t take too kindly to an alien presence and either want you dead or extremely irritated while a minority of them will aid you in various ways. From here, it’s a matter of traversing a series of levels, recovering ship parts as you go. Along the way you’ll find presents that can aid you in your, with contents that are unknown to you until you open. These gifts can be either good or bad, with bonuses like extra lives, the ability to fly over gaps or even a boom box to jam out and distract earthlings. Others are simply there to do you harm, like the Total Bummer present that kills you outright. There’s an even balance to these gifts, an equilibrium that incentivizes you but also promotes caution at the same time. And so there should be since this is the main way that your character will level up.
Levelling up is the defining factor that separates Back in the Groove from the original. Every time you use a present, uncover a section of the map or pick up a ship piece you gain XP. Once you’ve accumulated enough, you can visit one of the few friendly earthlings called the ‘Wiseman’, who is essentially an old hermit in a carrot costume, and he’ll spout you some knowledge and net you a level up. Every level up will allocate your character 3 points into variable attributes at random, ranging from health, luck, speed and the likes. So, what sets the characters apart; Toejam, Earl and friends all start with differing stat levels. Toejam is faster while big Earl has more health, with other characters offer similar but altering benefits. This random stat allocation keeps players on their feet and might require you to adjust your approach based on where they land. Choosing Toejam because he starts off faster than his friends doesn’t mean that he’ll be the fastest by the end of your playthrough, so you’ll have to adapt as you play. It stops the game from becoming repetitive and predictable right off the bat and allows you to experiment with different approaches.
And that’s a focal point of the game, repetition. Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is a procedurally generated roguelike game, so you know that idea is to try keep things feeling fresh 10 playthroughs down the line. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case here. As fun as Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is to begin with, its staying power is short lived largely due to its lack of variety – paradoxically making the procedural/roguelike elements its weakest element. The simple environments and gameplay work against it by being uninventive and too samey to the point of being mind numbingly boring. Opening presents keeps things interesting, but the Russian roulette approach to gameplay and leveling run their course. Ultimately, it just encouraged me to completely ignore these mechanics entirely and simply b-line it to the nearest ship part then zip to the exit. Rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. Completing a full playthrough of the game will net you unlocks, such as other characters and gameplay modifying hats, to spice up the variety a bit, but by the time you’ve unlocked a good few of these you’ve had your fill. Even inviting a friend to join you in funkifying some earthlings does not alleviate the overall tediousness that settles in. It’s all too little too late.
The most disappointing aspect of this musical adventure is the music itself and general lack of voice acting. For a game revolving around the symbolic nature and evolution of urban culture as well as the music linked to it, such as Hip-Hop and Jazz-Funk (in satire form), ironically lacks the soul and spirit of such music to give said culture the respect it deserves. The only worthwhile and noticeable score is the opening soundtrack, the “Funk Theme’ that’s tied to the series. Greg Brown makes a return voicing Earl and does a great job with what little lines he has, bringing the loveable dote back to life one more time. It was music to my ears, but he was unfortunately the only original voice actor to reprise their role. The overall lack of dialogue really hurts the package too. Most in-game quips and quotes are delivered through text bubbles which sadly lessens the impact they have. Hearing Toejam yammer on, spouting witty remarks was one of the highlights of my time with the series up until this point. With Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove remaining overly faithful to the original 1991 title means limiting any voice acting to the introductory and ending cutscenes leading to a bulk of gameplay with basic music loops is all you’ll hear from start to finish leaves much to be desired.
Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is an experiment in nostalgia that binds fond memories of the series in hopes that once recreated can replicate those gleeful feelings we once had. While my memory of the original is near non-existent my hopes were still high. Notably since my time with the series was limited to my younger, less attentive self, where the silliest of things could hook me. All very positive in my mind. The series I loved for its comedy and music is all but gone in place of trying to create a game from a bygone era instead of evolving the formula. A once cult hit could have had a renaissance in the current generation, but somewhere along the way it got funked up.