Developed by HumaNature Studios Published by HumaNature Studios Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (also available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Steam)
The ToeJam & Earl series has captivated audiences with its eclectic visual design, funk-inspired sound design, and exaggerated characters. The original game is especially renown for its procedurally generated islands and slapstick antics involving presents. ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron and ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth ventured into traditional genres while maintaining the same funky aesthetics. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove returns to the whimsical rogue-like mechanics of the first game while presenting a whole slew of new tricks and quality of life improvements. With its randomly generated over-the-top yet accessible antics, Back in the Groove is a well built sequel that builds on the first game’s core structure.
Back in the Groove portrays the aliens ToeJam and Earl as well as their friends Lewanda and Latisha. They hail from Planet Funkotron, which is full of funk-loving aliens that all have unique designs. In the original game, ToeJam and Earl accidentally crash land on Earth when their Rapmaster Rocketship strikes an asteroid, and they must m rebuild their ship to fly home. Back in the Groove puts a spin on this trek as ToeJam takes everyone on an impromptu sightseeing trip to Earth. Naturally, things go awry and everyone falls onto Earth, which requires another thrilling trip to find the ship’s pieces and return home.
Much like the original ToeJam & Earl, Back in the Groove features a randomly generated journey in which the goal is to find all ten rocketship pieces. The catch is that these are strewn throughout multiple floors. On each floor, players navigate interconnected island spaces en route to available piece or the elevator leading to the next floor. Earthlings impede and assist players as they make their way through each floor. Of course, ToeJam & Earl’s renowned present mechanics return as well. The characters can find a slew of colorful presents that can cause both harmful and beneficial effects. However, players must open or identify presents to discover their effects, which leads to some tricky risk-and-reward dynamics.
However, Back in the Groove meaningfully diversifies the action with its added options. It supports four player co-op offline and online, which is definitely welcome. Rather than being stuck with ToeJam and Earl, players pick from several characters. These include classic and modern versions of ToeJam and Earl as well as Latisha from ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth. Everyone has distinct stats and starting presents, which leads to plenty of combinations and possibilities. Stats influence the characters’ present holding capacities, their movement speed, and other attributes as well. The flow of boosting stats mid game by reaching new promotion levels is basic, but it nonetheless feels impactful and thematically appropriate. Naturally, players can expect some brand new Earthlings and present types as well. Gandhi’s presence provides respite while the gargantuan Yeti can really keep players on their toes. Some floors amplify presents’ potency while “broken” presents may not always function normally.
The quality of life improvements in Back in the Groove substantially enhance its playability. The game clearly shows the mini-map, experience progress bar, the presence of a rocketship piece, and held money, which is quite convenient compared to the original game. The player character makes text quips about the game state such as the surrounding area and having too many presents, which really helps provide a sense of direction. The game contains some brand new hazards such as dark floors and icy terrain, but the character calls out these hazards to inform players of their surroundings. The game provides an encyclopedia that contain lists of encountered presents and enemies, which helps prepare players for future runs.
Back in the Groove inserts more tricks into the original game’s design, but it still feels more accessible overall. The game features multiple world selection options as well as more granular difficulty settings. Having an expandable inventory size leads to increased survivability in later floors. Picking up a rocketship piece leads to a prize reel for bonus experience and money, which provides another sense of progression. One of the most key elements is being able to suspend save, which certainly feels nice given that a run can take about an hour or more to complete. A few callbacks to ToeJam & Earl: Return to Funkotron also provide a few gimmicky diversions. Shaking objects to uncover surprise objects returns, but players can more easily scan their surroundings to see what surprises are nearby. Minigames such as the Hyperfunk Zone also make a comeback, and they provide quick breaks from the eccentric action.
As one would expect, Back in the Groove is a jamming experience full of quirky visuals and funky tunes. The hyper-stylized cartoon-like characters are vibrant and easy to see. The characters are full of even more references to pop culture, and they are always a blast to see on each floor. However, the environments do feel slightly plain, and the animations are functional but feel a little jerky and sudden. With its frequent references to funk, Back in the Groove naturally provides a loaded playlist that includes remixes of songs from earlier ToeJam & Earl games. It is quite a joy hearing classic tunes with contemporary instruments. The new Earthlings provide all sorts of off-the-wall voice clips that help make the game a fun experience.
While Back in the Groove revisits the original ToeJam & Earl’s mechanics, the new quality of life improvements and added options result in an impactful experience for newcomers and old-time fans. Being able to unlock characters, modes, and even parameter-changing hats for successive runs provides additional replay value. Back in the Groove is ultimately a more chaotic experience than the original, but it feels set up in a way that is more fun to play. Players seeking some co-op action or just a quirky rogue-like game will undoubtedly find plenty to love in Back in the Groove.