JARS Review: Smashing Crawly Tower Defence

If you thought this JARS review was about marmalade, think again: it's the new tower defence title from Mousetrap Games, out now on Steam.

I had to double-take at my notes that JARS is a tower defence title, well, kind of. No, actually, it is. I’ll save this internal monologue for later, but this game from Mousetrap Games and Daedalic Entertainment is so unusual that it’s so worthy of a look-see.

Inspired by the likes of Tim Burton, and let’s mostly stick with that reference as it’s what I know, you play as a boy named Victor. He’s managed to get into the basement of his family home and located a sarcophagus. Rather than open it up and poke whatever is inside with a stick, he has to fend off nasties and protect it.

Cue a series of shelf-filled stages packed with more jars than your mum’s/mom’s spice rack (not a euphemism), forcing her to drop the f-bomb in awe. Not mum/mom – she’s a saint! She’d never say that. It’s irrelevant; this is a JARS review, sucker.

JARS Review

Without any false welcome of ‘come in and make yourself at home’, you can either jump straight into the story or have a look at the enclosed JARS encyclopedia. That seems a bit futile at the start of the game, as no doubt you’ll unlock that as you progress. Spoiler: you do.

JARS Review - Regular alchemist
Regular alchemist. Source: Steam

There aren’t any tutorials, instead, a trial and error way of playing the game, drip-feeding the difficulty as you go deeper into the basement. In retrospect, a tutorial isn’t needed as your role is to click (smash) the jars then defend. This will either reveal a nasty that’s heading for your sarcophagus, or it’s a minion or item to counter it.

Said minions in the game can be anything from a hedgehog to a mosquito, and enemies include all sorts of rats, bats and tax collectors. Quirky is an understatement, and while there aren’t any turrets to install, JARS really is a tower defence type game, and I’m going on record as saying it’s fab.

Report Card

There are no waves in the game, and instead, the pace is dictated by how you smash the jars. The best indicator I can give besides making a vid is whether you’re familiar with the Plants Vs Zombies mini-game where you have to whack open a vase. It may include a plant or perhaps a zombie – you have no way of knowing.

JARS Review - Pupa, is that you?
Pupa, is that you? Source: Steam

Your strategy could be a cautious one, but the minute you expose a nasty, you’ll need something in your inventory to defend. For each minion or item you discover, it’ll show up at the foot of the screen, and you can then drag and drop it anywhere on the shelves or learn the hotkey.

Items are consumables with one use – usually a last-minute ‘save the day’ type thing or crowd control. As for minions, they have a health bar, and once it’s depleted, they dead, yo. A level clearance screen will confirm the time it took and what items you used for each successful run. Getting the feeling it was keeping a scorecard similar to golf; it seemed appropriate to use less in fear of being judged by an unknown entity. I’m resourceful! But it’s not important, but it will determine how much you earn to spend on sweets. Sorry, bugs.

Insect Scrapbook

Vic keeps a collection of everything he encounters in JARS through an encyclopedia, mentioned early on. This is a good reference point if you’re not entirely sure what an item does, or perhaps you want the zodiac sign for one of the rats. Were they born in the year of the rat? Wouldn’t that be a laugh? Sadly, you’ll have to fill in the horoscope bits as it’s essential gameplay information only.

But protecting the sarcophagus isn’t your only task as new elements are introduced, such as batteries, and there will be environmental hazards and obstacles restricting your insect patrols. There are perks too. This plays into Burton’s Vincent a little as our Vic becomes experimental, supercharging these perks into his minions to boost their stats.

To do so, the element has to match the shape of the particular minion. For example, the hedgehog has three empty shapes; a square, circle and heart. The first perk unlocked is soap (a shield buff), so installing that in the circle boosts them. With the mosquito pupa, their shapes are a square and a heart, so you wouldn’t be able to use the soap perk. Make sense? Good. Next section.

Quick-Fire, But Via The Scenic Route

It was surprising how easy JARS was at first, with levels averaging well under 60 seconds each. However, the number of levels per theme can feel quite staggering, and it’s only after the odd breather that you escape out of the story to have a look at the world map (there’s no indicator where you are).

JARS Review - Put up some shelves
Put up some shelves. Source: Steam

That ‘breather’ is because you’ll likely play levels back-to-back as it’s an enjoyable experience, but it’s not without a few irritations along the way. Rather annoyingly, minion AI is a bit weak, and you may find yourself restarting a level again and again until you learn their movement pattern. One level, in particular, took me about four attempts, and in the final one, I managed to ace it.

That said, JARS is quick-fire most of the time, and for the lack of initial tutorials or fanfare, it sure as heck made up for it with some cutscenes, comic book panels to unlock, family photos to uncover the plot and visiting your uncle (Fester?) at his shop to buy new perks and minions. There are also hero stages where you control a heroic minion in a rogue-like run, increasing their stats along the way.

JARS is a quirky looking game – sketchy even, but that’s a nod at the art style which seems quite brash but consistent throughout, and I have to say, I was fond of it. It’s quite a simple game on the surface, and usually, the best ones are. If you’re a tower defence fan and feel you may have exhausted the genre, think again: I recommend you play this title.