Ever since the first 'You Don't Know Jack' game arrived in the mid '90s, the Jackbox brand has increasingly targeted consoles with its quirky cooperative and competitive experiences. As 'traditional' party game experiences have been joined by more and more virtual board games and digital quiz shows over the last few years, Jackbox has claimed its own space and gained popularity through its use of smart devices. Ice breaking and rival building are the goals, in the tradition of multiplayer institutions that graced communal living spaces of the late '90s; the Jackbox Party Pack games aim to create as many laughs on a 2017 night as we saw in the olden days with conventional titles like Mario Kart 64 or GoldenEye 007.
With only one of the previous fifteen games in the series being available as a single player experience, the latest in the series - The Jackbox Party Pack 4 - once again relies on two factors: an internet / Wi-Fi connection, and a friend (or handful) to actually play the games via their smart devices. While Twitch streamers (and theoretically a group of distanced friends) could play together, part of the allure of the experience is the proximity of its players and the resulting banter around the TV. Whether it be trying to read someone's reactions to an outlandish yet oddly plausible red herring in Fibbage, or pressing the select button a fraction of a second too late in a certain round of 'You Don't Know Jack', there's plenty of opportunity to bluff, deceive or sabotage while having a good time.
If you have previously played the Jackbox Party games, then this fourth instalment is going to be a mostly familiar set up. Choosing from the 'five and a half' games on offer, 1-8 (or sometimes more) people either compete or cooperate to fulfil certain improvisational scenarios or answer pop culture-based trivia. The voiceover work, varied visual styles and stellar soundtrack / sound effects are present again, but the nature of the games themselves do have a more improvisational theme when viewed as a whole package.
The first game in this new set, 'Fibbage 3', is the tried and tested game of 'call my bluff' with a new set of popular culture questions, a garishly vivid 'Austin Powers'-style décor and a new mode, replacing the 'defibrillator' from The Jackbox Party 2. The traditional setup of Fibbage was always most entertaining when based on the wit and like-mindedness of its players, which has been further highlighted in 'Enough About You'. Using the same premise, players can now input answers based on their own personality, opinions or experiences. This more personalised angle certainly tests how well a group of friends know each other, while still keeping the core idea of fun through deception.
Complete with a nostalgic, polygonal desktop wallpaper aesthetic (instantly recognisable to older folk like this reviewer, who remembers a time before YouTube or Twitch), 'Survive the Internet' is a topical 'game of two halves', where players twist headlines and comments out of context to make funny news headlines, job postings and other potentially cheeky scenarios; players then vote on the best. Old-school IT in-jokes regularly appear, from the dropdown menus in the settings, to pop-up ads and classifieds. It's not the snappiest of games, but there's plenty of scope for a few risky results; it's best to play with people that you know well.
'Monster Seeking Monster' is an aptly-timed spooky, cutely presented and witty dating simulator, where players (the more the better) try and outdo each other by sending enticing messages with the intent of scoring a date. This glorified popularity contest disguised as Blind Date - albeit with a cartoony Halloween theme - adds random secret super powers into the mix to try and spice things up. Ultimately, though, you'll mostly spend the time texting one another almost as if art is imitating life...
'Bracketeering' has a glorious TRON like décor - neon pinks, purples and plenty of lightning blast all over this tournament-style game. Given one prompt - such as 'what is the best---' - each of the submitted answers are paired off, with the goal being to win the bracket; you earn money from correctly predicting who is going to win. There's an opportunity to sway audience voting, and being able to change your vote in real time adds tension and a sense of ruthless competition, especially if the results are equal. Things get mixed up in later rounds, too, such as blind brackets. The more players, the bigger the bracket, which allows as many as possible to get directly involved.
'Civic Doodle' is the arty one of the bunch, taking over from Bidiots and Drawful from the previous games. For starters you write your name in real time; you don't just type it - a minor but nonetheless fun little detail. The premise is that the town mayor is commissioning a new mural. The first two players start with separate canvases but the same basic shape, which they can 'artistically interpret' any way they want and draw on with a few basic (yet still more than ever before) tools. The hilarity of civic doodle is twofold - the artists facing off against each other do so in real time, with everyone able to see the magic appear before them. Secondly, the pictures are then voted on with emojis and the winning entry is brought forward into the next round, with the next competitors using it as a base for their masterpieces, and so on. There's a great sense of collaboration and competition that keeps everyone interested and involved, right up to suggesting a title for the final artwork. Where a game of 'Word Spud' could descend into crude nonsense quickly, civil doodle takes that potentially fun idea and makes it (literally) visually appealing.
The absence of an updated popular culture based trivia stalwart like 'You Don't Know Jack' notwithstanding, the variety of games on offer here depend more on the audience playing them than their core concepts. The new twists on old 'genres' of Jackbox games work really well - the personalized element in fan-favourite Fibbage adds another layer to the already immensely fun routine. Likewise, Civic Doodle takes all of the competitive components of previous 'arty' games Drawful and Bidiots, while making the experience collective, organic and briskly paced. Two of the remaining three new games, namely Survive the Internet and Bracketeering, take topical humour and improvisation into a social media space. They can be a bit hit and miss, but the chances are pretty high that both will produce a decent amount of laughs.
The stale, awkward and random Monsters Seeking Monsters is the weakest of the bunch; with long gaps of silent communication on your smart devices and a crude matchmaking end game, it feels like a sloppy student pub crawl.
The Jackbox Party Pack 4 does enough to warrant another dive into its zany, over the top party game world. The visual presentation is mostly stellar and varied throughout, but of course it comes down to the games themselves. When it's good, it's great - the new Fibbage mode 'Enough About You', refined drawing game Civic Doodle and the fast-paced tournament style Bracketeering will keep any social gatherings going. Survive the Internet can be rather hit and miss due to its topical humour, so it depends heavily on the crowd. Aside from its cooky and spooky presentation, meanwhile, Monsters Seeking Monsters falls flat.
As long as you're aware of the requirement of web-connected smart devices to play, The Jackbox Party Pack 4 is another worthy addition to the Switch, and for the most part there's a good balance of familiar and fresh material for newcomers and veterans alike.