Kyoto-based developer Q-Games has found success on the PlayStation Network with its PixelJunk series, which uses simple gameplay premises and takes them in new directions.
Its last title, PixelJunk Eden, ranks among my favorite games of 2008. Before then, I spent countless hours playing cooperative tower defense with my wife and PixelJunk Monsters.
PixelJunk Shooter, which hits PSN today, easily continues this tradition of taking seemingly simple ideas and weaving them into a compelling and fun game experience. Hit the jump to see why you're probably going to want to go download PixelJunk Shooter.
PixelJunk Shooter (PlayStation 3/PlayStation Network)
The gameplay premise of PixelJunk Shooter couldn't be more simple. With everything based on what's basically a 2D plane, picking up the controller and getting started couldn't be easier. The game has you moving your ship with the left analog stick, and rotating it with the right. Missiles are fired from the ship by simply pressing the R1 button, and holding it will charge a barrage of homing missiles. But the game isn't as simple as it appears on the surface -- it's not just about blasting baddies in subterranean caverns and tunnels.
Spread throughout the game's areas are stranded workers, and it's your job to rescue these hazmat-suit-wearing scientists and other folk from the perils of these underground dungeons. Saving them is simple -- simply press L1 or L2 to grab survivors using your grappling hook. Of course, it's really not that easy, as beyond the dastardly creatures that infest the caves, you also have to deal with a variety of elements.
Early on in the game, you learn that it's not simply a matter of shooting through a level and quickly snapping up survivors. Pieces of walls must be blasted away to reveal new paths to survivors, or to release water, gas, or lava to allow access to even more areas.
PixelJunk Shooter starts off simple enough, by showing you how the different elements interact. You'll find that water mixed with lava will turn to destroyable rock, and later that lava will melt ice, or that gas (when touched by heat) is flammable. The water and lava splash liked you'd expect, with a fluid system that reacts realistically, making how they flow both exciting and completely unpredictable. Additionally, getting to close to lava can increase your heat meter, causing your ship to stop functioning; a dose of water will cool you right down.
This elemental gameplay is truly what shapes PixelJunk Shooter, and as the game adds different tricks (in the form of things like the manipulatable, liquid-holding "Fluid Slug"), the game gets deeper and more challenging. The level design is such that it oftentimes feels like a puzzle -- "How can I release that lava to melt that ice without killing that survivor?" -- and while some of them can give you pause, it's never too challenging that it becomes overly frustrating.
All the while you'll have to keep your eyes peeled for diamonds, sometimes in plain sight, and other times hidden in the environment. Despite the "Save the Survivors" objective (once no more survivors are in a level's area, a gate opens so you can move on), finding these jewels is actually an important objective as well. PixelJunk Shooter uses these gems as its currency to unlock the big boss levels, which adds a bit of replay value to the title, as you'll likely be going back to find treasures you missed.
The game is a bit on the "short" side; there are five stages in each of the game's three worlds, and each world features its own massive boss and clever boss battles. But considering the game's price, size, and quality, the length is almost a non-issue.
The game can also be played cooperatively (local only), although the stages are identical to those you'd play on your own. Still, the ability to partner up on these levels -- like in PixelJunk Eden -- does makes them feel completely fresh. The main difference is that if one ship overheats or is destroyed, the other player can grapple them to safety or hold down the fort while they respawn.
In fact, I'd recommend playing it with someone -- putting your head together with a buddy to solve some of the game's conundrums is a great bonding experience. PixelJunk Shooter also supports remote play, so alternately, you can hide somewhere in your house and play the game on your PlayStation Portable where no one can see you.
In terms of visuals and sound, PixelJunk Shooter (like the other games in the PixelJunk series) is brilliant in its simplicity. The game has a flat, almost cartoon-like look that, at first glance, may seem like a simple game you might be able to play in a Web browser. The game looks great running on a high-definition set, with basic color palette that pops, and a physics system applied to elements that gives this otherwise deceptively simple-looking game life. The game's soundtrack, by electronic duo High Frequency Bandwidth, is an odd collection of bleeps, bloops, and beats that is perfectly suited for Shooter's underground adventure.
In the end there's very little wrong with PixelJunk Shooter, mostly due to the fact that it doesn't really try to do that much. Again, its straightforward design and accessibilty is really what makes it such a joy to play, keeping in the tradition of the PixelJunk series.
Sure, it doesn't quite have the same novel gameplay hook (or even the surprisingly artistic look and sound) of Q-Games' previous PSN effort, PixelJunk Eden. But PixelJunk Shooter is still an absolute blast (no pun intended) to play, with enough charm and originality to make it another strong addition to Sony's already solid downloadable game library.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)