From a pure-gameplay perspective, it’s hard to do worse than Q-Games PixelJunk line. Monsters is probably best console tower defense game ever, and Eden (a game I instantly recommend to friends who buy Playstation 3’s), at least once you’re familiar with the mechanics, is one of the most original and alluring platformers of this generation. Racers wasn’t as well received, but pumping out four completely different games under one team is nevertheless impressive. After churning out Racers, Monsters, and Eden in a span of nine months, Q-Games took their time with their sole 2009 effort, PixelJunk Shooter. If the stellar E3 demo was any indication, Shooter looked to thrive on the PixelJunk philosophy of playing a game you’re used to, but in a manner that you’re not. It’s tricky business, for sure, but Q-Games focus on simplicity and accessibility rarely work against their favor.
The attached moniker of Shooter is a bit of a misnomer. Even the aesthetic bears a resemblance to members of the recent twin stick shooter craze, and no doubt the term “shooter” carries an air of familiarly to and caters toward seasoned gamers, but PixelJunk Shooter has about as much in common with Geometry Wars or Super Stardust HD as, say, Portal did with Half Life 2. Shooter shares the same “left stick moves, right stick aims” control overlay as its brethren, but everything from your goal to your sense of purpose heavily diverges from the “blast everything in sight” norm. Shooter is a puzzle game first and an action game second and, while the latter occasionally takes precedent, it’s geared more toward the thinking crowd and less toward the frenzied, trigger happy masses.
Apparently there’s been some sort of disaster on mining planet, and you’re charged with the task of navigating through the treacherous mines and extracting the personal trapped in their depths. Your tools include a limitless blaster, used for dealing with the hostile fauna of the mines along with blowing apart the environment, and a grapple hook, used for puzzle solving and, of course, human rescue. Essentially serving as your ships life bar, the overheat meter determines how much abuse your ship can take before you crash and burn. Running close to lava, firing off missiles, or getting hit by projectiles all raise your meter, and contending with all the other variables, while keeping a close eye on your meter, works in tandem with the puzzles as a majority of your challenge.
Traditional nefarious enemies are here and there, but a majority of the dangers arrives with navigating around the elements of the world (namely, lava, rock, ice, water, gas, and weird magnetic oil). It’s all like some giant rock, paper, scissors game; water neutralizes lava into blast-able rock, but then there’s steam which, upon coming into contact with fire, creates explosive results. Meanwhile, the third level’s oil serves as an almost unpredictable blend of the two, often surprising you with its capabilities. All of the liquids are held in check by an absolutely fantastic physics system. The substances slosh and flow in a believable manner, but they’re also granted enough nuance to carry a sense of unpredictability with their behavior. Shooter features a heavy physics backbone, and learning which way the milk is going to spill, so to speak, is half the fun.
Shooter is also quick to give you plenty of toys for you to play with along the way. A giant sponge can sop up a bunch of water that you can then grapple and reign on pools of lava. Heat shields can make your life less complicated, but the most fun stuff arrives the various “suits” your that occasionally outfit your ship. The magma suit gives you a lava gun for melting ice, and, likewise the water suit can do the same for H2O, yet also allows you to use your grapple hook to pull out huge chunks of ice. I won’t spoil a few of the more impressive suits or tricks, but they all do well to dish out different content in every level.
The whole game is also playable with a friend, which I only did for five levels but, in retrospect, I wished I had carried through for the full game. The basic gameplay is largely unchanged, but the added challenge comes with all of the pratfalls and benefits of having another human. Unlike the main game, where if you’re fully overheated you’re probably heading toward an unavoidable death, you can use your grapple hook to grab your buddy and cool them off. Also, if your ship does get toasted, the other player only has to survive for a few seconds before you get to respawn. Of course, having another human also comes with the double caveat trying to make sure you both don’t accidently blast away survivors or surrender both your lives to careless lava rain, but such is the fun of playing with another person.
Hustle & Flow
Unlike Monsters or Eden, Shooter, while not exactly pedestrian, is quite generous in terms of difficulty. The game’s fifteen levels are divided into a handful of sections, each of which contains a number of survivors. If your ship perishes, you only have to repeat your current section. The only way to completely fail out is by allowing a stranded survivor to perish. Kill more than five and you’re out, but, even then, if you get collect a 1Up or a hundred of the points sprinkled everywhere, it will make up for the loss of a survivor. You’re also not timed this time around, thank god, though online rankings are there to serve any expedient desires. Shooter’s challenge isn’t exactly pedestrian, some puzzles will take a minute to deduce, but compared to the previous PixelJunk games, which were often so brutally difficult I considered destroying my controller/TV/life/etc, Shooter is a breeze.
Much of Shooter’s noticeably different scope, at least in terms of difficulty, lies in the pacing of the game. Eden, for all its splendor, bottlenecked you into repeating the levels several times over to properly finish them. Shooter, while not taking quite as long to finish, is far more streamlined and far better paced. There’s something new in every single level, and the myriad of challenges you encounter rarely repeat themselves. Collecting a predetermined amount of the hidden gems is necessary for progression, but even the most casual player should be able to blast his or her way through the game with a moderate effort. And for the completionists (myself included), going back through to try and discover every last survivor, hidden gem, or secret area serves as a fitting and engaging reason to go back through every level.
From a presentation standpoint, Shooter is among the best on PSN. While it may not be the most technically impressive game around, its style is hard to top. The high res 2D visuals aren’t as otherworldly as Eden or as charming as Monsters, but the fluid dynamics guiding the myriad of liquids are impressive throughout. The music, subterranean and occasionally abrasive electronica provided by High Frequency Bandwidth, perfectly fits the context and, had it not been for the occasional vocal sample, I wouldn’t have even noticed the lengthy tracks were looping. Shooter looks and feels like, well, a PixelJunk game – a label that is quickly becoming synonymous with elegance and quality.
If there’s any fault in Shooter, it’s the seemingly conscious admission that it’s not a full game. From the subtle “Depths of Disaster” subtitle, the incomplete story, or the blatant “to be continued” after you clear the last episode, Shooter feels noticeably less complete than its predecessors. Both Eden and Monsters were brought back to life with additional content via their respective Encores, but, especially with Eden, the Encore supplement felt like a collection of ideas deemed not good enough for the initial release. It was bonus content, albeit especially substantial bonus content, but completely inconsequential to the base game. Even when Shooter ends, if feels as if Q-Games was just getting started with exploiting the potential of their tools, almost like they were just about to drop you down the rabbit hole into something completely crazy. The exiting content is impressive in its own right, and judged singularly Shooter is still a great game, but, not unlike Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, some might be soured by the perception that you’re essentially going to be waiting for the other half of the game.