Review – Pixeljunk Shooter

Q Games’ Pixeljunk project is something that, as a gamer, I have to admire, but as a critic leaves me frustrated.  They exist as a series of small downloadables on the Playstation Network, with their 2d perspective being the only common theme among them (Wikipedia states that a “Pixeljunk Series 2” may explore early 3d visuals).  This loose sense of organization gives Q Games the freedom to be as experimental or traditional as they want to be, which in turn gives the series the potential for interesting developments.  On the other hand, the lack of consistency and predictability is tricky at a time when many of us make up our opinion on a game solely based on our experiences with its predecessors.  A careless gamer could go from loving Pixeljunk to swearing it off in the span of a single game, and might ultimately miss out on something great.

I bring this up because I almost made such a mistake with Pixeljunk Shooter, the latest release from the project.  I had previously downloaded Pixeljunk Eden after reading a ton of positive press, only to find that my mind just couldn’t click with its funky, physics based platforming.  As a result, I ignored Shooter at release, fearing that it too would a add a frustrating learning curve to a traditional genre (the fact that it’s visuals look like a minor evolution of Eden’s didn’t help either).  Thankfully, this was only a case of “almost”, and now that I have played Shooter, I’m ready to label it my favorite game on PSN.

Pixeljunk Shooter gives you command of a small spacecraft with a simple set of controls.  The two joysticks control movement and orientation independently, so you rotate your craft regardless of what direction you are flying in.  A grappling hook lets you collect items, and the fire button launches bullets or missiles depending on how long you hold it.  Each mission consists of a series of caves containing the survivors of a failed expedition, and the only way to open the door to the next cave is to find all of your comrades on the current map.  These crew members also represent the number of lives you have: the mission ends if more than five of them die, and collecting 1ups lowers your casualty number by one.  The ship itself can still be destroyed, but the only penalty for this is restarting the area.  Rather than using a traditional health bar, the ship has a heat gauge which is affected by a variety of actions.  Using too many missiles, flying too close to magma, or being hit by a non lethal bullet will all cause the gauge to rise, while diving into a pool of water will bring it back down. This leads to some unorthodox failure states which can often be corrected.  For example, there isn’t much you can do if you collide with an enemy or get smothered with magma, but an overheat simply shuts down the thruster.  If you can navigate your plummeting craft into water, or stay in the air for long enough, it will cool back down and you can proceed as normal.  Once you get familiar with how the ship works, it is possible to play very fast and risky without being in danger of dying, in turn encouraging speed runs and making replays much more efficient.

It has been said that one of the names proposed for this game was Pixeljunk Elements, and you begin to see why once you begin to play.  While there is plenty of shooting going on, combat with enemies is usually a minor hazard.  Instead, most of your shots will be used to interact with the environment. Each level is filled with a variety of different elements, including water, magma, ice and oil.  Success in most levels involves using these natural forces against each other, usually to clear a path without killing survivors.  For example, dropping a reservoir of water on a pool of magma will cause it to cool into dirt which can be shot away.  Water can also turn oil into explosive fumes, which can then be ignited by a spark.  For roughly half the game, these environmental puzzles provide little in the way of challenge, but instead act as a source of distraction.  The simple act of manipulating each environment is both simple and enjoyable, and so the game banks on the player recklessly zooming into each level, shooting at everything they can and killing survivors either with stray shots or by releasing a pool of magma without realizing where it will go.  Later stages up the ante by requiring more elaborate chain reactions in order to clear out paths.  They also introduce special elemental “suits” which affect the behavior of the ship and force you to retool your strategies.  One of the most clever is one that allows you to travel through magma, but makes water a hazard.  It completely reverses the way you navigate, and can put a once straightforward level on its head.

On this note, Pixeljun Shooter’s difficulty curve is beautifully structured, such that it is both gradual and, in many ways, optional.  Beyond the basic controls, the game is very stingy with information, preferring instead for you to figure out special techniques via trial and error.  But every so often it will spill the beans and offer you a strong clue about how to solve a puzzle or use a suit. Simply beating the game isn’t terribly challenging (making it far more accessible than Eden), but it very clearly wants the player to go back and replay each stage in order to rescue all of the survivors, and to find all the secret treasures.  This sounds like a pain in the ass on the surface, but Shooter makes it actively engaging.  As mentioned, your initial trip through a level will often be fast and reckless.  Upon return trips, you will be able to move your craft better, and you may tend to slow down and look at everything more carefully, which in turn will reveal secrets that you didn’t notice the first time through.  That being said, there are certain parts of Shooter which become boring and mechanical once you repeat them too much.  This is all part of the plan, of course: none of the secrets require anything more than thorough examination of the level. There’s no Metroid-like tunnels that are obscured by a piece of wall.  You can get a perfect run on any level on the just the second try, third if you need to.  The game deliberately structures it’s replay value in a way that encourages you to squeeze a couple more hours out of it, but finish before it becomes a chore.  When played in this fashion, Pixeljunk Shooter feels just about perfect for a downloadable game (and just goes to show you how professional reviews can’t always be trusted; how many of the people who complained about it being too short were pressured by deadlines to finish in a single sitting?).

The game’s soundtrack was created by High Frequency Bandwidth, an English duo with too many styles for me to pin them down in any one genre.  Suffice to say that the soundtrack is a blend of electronica, rock, and eerie keyboards.  None of it establishes an overall tone for the game, but each track creates a specific mood for each level it appears in.  The music strikes the right balance between being immediately catchy, while also containing hidden complexities.  The only problem with the music is that HFB appears to have created it both for the game, and for the purposes of their  next album release.  As a result, there is a certain ambient track that is sprinkled with sound bites of some guy discussing the topics of record industry sellouts.  This might work for their LP, but it has nothing to do with the game at hand.  Perhaps the pilot is listening to a pirate radio station?

What Q Games has given us here is a lesson in restraint.  They wanted to bring a retro concept into the modern era, but they did so without giving into the temptation to go off the deep end.  They used the Dual Shock’s twin sticks to great advantage, without cramming the rest of the controller full of commands.  They harnessed HD resolutions to make clean, colorful graphics, rather than try and bust their ass making super detailed sprites they can’t afford to draw.  They hid an impressive physics engine behind the movement and behavior of liquids, rather than toy with blatant and obvious puzzles involving boxes and weights which fly along the map in comedic fashion.  Lastly, the online component allows for easy sharing of high scores, as well as speed runs and walkthroughs via Youtube uploads.  All in all, the team used the tools of the modern console in order to benefit their game, rather than making a game that serves some tacky feature which has been deemed mandatory simply because it is doable.  It succeeds greater than most actual retro revivals, and is a poster child for honest, frank game design, and respecting that players don’t need to have gimmicks shoved in their face in order to pay attention. My highest recommendations.

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