Usually in a game when you come across water hazards or pools of bubbling lava, the only way forward is to swing across, climb around or jump over them. Avoidance is the only plausible solution. In PixelJunk Shooter, however, the way forward is often through molten lava and water bodies. The contrasting hot and cold characteristics of the game world form the basis of the PixelJunk Shooter formula. The word ‘Shooter’ is a little misleading because, although shooting is involved, this is very much a puzzle game.
Your mission is to delve deep into the underground mines of a distant planet and rescue mine workers and scientists trapped there. You control a zippy little air craft equipped with a grappling hook with which to rescue stranded survivors, and weapons in the form of standard ‘pew-pew’ missiles as well as more powerful homing missiles. You will need to make full use of all of these features because the mines are fraught with danger not only from the many creatures that inhabit them, but also because you will constantly be battling the elements.
Like all PixelJunk games, Shooter plays out on a 2D plane, and like those before it, it’s very easy on the eyes. The controls are simple and all you will need throughout the game is the triggers (or bumpers) and the two analog sticks. While rescuing the miners is the objective, getting to them is the tricky bit. They are often closed off by water bodies, pockets of magma or solid rock, and with the tools at hand you will need to use these elements and forge your way to them, while being careful not to drown them in the magma in the process.
Ingeniously, the game never really tells you how to go about doing anything, and you will only be fed hints if you get stuck in one place for too long. There is no explanation of the game’s controls when you start out either (although there is a How to Play section in the home menu) so you learn as you play and the game brilliantly eases you in whilst constantly adding more and more features to the gameplay.
The basic idea is that mixing magma with water or ice makes rock; rock which you can shoot through and therefore move forward through the level. But as you play on, the game gets progressively more challenging and the game keeps handing you more tools to aid you. These include the sponge ball, which lets you absorb any liquid for you to carry and dispense elsewhere, the magma and water fruits, which when thrown anywhere burst into a sea of magma or water, as well as switches which perform various functions.
Now while you progress through most of the game with the common knowledge that water is good and magma is bad, it flips the script on you somewhere along the way. You will often find docks and parking your craft in them gives you one of many suits. While the magma suit and water suits give you the ability to shoot magma and water respectively instead of missiles, donning the inverter suit makes things really interesting. With the inverter suit on, magma becomes your friend, and water and ice are the enemy, allowing you to swim through magma and killing you in water.
While all these new gameplay nuances are being thrown at you, you also have to deal with the variety of enemy creatures that lurk around every corner. They all have different powers and weapons and they only add to the challenge. Although rescuing survivors is the primary objective and a necessity to complete a level, more important in a way are collectibles in the form of treasures/diamonds that are hidden away in each level. There are three episodes in the game, each with 4-5 levels in them. The last level of each episode is only unlocked once you have collected a fixed number of diamonds. So you’re better off keeping an eye out for them, otherwise you’ll have to track back and replay levels to progress further.
While the gameplay keeps evolving as you move forward (in addition to magma, water and ice, you will also encounter poisonous gas and weird magnetic goo) and gets progressively more challenging, completing the levels themselves isn’t a very difficult task. And that’s why at the end of each of the three episodes is a giant enemy boss. These on the other hand are reasonably harder, particularly ALF-0N50, the final boss. These were probably also three of the most fun boss fights I’ve played in a long time and they are a welcome change of pace from the cave crawling and rescue operations.
The electronic music soundtrack comes from British duo High Frequency Bandwidth and it is outstanding. Tracks dynamically and seamlessly transition from one to the next in accordance with the on-screen action. Tense moments are aptly up-tempo while more relaxing instrumentals accompany the calmer sections. It’s also worth mentioning that the game allows you to record video of your gameplay and either upload it to YouTube or save it on the XMB. The game also supports the screenshot feature via the XMB.
PixelJunk games have spanned across genres and the reason they are held in such high regard is the one constant – originality. And PixelJunk Shooter is no different. Playing through this game is a refreshing experience and even though it’s only 5-6 hours long, it is well worth its asking price. In fact, it’s well worth twice that. And my detective skills suggest that expansions are on the way as well. If you’ve played and loved past PixelJunk games, you know what I’ve been going on about. But if you haven’t, don’t let the simplistic 2D visuals fool you; this is one of the best games to have come out in 2009.
(+) Refreshingly original
(+) Constantly introduces new gameplay elements
(+) Fun bossfights
(+) Brilliant soundtrack
(-) Difficulty doesn’t ramp up a lot
Title: PixelJunk Shooter
Developer/Publisher: Q Games/Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PS3/PSN ($9.99)
Reviewed on: PS3