January 4, 2010

Review – PixelJunk Shooter

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 9:03 am

PixelJunk Shooter
Talking about the physics of a videogame, or at least the way in which elements and objects physically react to the player, leaves me thinking of pop cans rolling down hallways, the splinters of wooden crates, or bodies flailing before flopping on the ground – and afterward if stepped on. I think of little eccentricities that mean to draw me into a world made more convincing by their presence, subtle additions that nourish the reality of the world within the game.

If said game avoids confronting me with an endless series of puzzles meant to force my appreciation of the effort, so much the better.

Beneath the shooter exterior, PixelJunk offers a subterranean world of environmental puzzles as a focal point, distinguishing itself with a playground of experimentation that directly drives the solutions and pushes the player forward. It isn’t a world made more realistic because of the physical elements within it, rather a world made more compelling and interesting because of the depth found in the interaction between elements that the player is allowed to interact with and manipulate.

What we’re left with is a game that is at all times inherently playful, a sensibility sadly missing from so many current releases.

PixelJunk Shooter
PixelJunk is a thinking shooter, less concerned about the enemies firing at players across each stage than the potential effects those firefights can have on the environment. There are plenty of enemies laying in wait, but this isn’t about memorizing bullet patterns and dodging excessive missile attacks.

The mission is rescue, dispatched into orbit around a mining planet via a trippy Yellow Submarine to save trapped workers. My first lesson within these caverns was that firing blindly at enemies results in casualties and failure, made a little worse for having to watch the charred bodies flail and fall. Workers are spread throughout each stage, caught in areas sealed off by destructible rock, and intermixed with enemies waiting for a chance to score a hit – along with a few hoping to steal workers before they can be rescued.

Stages are only completed when every worker has been accounted for, ideally rescued, though each stage allows for a few casualties. Environmental dangers occasionally require quick rescues and reflex when volcanic eruptions or poisonous gas threaten to reach workers before the player. But more often than not, PixelJunk is about thinking harder about where you’re shooting – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve shot a worker myself or caused lava to rain down and scorch them.

PixelJunk Shooter
The simplistic controls are reminiscent of Asteroids, if only because the player is responsible for whether they move at all. The analog sticks control direction and thrust, the shoulder buttons firing the grapple hook and missiles – holding down the fire button longer activates homing missiles. Rather than health, the ship has a heat tolerance bar which raises when players take enemy fire, use homing missiles, or get too cozy near lava – the player can cool off at anytime via distance or a quick swim in cooler waters. Controls are at their smoothest when the fingers stay at the ready – taking my thumb off the analog sticks often made aiming more finicky.

The backgrounds and level designs possess a simplicity that speaks to the style of PixelJunk as a continuing series of games across different genres, but offers a strange mix of bright Japanese design with characters and the primary ship, contrasted with enemies, boss encounters and later stages grabbing at a Western influence comparable to the animated work of Genndy Tartakovsky. This style is tied together by the minimalist art direction and a truly unique soundtrack that tilts between trip hop beats and more meditative rhythms, making PixelJunk Shooter one of the most unique titles gamers will both see and hear on any console – it’s a good thing.

PixelJunk Shooter
This is easily the most cohesive and complete narrative direction Q-Games has offered to date, and yet the star of the show quickly becomes the three primary elements, which begins with a familiar sense of hot and cold but twists as the journey into the center of the planet deepens.

Players explore a series of underground passages home to magma, ice, and a mystery substance that we’ll call dark goo. The real game is in the interaction between you and these fluids as well as the direct reactions they cause within one another.

Water extinguishes magma to create destructible rock, and magma melts ice, and both have a more chaotic effect on dark goo, which reacts to water by releasing a gas that in turn can be ignited by magma. The science lesson isn’t meant to be surprising, but becomes joyously playful in the physical sway of these liquids, which become a central character for the player to consistently interact with. The sensation is immediately felt the first time water rushes down over the ship, splashing and swaying in a mass before hitting the ground, redirected and swayed further by missiles at the player’s leisure.

Fluids simply seem to dance throughout the whole of the game, and augmentations of the ship allow players to conduct escalating symphonies of motion with all the substances in turn.

PixelJunk Shooter
A few secrets await players along the way with hidden caves sometimes found off-screen and offering up more treasure – which is needed to access boss encounters. But exploration is a very minimal element here compared to the marvel of experimentation. Three stages with a handful of levels each will come up a bit on the short side for some, four hours would get a gamer late for an appointment through without turning over every stone, but there’s good reason to linger within stages for awhile longer than that.

The game stops short of exhausting its repertoire, and it’s clear that each level has been finely tuned with puzzles that enhance the manipulation of elements – redirecting lava flows to melt ice deposits evolves into the chaotic mechanical puzzles of final levels with a purposeful but natural flow. A local two-player option has given me enough reason for a revisit, and the co-op puzzle-solving was fresh even after my solo night session.

The emphasis shift away from reflex shooting lessons consistent replay value, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is clearly one of the most unique and important games to close out PSN releases for 2009. PixelJunk Shooter is an experiment that allows players to conduct their own rather than feeling like a part of one, crafted into a complete experience while still ready for the mutations a likely encore presentation could offer in the new year.

Happiness is where you find it, and for me the joy of this title is in the way these static backgrounds require my actions not just to bring them to life, but to create life via the manipulation of the game’s three base elements.

PixelJunk Shooter
System – PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
Release Date – December 10, 2009

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review


  1. Great review Jamie. So is it safe to conclude that what we’re actually looking at isn’t a shooter per se but instead is more akin to a physics-based puzzle-adventure game? I’ve enjoyed Pixeljunk Monsters and Eden seems fun if more for the music than anything else (at least that’s what I think of it at the moment).

    Comment by EdEN — January 4, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  2. yea, I’d go along with that. The game was almost called PixelJunk Elements, but I recall hearing that they worried that would lose the shooter context for people.

    The shooter element is still alive and strong mind you, and the second boss fight in particular really merges the physical puzzle element with shooting incredibly well. One of my favorite enemies is the lava spewing ones because I’m worried about where the lava is going more than the well being of my ship.

    Comment by Jamie Love — January 4, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Good to know. I’ll give this a go during this month or the next since I have several games that need to be finished before my wife starts wondering why I’m using money from the “house-renovations” budget for more games when I haven’t finished all the ones I got in december hehehe…

    Comment by EdEN — January 4, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

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