There are already a large number of 2D shooters on the PSN Store, but the genre hopping PixelJunk series from Q-Games has beaten them all with their first shot at the title. PixelJunk Shooter is a compelling game designed with a distinctive, simple, full-coloured style and perfectly balanced gameplay.
Movement is handled using the left analogue stick with wonderfully smooth and reliable controls that work well at high and low speeds. The objective of each level is to rescue the stranded humans by aiming with the right stick and firing your grabber with L1. Your weapons are fired the same way with R1 instead, so you can imagine some early ‘incidents’ that took place there. Picking up the last (surviving) person opens the gate to the next area.
Enemies start off as simple bats, but soon enough you’ll come across spinning rock burrowers, a variety of organic turrets and mini erupting volcanoes. As well as your basic bullets you can hold down the fire button to release powerful homing rockets. These will overheat your ship though. Get too hot and you’ll need to take a cooling breather or you’ll explode. Dipping into a pool of water will do it quicker.
There aren’t a lot of enemies to shoot at, but this is no bad thing as the main threat to your ship, and the little guys, is the underground environment itself. Water, ice, lava, oil, flammable gas and destructible rock need to be navigated in ways that won’t put lives in danger. For example, don’t blast the rock underneath a lava pool before picking up anybody underneath. You have to be careful about knock-on effects off screen too, with lava melting ice and so on, which can work in your favour or kill off some survivors you hadn’t even noticed off-screen.
The clever environment puzzles are the game’s strongest points that make it stand out from other 2D shooters that want you to shoot hundreds of enemies or kill you for touching a wall. You’re free to bounce off the surroundings, with the main restrictions being fairly reasonable examples like not dunking your ship in the lava.
There are around five stages in each of the three underground zones. Each stage is made up of multiple levels too, so there’s a decent amount to get through. Longevity is added by the compulsive desire to save every human and find the hidden diamonds in each level, not to mention getting a better time and score to climb the online leaderboards. You can hit ‘retry’ at any point if you drown, shoot or melt anybody, with the only downside being that your level completion time won’t reset, a small price to pay to be honest.
While the survivors are easy to spot, the diamonds are much more deviously hidden. They could be inside some hardened molten rock which you can blast away. Or you might see the shadow of one at the bottom of a lava pit, meaning you’re going to have to find some water to turn the lava into destructible rock.
If you fancy playing with one less analogue stick and can stomach the worry of your unattended PS3 bursting into flames at home, you can play via your PSP’s online remote play function. There’s also an excellent offline two player mode to play through all the single player levels by sharing one screen with two ships. It’s a bit easier because if one of you dies the other only has to survive for ten seconds before the other player re-spawns. You don’t have to worry about accidentally shooting each other but you might want to watch out for your buddy when unleashing an overhead lava flow. Get ready to play the blame game too when you hear a survivor’s death wail when you’ve shot through a wall a little over-enthusiastically.
Boss fights are few, but there are well-designed intermissions at the end of each area and they are full of PixelJunk character and never feel too tough, thanks to the excellent control you have over your ship.
It’s a game that’s impossible to put down which makes it feel all the shorter as you’ll probably finish it and replay the levels and pick up everything else over a couple of days. Then again, it’s so moreish trying to perfect your speed runs to climb the online leaderboards you might stay longer than you think.
PixelJunk Shooter is more forgiving than most PJ games. If you die on a level you have to start it again, but they aren’t that long. You rarely feel like you’ve been cheated and you’ll know what to do different next time. It’s game design nirvana with a perfect balance of difficulty and fun.
Simply put, it’s PixelJunk’s best game yet and one of the strongest releases seen on the PSN Store that I hope to see supported with some extra levels or even just some more diamonds to find, via a DLC expansion. Hopefully sooner rather than later.