Review: PixelJunk Shooter (Sony PS3)

PixelJunk Shooter
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Q-Games
Genre: Shooting
Release Date: 12/10/2009

PixelJunk Shooter is the fourth game in the PSN-exclusive PixelJunk series of games, following Racers, Monsters and Eden. Like the other games, Shooter is a throwback with a modern take, this time the top down shooter. Can Q-games capture the magic of their earlier titles – especially Eden – in this latest installment?

1. Modes/Story
Pixel Junk Shooter has a basic storyline that puts the action into context about futuristic corporate exploration. Basically, it’s a rescue mission, and the ship needs to go deep into space locations to rescue other miners and explorers.

The core game consists of 15 single player levels, each of which has five segments. The game can be played through as a single player experience, or with a second player for co-op multiplayer. There is no online gameplay, but there is the requisite online leaderboards and trophies built in.

The game also supports some fun secondary features, like the ability to record gameplay videos and upload directly to YouTube. Pixel Junk Shooter can also be played on the PSP using the Remote Play feature of the PS3.

Modes/Story Rating: Mediocre

2. Graphics
The graphical style of PixelJunk Shooter is unique and impressive, and clearly designed for the HD capability of PS3. It’s always fun to play simpler, 2D games designed for HD because the smallest characters are detailed and visible.

The art direction of PixelJunk Shooter is probably the most notable part of the visual presentation. The main ship is yellow (the second player is green), and the levels are made up of bold, largely solid colors. The levels are filled with one of three types of material – fire, water and oil – each of which exist in two states of matter. The motion of the fluid forms – especially lava and water – is not only visually pleasing and well-executed, but it impacts the gameplay as well. There are large lava-filled areas blocked off by breakable rocks, and the player shoots the rocks to unleash the lava. Later the ship can pickup a water bucket and turn the lava into rock as well. These segments are constantly in motion with each liquid having a life of its own, and clashing and interacting with the scenary and each other in amazing ways.

Each of the three main worlds in PixelJunk Shooter has a different setting, so the variety of locations and enemies is more than one might expect given the size and scope of the game itself. It’s almost a lost opportunity not to create additional levels with some of the level styles that were seen once or twice in the game.

Graphics Rating: Great

3. Sound
The aural presentation of PixelJunk Shooter is probably its weakest aspect. The music is intended for background, with subtle but pleasant melodies. There isn’t much to the music but it plays its part nicely.

There isn’t much unexpected or original about the sound effects either, with a typical array of explosions as enemies and obstacles are blown up. There are a couple of notable power-up sounds that resonate nicely against the music and other effects.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

4. Control & Gameplay
The player controls a space craft of some sort that has two main abilities as a default – shooting and grappling hook. The hook is used to rescue miners, reel in diamonds and remove certain types of obstacles.

The only measure of the ship’s power or ammo is the heat level in the ship. The heat meter can be increased in a number of ways, including being hit by enemy weapons or touching/going near lava. Dipping the ship in water, even droplets, cools the ship down immediately, and the ship will slowly cool down as well.

Holding down the shooting button will change the blast from normal, lower powered shots to heat-seeking missiles. This, however, will increase the heat meter so using the missiles is a trade-off.

This shooting mechanic is a part of the game, but the primary gameplay driver is the existence and interaction with the environments. Water is largely an ally, used to cool down the ship, convert lava into solid rock, and sometimes being frozen. Lava is the antithesis, typically acting as a barrier until it can be cleared out. Later in the game, a third type of matter is added which exists as a mildly offensive gas that can be ignited, or a blob-like black oil that is toxic to the ship. The water, lava and oil can be manipulated in a variety of ways, and powerups and switches in the levels allow for a great deal of creativity.

Unlike many games of this type, PixelJunk Shooter is not about firing at everything and winning when everything is blown up. Much of the challenge lies in how to solve each level and rescue all of the miners, and fending off enemies becomes part of that process.

In total, the gameplay makes this game great. Everything is smooth, the controls respond perfectly, and there is a gradual expansion of abilities that feels natural and necessary in the environments.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Amazing

5. Replayability
PixelJunk Shooter is a short game – it’s only 15 levels and seems like its over before it gets started. Each level has an array of diamond-like crystals to seek out and collect, as well as the 35 regular miners to rescue and 1 special miner. All 15 special miners can be viweed in a Gallery that when complete, shows them all in rainbow order!

There isn’t much to go back and see in PixelJunk Shooter besides for trophy completists. The game forces the player to collect a decent amount of crystals before progressing to the final levels.

The additional of the YouTube video feature has added some replayability to the game, which players already posting speed runs and unique situations online from the gameplay.

Future updates are possible via DLC, but it would have been nice to have a level creator/editor with the game. It seems like the levels are built using a pre-scribed set of assets and allowing players to create and share levels would expand this game’s replayability. As it stands, it’s not an overly robust package.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance
As the game proceeds, the player is exposed to a few new gameplay techniques that keeps the game varied and fun, and allows the player to grow into new abilities for new situations. There are three types of “suits” that change up the powers of the ship and the levels get progressively harder.

Each of the worlds has an end boss which is an epic final battle that puts a focus on action and reflexes rather than the puzzle and strategy focus of the rest of the game. These are great and memorable segments that provide a nice dose of intensity amidst the exploration of the in-game levels.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality
At its core, PixelJunk Shooter is a spiritual successor to Asteroids and other early-arcade era shooters. The 360 motion and general feeling of the game are reminiscent of an Asteroids-type game, but it is so much deeper and more thought out.

There are also little touches to the game that make it more polished. The basic weapon isn’t heat-seeking, but does have a radius where if its somewhat close to an enemy, it slightly hooks to hit the enemy. This subtle touch is exactly the type of detail that makes PixelJunk Shooter stand out – the little things add up to create an eminently playable shooter.

Originality Rating: Good

8. Addictiveness
The gameplay in PixelJunk Shooter is finely tuned and rewards players as they continue through the game. I found it to be an addictive game to continue seeing what surprises awaited in the next level. Later when going back through each level for crystals and secret areas, I discovered new strategies and ways of playing.

PixelJunk Shooter is a game that oozes playability and was made lovingly with gamers in mind – the graphical presentation is fresh and looks great in HD, but the focus of the game is on gameplay. There is a sense of exploration and wonder that loses you in the world the developers have created.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor
The PixelJunk series has amassed a great deal of goodwill with PS3 fans, as they are system exclusives and have largely delivered on the hype. It was curious to release this game so close to the holidays where it might have gotten buried, but I suspect it will have legs into the new year as well.

Even without knowing the pedigree of the developers, the visuals are striking and the gameplay looks interesting in preview videos, so it could lead to some impulse buys for some adventurous gamers. I’m not sure how games like this appeal to younger gamers weened on 3D, but it provides such a satisfying gameplay experience that it should really appeal to everyone.

Appeal Rating: Great

10. Miscellaneous
I continue to be most entertained by small teams producing tight game packages on the various download services. Without the budget for the latest technology, the development focus needs to be on gameplay, and PixelJunk Shooter shows this perfectly. The most intangible part of any video game is how it feels to play, and even the smallest misstep makes the game feel off. With so many top down shooters, it’s a remarkable feat to make a game feel so fresh and new.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores

Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control & Gameplay: AMAZING
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal Factor: GREAT
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
Final Score: VERY GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary
Q-Games has taken a staple of gaming through the past few decades and added new twists to make some fresh and original. The visuals aren’t cutting edge 3D, but they look sharp even in HD, and have a distinct style all their own. The real star of the game is how it feels – a seamless experience that is a joy to play. It is exciting to think what the PixelJunk series has in store for 2010 and beyond.

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