In the case of Q-Games – a Japanese based developer headed by Englishman Dylan Cuthbert – we truly are bearing witness to a proverbial ace up Sony’s sleeve when it comes to content available on a digital service. Each of their superb titles ups their pedigree after every release and further highlights the immense talent that they have at their disposal. The team have always set such a high standard for the Playstation network, but PixelJunk Shooter somehow raises the bar even further. It’s a remarkable blend of games both retro and modern, hand picking various elements from many sources, but it does so in a way that is completely original.
Q-Games asked the public to choose the name for their latest work – with Shooter being deemed the best – but the game is much less of your typical twin stick shooter than its title would suggest. In reality, it’s a puzzle/exploration hybrid which sees you piloting your banana-yellow spacecraft through a series of increasingly complex caves in which your primary objective is to rescue civilians and mine for crystals. It is the acquisition of these crystals which unlock new levels, and finding them all is not entirely an easy task. The rescue of civilians will reward you with extra lives, but keeping them all in one piece is also a challenge, which we’ll get to in a moment. Your ship has a towing cable which can be used to grab objects, as well as substantial weaponry to dig into the rock and take out the various enemies you’ll come across.
It all sounds very basic, but on this level the game would still be fun, much like its recent contemporary Gravity Crash – simple, pure and unabashed entertainment which, in many respects, is the underlying objective of games of this type in the first place. With this being Q-Games at the helm – and with the confidence in their own abilities soaring higher than ever – the basic concept is taken much, much further. It’s the introduction of various elements, and the inventive means of combating these which elevate the game into a territory occupied only by the very best. The puzzles are nothing short of ingenious, testing the player’s knowledge on the different reactions between the elements whilst feeling fun and inventive. There’s an omnipresent illusion that the experience is almost entirely freeform and experimental, and whilst most of the time there is only a single solution available, it feels immensely satisfying once you find it.
Each cave features a number of elements that can be interacted with and manipulated in order to navigate the game space and rescue as many civilians and to find as many crystals as possible. Keeping these safe from the more dangerous elements can prove tricky, but it is the successful combination of said elements to create something new that is the key to progress. For example, combining lava with noxious gas will cause explosions, whilst adding water to lava will see it cool and turn to rock, which the player can shoot through.
The great thing about this mechanic is that it never becomes uninteresting, with each situation being designed so that repetition of strategy does not occur. Like all great games PixelJunk Shooter has a definite sense of progression, inducing such a strong desire in the player to press forward through the levels on offer. The graphics and sound have their own unique sense of style and are akin to the cinematic works of Wes Anderson, with the pastel colour style and somewhat melancholic music adding to the games sense of originality. It is undeniably a pleasure to look at and listen to as well as play, with the spaceship controls being satisfyingly taut and responsive. The shooting mechanics are of a comparable quality, but do take a little getting used to.
In a way, players of PixelJunk Shooter will be constantly learning, continuously getting used to new ideas and concepts, right up until the games conclusion. It is not just a case of experimenting with elements either, but the more incidental details – shooting into a pool of lava to “flick” the molten rock into a rising plume of gas, or dive-bombing into water to cool down after reaching critical temperature (another charming gameplay device, measured with an on-screen indicator) and losing control of your ship thrusters. The boss fights are those which ask you to implement your skill set and your knowledge of the game world to good effect, rather than pummel you with unpredictable and subsequently unavoidable attacks – in other words, the best type. They are typical of the game as a whole – well designed, intelligent entities which will test the player yet be entertaining enough to return to if one should fail.
It’s rather difficult to fault the game on any conceivable level, but one minor criticism is that the game-length-to-game-price ratio is a bit uneven. The good news is that Q-Games have decided to split the adventure into multiple ‘episodes’ on this occasion, and at the risk of sounding clichéd the phrase “getting what you pay for” as well as “quality over quantity” surely applies here. The Playstation Network has now being in operation for some time, and plays host to many fantastic games, but we can safely say that PixelJunk Shooter has catapulted itself into the elite with ease. A bold claim perhaps, but there’s only one way to find out – we implore you to play the game at your earliest convenience.
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