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PixelJunk Shooter Review4
by Jeff Gerstmann on
PixelJunk Shooter's considerable charm and clever mechanics make it stand out, but it ends without fully realizing its potential.
Though the latest entry in Q-Games' series of quirky downloadable games is called PixelJunk Shooter, gunning down enemies isn't really the game's central kick... but that's a catchier title than PixelJunk Fluid Dynamics or PixelJunk Oh God Stay Away From The Lava would have been. Shooter is at its best when it's requiring you to puzzle out the best way to stay out of the lava as you attempt to carefully extract human survivors from the depths of an alien planet. The unfortunate part is that the game feels like it spends most of its time on easy, almost tutorial-like levels that illustrate how the world's different substances work together. And by the time you've got it all figured out, it ends.
PixelJunk Shooter controls similarly to the average dual-joystick shooter, but you'll use R1 to fire, rather than just pointing the right stick in a direction to start shooting. The L1 button is used to fire your claw, which scoops up human survivors, bonus diamonds that are strewn about the levels, and a few other objects. If you hold down R1, you'll fire out missiles, which are more powerful than your normal shots. But firing missiles generates heat, which is the true enemy in PixelJunk Shooter.
Instead of a shield meter or some sort of hull integrity graph, the measure of your wellness is a heat gauge. Doing things like getting near lava or drifting through hot smoke will cause your heat gauge to start creeping up. If it fills, your ship starts to crash downward, which will probably kill you unless you happen to touchdown in a pool of water. Water is plentiful in these underground areas, and submerging yourself instantly cools you off.
The interplay between the fiery lava and bodies of water is central to PixelJunk Shooter. When the two substances collide, the water dissipates as the lava is cooled and turned into a soft solid that you can shoot through. This gives you ways to proceed down through pools of lava, which usually leads to a survivor or two. Other substances add a bit more complexity to these interactions, like hot gas that rises out of the ground in some levels. If it connects with lava, the gas starts exploding, which will cause you to overheat if you're caught in the blast area, but it's also useful for blasting through walls of ice. There's also an oily, magnetic substance in later levels that reacts with water to form more of that explosive gas. All of this state-changing fluid might sound complicated, but the game introduces you to these interactions very slowly and deliberately, making it nearly impossible to miss.
It's a bit easier, however, to miss all of the diamonds that are hidden around the corners of many levels. You grab the diamonds just like you were picking up a human, and at first, they just seem like any other collectible bonus item. But the diamonds are actually more important than the humans, as you won't be allowed into an episode's final area unless you've collected enough diamonds to open the area. It's a bit of a weird mechanic, at first, since the game puts way more of a visible emphasis on saving humans. While losing too many humans will force you to retry a level, as soon as you slow down and stop unloading as many bullets as possible into every threat in your path, saving the humans is easy, and they're all right out in the open. This forced me to backtrack on a few occasions, as I'd have no trouble saving every human in an area, but I'd still have to find more diamonds before I could proceed. Once you know what to look for, finding diamonds isn't especially challenging, either.
Mechanically, PixelJunk Shooter is awesome. The viscous fluids slosh around believably, and manipulating them in various ways is really satisfying. You'll also find power-up suits that make some levels feel a little different by giving you the ability to survive in lava (at the expense of making water completely deadly), repel the gooey magnetic fluid, or shoot water or lava out of your ship. You'll even have to deal with three boss fights, one for each episode, which is the one place where the name "Shooter" makes a ton of sense. But PixelJunk Shooter doesn't give you enough levels that put all of its different elements together. There are no massive, fluid-based puzzles in Shooter. In fact, as you proceed and discover new fluids, the game devotes a few too many levels to simply illustrating how the new fluids or power-ups you're encountering interact with one another. The last few levels of the game are great, but just as it's settling into a groove and starting to actually get challenging, you're confronted by a final boss and the game ends, offering little more than a "to be continued" screen.
There are, of course, additional options for completists. The game keeps track of how many diamonds you've collected and which levels you've cleared without letting any humans die, so replaying those areas to completely clear them is certainly an option. You can also play through the entire game with a second player. This makes minimal changes to some levels, usually in spots where both players would need an inverter suit to get through some lava. But it doesn't dramatically change the game, plus it also forces both players to remain relatively close together, as the action doesn't zoom out or split into two screens to let players roam a bit more freely. With those limitations, areas of the game require a lot of communication and cooperation, so it makes some sense that it's limited to local players. But since the level continues forward as long as one player is alive, and players that fail are respawned after ten seconds of down time, there isn't too much incentive to actually cooperate. PixelJunk Shooter is better as a solo mission.
Despite feeling like the tutorial mode for its eventual Encore-style follow-up, PixelJunk Shooter's unique mechanics and terrific audiovisual design still make it stand out in ways that most downloadable releases lack. Like the other games in the line, PixelJunk Shooter's got style. The great-looking graphics and cohesive soundtrack make it a lot easier to look past the game's structural issues and a lot easier to recommend, too. PixelJunk Shooter is most definitely worth playing, but it leaves you wanting more in both the positive and negative senses of the term.