A year after release and it is still a great game.
Breaking into an already well-established market is an incredibly hard thing to do. The high barriers to enter are some of the reasons that the home console market never gets too saturated, and why in the past 20 years there have been less than 4 on the market at any one time. It is the same when it comes to software development. If the games industry is crowded with too many games in one genre, then developers that produce a game for the genre need to make sure that their game sticks its head above the pack with a big neon sign proclaiming its greatness. Thankfully, that is exactly what Pixel Junk has done with Monsters.
The basic set up is that you are some kind of forest dwelling creature that is responsible for protecting a hut on each stage that houses ‘babies’. There is no story, but then it doesn’t need one, as the developers just let you dive straight in. Your task for each level is to tactfully build towers that will stop the incoming hordes from reaching your babies, which is easier said than done. There are basic tower types, and if you are familiar with Desktop Tower Defense games then you have seen them all before in some variation; there are arrow, cannon, anti-air and ice towers unlocked at the start of each level, but there are also 7 additional unlocks in each level with 6 being other towers. Each level has a specific layout, including multiple paths and having creatures approaching from multiple directions. Each creature has a basic weakness and strength, but on later levels they sometimes protects their weaknesses by also carry shields that make they resistant to impact damage, fire or giving them extra health. The key is to build the appropriate towers to target each creature’s weaknesses.
As you play each level you collect coins and gems from the fallen enemies, which are used as two separate forms of currency. The coins are used to build new towers, and the gems are used to purchase new towers as well as upgrade existing towers. This is where the basis for your strategy lies, as you need to choose whether it would be better to upgrade your existing towers with gems or use the gems to unlock better towers for the situation, but on top of this you will also need to use money management, as at the end of each wave you are rewarded with a percent of your unspent money added to your wallet. So as you can imagine, there is a lot more to this game than simply choosing where to place the towers, which is another strategy all on it’s own.
A unique aspect of this game is how you place the towers into the world. In Pixel Junk Monsters you actually control a creature that physically moves around the screen on foot. You use the creature to approach a tree and build a tower in the place of the tree, so you are limited to how close a tower can be built to a path by how close the tree is. Outside of using gems, there are two other ways that towers can be upgraded. Moving your creature to a desired tower lets him dance in front of the tower to upgrade it, and this slowly fills a bar that is vertical to the tower. On top of this, the bar also fills when your towers makes a kill. Eventually when the bar reaches the top, the tower upgrades from green, to yellow, to red, to purple and then finally black. There is also the gem option, but when using gems the tower fills up the rest of the bar instantly, and depending on the colours you are moving from it can take anything from 1 to 3 gems to do so.
Monsters has a basic tutorial that does a great job of lowering you into the water, and then gradually letting you make your way to the deep end. The learning curve is really good, and doesn’t expect a lot of you from the get go. However, this isn’t to say it isn’t hard from the start, because really, it is. Even the first level can be punishing if you are expecting it to be a walk over, but that is why the developers released an update for the game which adds two more difficulties; casual and hardcore. You are rewarded for completing each level by having different icons on the overview map screen, where green represents complete and a rainbow signifies a level being completed perfectly. Rainbows are more than just representations of acing a level, they are also required to unlock pathways in the overview map to play ‘special’ stages that gives you some neat addition help when tackling the rest of the main game.
The developers also choose to avoid the ‘Savage moon’ looks and went for a much more aesthetically pleasing fixed-perspective, high detailed art look. The game does look fantastic; there are a few different tree types, the colours all stand out well and cleanly define each object, and each piece of the environment looks amazing. It is also the little details that add a lot to the game, like butterflies that fly around the levels, and the way the babies jump around instead of remaining static. The music is also very appropriate, with soft and gentle music that fits the game well, and never gets distracting or infuriating. At the same time, even though it fits well it would have been nice if they had longer songs with some more variations.
There are a few additional features to the game that make a welcome appearance. There is a two-player mode, but I haven’t experienced this mode myself, but it is similar to the single player except you and a friend can tackle each level together. There is also a trophy challenge mode that tasks you with completing certain challenges, about 10 in total, such as completing a level by building every tower and completing a level without crossing the bridge. That’s right; Pixel Junk Monsters was also given trophies in the update.
So what makes this different from any other free desktop tower defense game?
Well apart from the graphics being far better than any flash based game, the game also offers amazing replayability and game play that is much more effective with the use of an onscreen character. It is almost somewhat refreshing to be able to play with a controller instead of using the mouse and keyboard. You would be forgiven for passing up Pixel Junk Monsters as the same as any other tower defense game, and in some aspects it is, but if you look beneath the surface you will find a fun, rewarding, addictive and punishing game. After playing through Monsters, I am looking forward to picking up the Encore expansion pack, which promises to address some of my criticisms.