PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate (PC) Review

Developer: Q-Games/Double Eleven | Publisher: Q-Games || Overall: 9.5/10

Q-Games’ PixelJunk series has become one of my favorites over the past few years. Starting with one of my all-time favorite games, PixelJunk Monsters, any time a new PixelJunk game gets announced it has gotten my attention. A couple of years ago I had purchased PixelJunk Shooter on Steam and fell in love with the blending of puzzles with twin-stick shooter gameplay. While I was never a big fan of twin-stick shooters by themselves, PixelJunk Shooter elevates the genre to a new height by integrating fast-paced, unique, and well-designed puzzles. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate, released in October, carries over all of PixelJunk Shooter 1 and includes PixelJunk Shooter 2, which continues the game in new and challenging ways.

The general goal of PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is to complete stages by collecting diamonds and scientists. Each “episode” is segmented into five different stages, and each stage is divided into a certain amount of “scenes.” Each full stage probably can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on your ability to figure out puzzles. In most scenes, a lot of trial and error may occur, and you’ll have to memorize the order in which you do actions to succeed. This feeds into the idea that you want to be able to perfect your run through the scene to collect all of the diamonds, all of the scientists alive, getting out of the scene without dying yourself and in the quickest way possible. There is one boss per episode with six episodes total. Shooter 1 is the first three episodes, while Shooter 2 is the second three. Shooter 2 continues right where the first left off in terms of the story.

Most of the gameplay revolves around the liquid elemental aspects of puzzles. You’ll see lots of different types of liquid as you venture deep through the planet, all of which do various things to you and with each other when they interact. While you don’t have a health bar, per se, you have a “Heat Gauge.” The Heat Gauge hitting its max will spell your end, but you’ll be able to skate by as long as it doesn’t hit 100%, and even then if you somehow land in water you might recover. Your Heat Gauge will increase when you use special-fire missiles, get hit by enemy fire, or get close to Lava. You’ll be able to cool down by submersing yourself in Water, and while in water you are able to infinitely spam your missiles. Water and Lava, are the primary elements you’ll encounter in the game, and when they interact, it creates rock that you can blast through with your lasers. You won’t be able to swim through Lava usually, so that is one of the many kinds of simple puzzles you’ll see in the game. Where it gets complicated is when you should do these things and how they affect other parts of your current puzzle, and this kind of decision making is integral to the experience of the game. You’ll also be able to use “Suits” in certain scenes where they are available, which will change the rules in how you interact with these elements in unique ways. This keeps the gameplay fresh and varied. Each Episode ends with an exciting boss battle that primarily focuses on combat rather than puzzles, but you’ll still have to remember what you’ve learned, as they do usually use the elements you have become familiar with.

At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to carry over my progress from the previous game. I had practically completed the whole game at this point, but hadn’t gotten to the end. Fortunately, you can load a save from PixelJunk Shooter 1 if you have it already on Steam. This allows you to continue right from where you may have left off. Those of us who had played the first game will notice immediately that there have been various UI improvements and a simpler way of knowing you’ve collected one of the objectives in each of the scenes. This helps when you inevitably have to go back and replay stages you didn’t do too well on. Also, diamonds you’ve already collected do not appear anymore, as opposed to the previously where you had to collect a total number larger than you had before so that it would count as more diamonds. This makes it easier to collect diamonds and doesn’t require you to memorize where all of them are across the whole stage.

A new art style known as the “Ultimate” art style is the default in this version of the game. The art has been upgraded to give it a more 3D look and benefit from effects such as lighting. The “Classic” art style is still available, which has a more hand-drawn, flat 2D look. While I personally prefer the Classic art style, the Ultimate art style still keeps the general charm of the art and looks pretty neat. I found myself actually playing in the Ultimate art style after a little while to benefit from the extra effects they added in. As a result of this newer art style it does seem to have upped the minimum requirements of your PC a bit. Music has an upbeat/jazzy/electronic feel and fits in very well. Music is always one of the strong points of PixelJunk, and this game is no exception. Music will also fade out as you get closer to a boss, to give it a feeling as if something big looms near (and it usually does).

Overall, it seems like there is about 20 hours’ worth of gameplay on your first play-through. To get perfect scores on each level, it will probably take you a lot longer since you’ll most likely miss a lot on the first time through. You’ll probably be forced to replay previous levels if you don’t have enough diamonds to unlock the next stage, so it won’t really be something you’ll avoid completely, anyway. There is also a sense of accomplishment in completing a whole stage perfectly. There is also enough variety that going back and replaying a stage won’t feel cumbersome.

As far as alternate game modes go, there is a local co-op mode and an online multiplayer mode. The online multiplayer is based more on competitively completing objectives and unlocking gear as you progress. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be very popular, so it is hard to find anyone to play with in the League mode. However, you can play online with a friend who owns the game, so this mode isn’t completely a loss. I don’t put much stake in requiring a multiplayer mode for my games so it is easy for me to ignore it. It was disappointing to not be able to try it out at least a couple of times, though.

Shooter’s formula is simple yet the design is complex and multilayered. You’ll be forced to master the basic formula, and then be challenged when the rules change and the formula gets thrown out the window. Some levels are fast paced, while others focus more on puzzles, and yet others focus on defeating enemies. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is one of my most favorite games in the past few years, and is highly recommended.  It is available now on Steam.

 

PixelJunk: Nom Nom Galaxy (PC) Review

Developer: Q-Games/Double Eleven | Publisher: Q-Games || Overall: 9.0/10

Walk the aisles of your normal, ideal, grocery store.  Rows full of food line the aisles begging for your grubby little hands to take them and put them in your shopping cart.  But does any food really speak to your soul as well as soup?  Canned soup is one of the most important pieces of human culture, after all.

…Yet have you ever really thought about where your soup comes from?

Do you perhaps think that the planet of Alteria in the galaxy of Soupcon Valley would produce your favorite can of Green Sun Chowder made from Sunblossom and Greenstalk?  Or do you think the civil war and strife of the robots on Nozesi fuel the good time tastes of the delightful Split Sea Soup and/or Filet of Fission?

PixelJunk: Nom Nom Galaxy makes you ask these questions and more.  Well, actually none of that matters because the name of the game is business and market share.  The real test comes in beating your enemy’s robot workers into eternal jobless poverty by creating an efficient soup factory that satisfies the needs of the universe.

Getting down to the essential basics of the game, the robots need soup and you are making the soup, delivering it to the hungry patrons via rockets.  Finding material that is usable for cooking across sprawling sandboxes, you are equipped with your buzzsaw which cuts through and helps you gather many of the things you’ll need.  You’ll also be punching a lot of things.  On the factory production side, you’ll have to maintain, defend, and build out a soup factory that is as efficient as possible.  Robot workers can be hired to assist you in this pursuit, and their operation is a small callback to the logic of Lemmings.  What this ends up being is an interesting mix of game genres in a sci-fi setting with some sparse story to set up the scenarios each planet presents.

What I mostly enjoyed about Nom Nom Galaxy is that it is a sandbox game with a clear objective at hand.  As far as the sandbox genre goes, Starbound is the only other game I’ve played with any large amount of time, which is built mostly on a free-form playstyle that centers on improving your crafting and character’s gear.  Nom Nom Galaxy distinguishes itself from this by giving you developer-designed planets full of ingredients to exploit to the best of your ability, earning upgrades after beating a planet.  The factory’s efficiency becomes a main focus of the gameplay as a result — which can be detrimental to the exploration aspect the game provides, as it essentially becomes the opposite of business efficiency.

As you make your way through the planets, each will provide an upgrade or new thing to buy to change up the gameplay a bit.  Eventually you hit a point, about midway through the game, where scenarios start to take place and you’re no longer able to use defense towers, robot workers, or other things you’ve grown accustom to using.   As the existing system can be a bit complex to learn and understand the controls/logic of the game, the pace is set about right.  Enhancements such as, and being able to use, a double jump or a rocket boost changes the way you play entirely.

Ingredients are varied and many have specialties about them.  There’s about 20 unique ingredients which can be combined with each other, resulting in 400 recipes.  Some ingredients are special and take a long time to find/grow, some you have to kill mobs for, and others are common and plantable.  It’s always fun to find something new in the game and seeing what will result when you combine two different ingredients can be satisfying.

When you combine ingredients, a Soup Can pops out of the Soup Machine.  You take the Soup Can into the Soup Rocket, and the rocket delivers the payload which affects your market share by a base of 5%.  Depending on the market trends that pop up every now and then, the game influences you to try and find different ingredients, or stop using one that might be a commonly used on in all of your Soup Machines, forcing you to change your focus.

A good 20 hours or so of gameplay got me within range of the last three stages of the “Conquest” mode.  Unfortunately Nom Nom Galaxy didn’t live up to the same perfection in its difficulty as PixelJunks Monsters did, and I had a relatively easy time getting through it as I mastered the game’s logic.  Half of the levels in the Conquest Mode are used to introduce you to the gameplay itself, and the latter half tests you to master it to only some unique challenge.  Each planet introduced something new, but the core gameplay being so complex brings down the experience a bit, I fear.  We spend too much time “learning how to play” that when we finally get around to unlocking everything substantial and playing “for realisies” you only have a couple of planets left and the last level of the game, which will require you to use everything at your disposal.

Each planet has the option for endless play, only after you attain 100% market share.  You are also able to continue building your factory as it was or start from scratch in this “S.O.O.P Simulator” mode.  While the planets will always be the same, they offer enough variety and quantity to not have to worry too much about that.  Though since there is no meta game, you are working on each planet on an individual basis.  There is also a mode called Galactic Challenges which take a unique approach to the games formula and pretty much anything seems to go here.  You could be racing from point A to point B or trying to sell as much soup in 10 minutes as you can.  Challenges expire after about 36 hours, and you compete against all other players here, either at the same time, or asynchronously via global rankings.  You can also “Quick Join” and matchmake with another player, however the capability did not seem to be enabled in the review build before release.  I assume there could be some sort of generation for planets in this mode but I can’t be sure.

A lot of the aspects of the baked-in challenge actually disincentivizes you from exploring.  You’ll be dealing with maintaining the workflow of the factory, depending on its need to rely on you to acquire/scout for ingredients.  You are also equipped with an Oxygen tank which limits the distance you can go without finding a source of oxygen or heading back to base.  You’ll also be called back to base when your rival sends monsters to disrupt and destroy your base.  You can automate the defenses a bit by loading it with laser guns and missiles, but you’ll still need to make sure you are there to pick up any of the stragglers and repair buildings.  If at any point your Office is destroyed, you automatically lose the game.

At the end of each day, the game pauses for “Break Time” and saves your current progress.  During Break Time you’ll be shown informative stats, graphs, and how much money you earned.  An added layer of planning is involved as any ingredients that are not currently inside Soup Machines or planted will disappear.  When planting items, it will expand your potential to increase your output substantially, but only if you plan correctly.  Personally I felt like it made the game a lot easier to have the capability to grow your own ingredients since you could plant a lot of the same common ingredients over and over in each level and usually the AI competitor would not match very well in a challenge as long as you had a good production going.  Progression to new zones is limited by recipes you discover, so there is an incentive to experiment, but not much since it was easy to meet those expectations and I never really had to replay anything unless I fucked up severely or neglected my base on purpose.

Sound and visuals is also another high point.  There is a lot of insanity going on initially.  It will take a while for you to understand what is going on, but the art is fantastic and intricate.  The robots are uniquely designed and I loved discovering something new, or going to the next planet to see the theme.  Sound is also well done for the most part, but there was a surprising lack of music.  PixelJunk Monsters and PixelJunk Eden had great soundtracks, but Nom Nom Galaxy seems to take its cues from PixelJunk Shooter with a minimalist approach to music and sound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different.  Monsters is probably one of my favorite soundtracks ever, so it was a bit disappointing to not have another great soundtrack to listen to.

As a big fan of the PixelJunk series I was completely satisfied with this entry.  While it breaks the mold of “simplicity” all of the other games established within their own genres, Nom Nom Galaxy files down several different genres into core tenants that work together in an interesting fashion.  The game is very ambitious and I enjoyed the humor quite a bit.  Replayability might be Nom Nom Galaxy’s biggest fault, but there is certainly plenty to do and you can keep doing it for pretty much as long as you like.  There just becomes a point where you kind of “get it” and in this case I don’t see myself coming back to visit it very often like I do with PixelJunk Monsters.  It is, however, a lot easier to play the game for very long sessions.