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.