PixelJunk Shooter isn’t a shooter, it’s an underground exploration rescue adventure with delicate controls, fantastic visuals and an uncompromising attempt to recreate a small but perfectly balanced set of rules around various elemental mechanics: fire, water, earth and air. Despite the game featuring a fire button (and increasingly numerous ‘weapons’) pigeon holing the decidedly genre-free fourth title in the PixelJunk series is, in my opinion, something of a mistake. Ever since Dylan Cuthbert announced the name it’s smacked of marketing: the path of least resistance and the easy option amongst what must have been dozens of other, more appropriate options.
Still, if you’re prepared to put aside preconceptions of what a digitally downloaded shooter plays like, especially one with twin-stick controls, PixelJunk 1:4 will surprise and delight in equal measure. For starters, there’s a story of sorts, you (and one other player, should you so choose) are tasked in piloting little rescue ships deep under the surface of a mystery planet – one filled with dangerous, nasty creatures and various natural hazards but also packed to the gills with barely hidden crystals for the taking. More importantly, though, there’s also trapped scientists and engineers down there that need your help, rescued by the handy left-trigger extensible cable.
With the left analog tied to your ship’s 360 degree movement, the right stick turns you in any direction. Handy for that man-grabber, then, but also doubles up as your ship’s gun turret, which comes in handy when blasting away at the indigenous life intent on eating you whole and spitting you out into the lava. Handily, your gun can also be used to chip away at soft rock, exposing alternative paths, hidden pick-ups and the odd little waving man who’s somehow managed to wedge himself half way into a tight crevice. Finally, when the need arises, ensuring your right stick and left sticks are aligned provides maximum thrust, useful for time-critical sequences (and scoreboards).
Shooter consists of three areas, each of which play host to five increasingly difficult stages. Within each stage are a number of sequential sections, and each of those house a small smattering of rescuees. Collect them all (or kill a few) and the door to the next section opens up, but don’t dispose of more than five of the hopeful passengers, or it’s game over. This provides the basic ruleset for the game – navigate through each section, complete each stage and thus move onto the next area, the visual style (and various elements within) changing as you go. The video below, shot by Peter last week, shows the first stage of the first area, so you’ll hopefully have some understanding of how the game works.
The clever bit, as you’ll have noticed in the video, is that all of the elemental features of Shooter possess their own physics. The first few you’ll come across – water and lava – behave differently and react to their surroundings differently. Naturally, lava is dangerous (and can cause your ship to overheat if you’re too close) but water, when combined with the vicious glowing red liquid, causes the mixture to harden and thus become shootable rock. It’s the first dynamic interface between an ever growing number of things that help to form Shooter’s clever USP, you’ll come across gas and ice soon enough, but there’s also a tar-like black substance to mix things up a little later on.
The way the game’s physics engine copes with all these is often staggering, with not only intra-elemental mixtures going on sixty times a second but also any collisions with the rocky surroundings, your ship (which is fine underwater) and even your bullets all happen in real time, and as an example of how smart the game gets in its middle section, remember that gases rise upwards and are flammable and you’ll have some idea on the style of puzzles that’ll meet you during your playthrough. For the completists, the map screen (which acts as a level select) shows you your best time and score for each level along with whether you’ve managed to find all the scientists and crystals hidden away in each.
It’s all very good as a physics based puzzler, but there is some element of shooting there too – your default guns are good for most of the enemies you’ll meet in your mission, but holding down the right trigger causes missiles to fire from your ship instead, much more powerful but gradually cause your craft to overheat. A quick dip in water will fix this, or you can wait it out – it’s a smart way to get around the issue of unlimited firepower but if you can find yourself a waterfall to sit under whilst firing consider yourself cooled for the duration. Temporary ship upgrades come in the form of dockable stations which transform the characteristics of your craft a little, especially the weaponry.
Visually it’s another 2-dimensional treat from Q-Games. It’s all very sharp, very colourful and almost cartoon-like in art style packed with oodles of character and small touches – there’s aspects of Monsters dotted around, which is a good thing, and the music, provided by The Orb’s Alex Paterson, ebs and flows with the onscreen action and is easily the most accomplished soundtrack to a PixelJunk title yet. Shooter is a distinctly smart game, it’s not the longest though, and the relevation that Shooter is just ‘part one’ was a surprise on first boot. Still, there’s stacks of fun here, some wicked boss battles and a great co-op mode. Not as good as Monsters, but still rather tasty.
- Looks sumptuous, with 60fps visuals and some wildly impressive fluid physics.
- Controls perfectly, as if the team have spent 12 months on the ship’s handling alone.
- There’s more to come – this is just part one.
- The difficulty curve is wonderfully smooth.
- It’s not very big, and you’ll get through it rather quickly.
- There’s more to come – waiting for part two might be quite tough.
Verdict: Being a massive fan of the PixelJunk series I couldn’t help but wish there was a little more to Shooter. Sure, what there is is great fun, but the experience is over rather quickly and replaying the game is for purists only. Whilst the game mechanics are solid and the visuals rather beautiful, two things taint the overall feeling of Shooter: the first is that it’s episodic, so you can’t help but feel like you’re not getting the full game, and the second is that damned name. Shooter, in a rather bipolar state of eponmy, isn’t a shooter at all, but a gentle, considered homage to Exile, Thrust and voyages into the unknown. With that in mind, hopefully you now know whether it’s for you or not.