PixelJunk Monsters

The PixelJunk range is a testbed for new, experimental ideas with smaller than usual development teams and budgets that has already garnered a sizeable fanbase from the first title, PixelJunk Racers, an esoteric top-down Scalectrix clone that was more puzzler than racer. The man behind Q-Games, Dylan Cuthbert, is a man committed to trying out new concepts for PS3 owners that would never see the light of day on the retail shelves.

PixelJunk Monsters, then, is the second in the series, the third as yet unannounced despite our probing, and is closely based on the popular Tower Defense genre, the most popular being the free Flash-based Desktop Tower Defense. The games are defined by several key rules, thus:

1. There is at least one base which belongs to the player, and needs to be guarded.
2. Monsters come from at least one direction (off screen) and make their way to the base.
3. Various types of stationery weapons can be placed alongside the monsters’ path, and upgraded.
4. Weapons cost money, which can be gained by destroying monsters, or selling off other unwanted weapons.
5. There are various types of monsters, that come in waves – some are more susceptible to certain weapons than others.

There are key differences with the PixelJunk version. Firstly is that you can no longer place the weapons wherever you wish – there are numerous trees placed strategically on each level, which can be converted into weapons, and these are the only places you can construct them. This then means that you are no longer free to create your own paths for the monsters to follow (your weapons are invulnerable to monsters) so each level becomes more of a challenge to learn the correct route and place the weapons accordingly.

The second is that you no longer have just a mouse pointer to flash around the level – your character needs to move to the required tree and physically collect cash and gems left by destroyed monsters, and is thus vulnerable himself to the oncoming hoards of enemies. You have no lives as such, but you’ll drop money when hit and be stunning for a moment. This again brings another level of strategy to the game and although slow at first your avatar can become quicker if you do well in certain levels.

Passing a level means surviving each wave of monster (which start at 10 waves) and usually ending with a tougher boss monster, which then grants you access to further levels on the world map. If you manage to not let a single monster through and all your congregation survive, you’ll get a rainbow on the map and it’s these rainbows that unlock the cool treats (and indeed, later level barriers). The first two levels act much like a tutorial, but from there on in the difficult ramps up significantly and rainbows become ever harder to obtain.

Thankfully then there’s a two-player co-op mode, which although requires both players to be on the same machine (no online play, yet) is a welcome addition and although money is divided up into who collects the coins, gems are shared between the two players. Gems are the key to unlocking new weaponry – a trip back to the base shows the gems required to open up each new item so it’s a tactical choice between saving up the precious gems or spending them on quickly upgrading a tower’s range, reload speed or damage. Your character can dance in front of a tower to assist the upgrade process but gems are much quicker.

So, in essence, that’s PixelJunk Monsters. It’s worth mentioning that the graphics, although 1080p and 60fps, are all flat 2D sprites so don’t go expecting next-gen three dimensional trickery. The visual style is packed with character though and there’s some nice touches (like boss stomps making the trees tilt) that bring the screen alive. The music is wonderful – repetitive yet ambient and fits the game just as well as something like Katamari’s did. Online leaderboards round off the game with almost endless replayability.

For £3.50 this is an absolute steal. Q-Games have hopefully broken more into the mainstream with Monsters, leaving behind the almost cultish appeal of Racers for more acclaim and hopefully better sales. As Dylan told us yesterday, don’t Gameshare this one, it’s the price of a pint and a packet of crisps and is far, far better for you. Save the World, buy Monsters.