PixelJunk Shooter, number four in the PixelJunk series of downloadable games, may be a shooter by name but is at heart a fantastically playable puzzle game with plenty of style and inventiveness.
The game tells the story of a distant future where corporations have to mine far off worlds to satisfy humanity’s needs. But when the inevitable disaster strikes, in this case in the form of an army of killer machines, it’s up to you to rescue the survivors.
You control your ship with the two analog sticks, the left stick adjusting the thrust and the right controlling direction. There is no concern here with fighting momentum, no need to curse that damned kinetic energy and no danger of repeatedly losing lives against deadly cave walls. This is not only because hitting the walls does no damage to your ship, but also because directing your ship around each system of caverns feels very intuitive. The easily mastered control system is welcome because it leaves you free to concentrate on figuring out the puzzles and making it through to the next world.
There are three worlds to explore in PixelJunk Shooter. Each one consists of an interactive two-dimensional system of tunnels and caverns. The first you encounter is a volcanic environment so the level is packed with pools and rivers of lava, but also has plenty of reservoirs filled with water. Scattered around the levels are the surviving workers, some waving flags, all hoping to be rescued.
You use your R1 button to shoot away destructible rock walls that hold back water or liquid magma. Doing this you can release a torrent of deadly liquid rock or cooling water. Both lava and water are beautifully designed and rivers of both liquids flow and fill spaces just like the real thing. In PixelJunk Shooter, the fluid dynamics really are the star of the show.
You can fly through water and shoot through it, and your little intergalactic castaways can easily survive in it, so rescuing them from water by activating your grappling hook with your L1 button, couldn’t be simpler. However, if water is simple, then it’s the interaction between water and lava where the game starts to get interesting.
If the survivor is unfortunate enough to be trapped in a cavern beneath a pool of lava, or next to an erupting volcano, then planning becomes much more important. The simplest solution is to release a cascade of water onto the lava. If you do this the lava cools, changing to destructible rock. You can then shoot through the rock and rescue the trapped worker. However don’t drown or shoot the survivor, if you five survivors die on the one level it’s game over. In this same way you can make your way down lava filled caverns or cap exploding volcanos.
Later stages of the game bring in different elements. In the ice caverns your guns have no effect on the ice floes that block the tunnels. Here you have to use the lava to break through the walls. More dramatically, gas filled corridors can be ignited with lava clearing large areas with massive explosions. In essence it begins to feel like a complicated version of rock-scissors-paper, with ice beating your ship and lava beating ice and water beating lava.
Mixed in with all this puzzling is of course the shooter part of the game. Each level is infested with bats, turrets and tanks, and the end of each world has an old style boss complete with weak points and repeated attack patterns. There are also plenty of power-ups that can add shielding or enhanced weapons to your little rescue craft. So, even if the game never really feels like a full-on, auto-fire dependant shooter, there are plenty of close calls and explosions, and no lack of things to shoot
The close calls add another element to the gameplay. Even though your ship is well equipped for its rescue mission, overheating is always a problem. When this happens, either through overuse of certain weapons, getting hit with lava cannons, or simply flying to close to a volcano, ducking into water will quickly reduce you temperature. Or if you are playing the offline only two player co-op mode, your partner can use their grappling hook to carry you into a nearby pool.
PixelJunk Shooter is a game full of strange contradictions. It has a very simple concept, but is a satisfying and engaging puzzler. It has flat two dimensional environments, but looks great and sits comfortably with those full price graphical monsters that sell in their thousands. And although you can look at it as a pretty demo for fluid dynamics, it’s very playable and more importantly, it’s fun to play.
In the end this latest little offering from developer Q-Games (little in terms of file size - good, and story length - not so good) probably should have been called PixelJunk Puzzler. But, it has a great control system, enough enemies to shoot, and the concept of mixing the lava and water, ice and gas is inventive and fresh. All these elements, makes PixelJunk Shooter very engaging, wonderfully playable and well worth downloading.