PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD (PJM in short form) is the latest in a long line of tower defence games that started out on Sony’s PlayStation 3, but have now spread their wings to other platforms. Don’t let the ‘tower defence’ part put you off, though; as bloated as the genre is, this is one of the better franchises within it - on consoles, at least. The PC is a different matter...
The core gameplay - like every other tower defence game - is building towers to repeal oncoming threats. In PJM you have a variety that includes things like tesla, cannon, and crossbow towers. Each is upgradeable by either spending gems that occasionally drop from vanquished enemies – the amount varies depending on the level - or standing your playable character on top of the tower and dancing for a few minutes. The clock is ticking, though, so in most cases you will probably spend the gems and move on.
Every so often, a new wave of enemies - called "creeps" in TD parlance - will come along, each tougher to vanquish than the last. In order to kill the creeps before they get to your base, destroying one of your 20 available lives (called "flock" here), there are many things you need to think about - including positioning. Where you place the towers helps determine their effectiveness, so you should consider their range. Arrow towers for instance have longer range than cannons, so they can be placed further away and, with careful placement, can provide cover to a large part of the "track" the creeps will follow.
Another thing to consider is tower effectiveness against different types of creeps; for example arrows can take out the weaker creeps, while cannons have slower firing rates, but do more damage (and in a wide area, rather than to a single-target like the arrows.) However, cannons are useless against flying enemies, where anti-air guns work best (but don't hit ground-based targets at all.) Decisions, decisions...
The game starts off with a basic tutorial, offering just enough to get you started - teaching you how to build towers, control your avatar, and so forth. There are three difficulty modes, although just two are available initially - casual and regular; ‘hard-core’ must be unlocked. You can change difficulties each time you resume the game, regardless of which you pick initially.
There are three islands to play through - Tiki Island is the one you begin on. As you play, you’ll collect rainbows for any levels you manage to complete without losing any of your flock. It takes five rainbows to unlock the next island (Gati Gati), and then ten to unlock Toki Island. Additionally, you can create up to five randomly generated levels on Tum Tum Island.
Completing a level unlocks the next part of the overworld map, and each island has multiple routes - including shortcuts. Taking a shortcut may seem like a good idea at first, but it’s also a jump in difficulty making the long way around seem more logical. Moreover, you have more opportunities to collect rainbows if you don't skip ahead. That said, even easy levels can have some nasty stipulations - such as "monsters don’t drop coins," meaning you will need to use what you’re given to start with sparingly. In two-player mode, limited currency is split between players...
Speaking of the multiplayer, you can have two players either local, or online. Online communication is taken care of via in-game VoIP, so you can yell at your partner if they do something foolish. In local multiplayer you can just reach over and hit them - or not (we don’t condone physical violence.) In addition, you can communicate via symbols: gems, skulls, and so on.
As far as controls go you have two choices: controller or keyboard and mouse. Seeing as PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD was ported from the PlayStation Vita, as blasphemous as it sounds an Xbox 360 controller works best.
One of PJM's more problematic aspects is that you directly control an avatar - as opposed to just clicking things with your mouse. Some levels can be so chaotic you don’t have time to collect all of the coins before they disappear, a frustrating aspect and something that a lot of PC tower defence games just don’t trouble you with.
Visually, PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD sticks to what the series does best: toon-shaded, clean, and simplistic. The only problem is the camera – you can’t rotate it, meaning the environment occasionally obscures coins or gems dropped by fallen enemies. This can be a huge problem, since so much of the gameplay relies on enemies dropping items.
Ultimately, PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD isn’t for tower defence rookies. While fans of the franchise will be used to its quirks, its unforgiving difficulty will likely put casual players off. I came into this expecting ‘just another tower defence game’ and despite its flaws - some inherent with being a console port - PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD was still a pleasant surprise.