ron, Jul-08 2008

Pixeljunk Monsters: an ode (to it)

I bought Pixeljunk Monsters off the PSN store last week, and since then it has soaked up much of my playing time, and dangerously encroached onto working time as well on a couple of occasions. There's a certain heritage of tower defense games that this one builds upon, but that doesn't make its own ideas any less worthwhile.

To recap the genre basics: waves of monsters approach your home base, and with no fighting ability of your own, your only way to stop them is to build defensive towers along the way that they take. There are different types of monsters, some move slowly and in dense packs, so area-effect attacks are effective, others are fast and more spaced out. There are also multiple analogous types of flying creatures, creatures that are all but immune to "standard" attacks and require certain attack "elements" (fire, electricity, lasers), and, at the end of all the waves, boss enemies.
Your task as a player is to build the correct defense towers to wipe out the current wave, and make the right preparations for the ones that follow. As allowed by your building resources, you pick and choose from towers with different attack ranges, attack areas and firing rates, and place them in hopefully the correct locations.

In Pixeljunk Monsters your control is not an abstract cursor-type thing, but a little dude that runs around on the screen while the waves of enemies roll in. In comparison to direct cursor controls, distance between individual towers and distance back to your base now plays a major role, because time spent traveling is time spent inefficiently. What Pixeljunk Monsters does very well is keep the player busy at all times. Enemies drop gold coins and gems, and you will have to collect these quickly, because they vanish shortly, but you're not allowed to touch enemies (you'll drop, unable to move for a few seconds and lose cash), so you'll have to balance your greed (or just plain need) versus the risk of dancing along with hordes of nasties, quickly skipping through the gaps in their lines.

Whenever you're not doing that, it's good form to already spend your resources for new towers, in anticipation for an upcoming wave. The towers slowly upgrade in strength as they damage enemies, so building a tower right away will allow it to grow earlier. Also, even when there's nothing for you to build, and nothing to collect, your idle time itself is a valuable resource, as whenever you stand at a tower that hasn't yet reached its highest possible level, your character will slowly add to its experience points.

At some point, whenever your stock of gems goes above certain thresholds, a quick run back to your base might also be in order, because it's only there that you can "research" new types of towers. Basically, you spend the gems and the tower is immediately unlocked for building. Gems can also be spent to instantly upgrade a tower to its next level, but care must be taken to not hold back your research. Many missions outright require specific towers, and if you don't research them in time, it's all over.
Incorrect tower placement can also cause problems. They can only be built on trees, so the amount of towers you can place in range of a choke point is always limited. On the other hand, a tower in a thin line of trees can cover two paths at once, which often affects your choice of optimal tower.

Despite its lush cartoon aesthetic, Pixeljunk Monsters is not just some casual distraction, it is in fact astonishingly hard. At the same time it's sufficiently deterministic within each mission, so that you can carry forth what you've learned from your failure, iterate and perfect your strategy. It's possible to pass a mission before having found the perfect way to do it, because up to 19 monsters are allowed to reach your home base before you're kicked back out to the world map. However, the game counts your perfect victories (shown as rainbows) and demands certain numbers of them if you want to progress past certain points.
The game keeps players on their toes constantly. Later missions have multiple paths for your enemies to take, so you have to build multiple lines of defense, optimize coverage, and manage your traveling time quickly but wisely. In some of the missions, for some waves, you almost have to start selling off old towers to make space for newly researched types. Or you'll find yourself so strapped for cash that you'll have to "move" towers while a wave is rolling – i.e. as the wave has traveled past your first line of defense, you sell it off, then race closer to your base and erect new towers that will hopefully start firing as the stragglers arrive. The missions in the "Encore" expansion pack turn into frantic, panicked, all-out mayhem. Such beauty.

It really is recommended. It's easy enough to pick up, but really deep and smart. There is never time to take a breather. You never just watch the rest of the wave play out. There's always room to improve stuff by moving into the correct spot, dancing in front of a tower to upgrade it, or to quickly collect just a few coins and build that spare laser tower right now.
The demo doesn't fully show just how engaging the game will get, but it will showcase the excellent look, sound and feel of the game, and is convenient enough to try. Be prepared though. Pixeljunk Monsters' death grip on your time will become much stronger with the full version.

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