If there’s anything you can say about Q Games’ PixelJunk series of games, it’s that they exemplify gameplay mechanics in their purest form. The latest entry, PixelJunk Shooter is no exception.
It also happens to be a great example of how to introduce new mechanics to the player organically, teaching by doing, rather than stringing the player along with a tutorial. Though your abilities always remain the same (shooting and picking up objects/survivors), the type of objects begin to vary and you’ll learn different ways to use the elements in tandem and carve your way through the cavernous levels.
The premise is simple: you need to rescue survivors of a research colony stranded in the subterranean caverns of the planet your ship is orbiting. It’s sort of a laid-back twin stick shooter mashed up with the NES game Solar Jetman and Choplifter. Your gun and your grappling hook are your primary methods of interacting with the world, the former for shooting away breakable materials and the latter for picking up treasures, survivors or several special items littered throughout the levels.
Physics and the interaction between hot and cold elements in each level play an integral part in the game. When magma touches water, it cools to a solid, breakable rock. The levels are often laid out in a manner where you will have to mix the various fluids to form safe passageways that will keep the magma from immolating your poor survivors. Later on, you’ll come across ice and gas, both of which act as you would expect them to. Magma and water “suits” for your ship allow you to take the elements into your own hands, should the resources in a level prove to be insufficient.
Exposure to heat eventually wears through your ship’s hull and will send you to a fiery death, so managing how much heat you take in is important. You can either stay away from the hot stuff, or dunk your ship in a nearby lake to cool off. The choice is yours! Overheating causes you to lose control of your ship, and as soon as you collide with something solid you will explode. With some luck, you might fall into a water source and escape, but this is not something to count on. A variety of enemies will also try their best to ruin their day, introducing both bullets and magma into the mix, so taking them out is probably a good idea. The shooting elements aren't usually too stressful, though at the end of each episode, you'll face a large boss that tests your skills in maneuverability and firepower.
Arguably, the best part of any PixelJunk game is their unique use of music. Q Games collaborates with a different artist for each title, and this time they went with High Frequency Bandwidth, a British electronica outfit who provided a funky, almost trip-hop soundtrack infused with just the right amount of synthesizer noise and sci-fi samples. It perfectly evokes the mood the game tries to establish, and I would have to say it’s my favorite bit of game music of the year.
As with prior games in the PixelJunk series, Shooter comes with shared-screen co-op. The levels do not change significantly, though each level with a magma suit will also contain a water suit for the second player. This does affect gameplay slightly. In the single-player game, an overzealous player might overdo the magma a bit and accidentally roast an unwitting survivor, while in co-op the second player can (with some quick reflexes) prevent disaster. The player manning the water suit can also splash some cool, refreshing H2O on their partner, saving them from an untimely heat death. Likewise, an overheated player may be snagged by their partner's grappling hook, though they will need to be taken to a source of water to get back in the action.
Navigation through the levels with two players is relatively simple, though tight corridors and areas that require liberal use of the dash technique can be a little rough. There is collision detection between the two ships and it’s possible to bump another player, which can throw them off course. Unfortunately, the two players are also leashed to one another, which can cause some annoying issues. While it never came up in an actual game session, it is indeed possible to trap a player in one of the many crevices strewn throughout each level.
It’s very easy to delegate duties between the two players. Since the game mechanics are so simple, it makes a great introduction for casual players to the twin-stick shooter. My wife took point on rescuing survivors and carving a path through the level while I protected her by shooting every enemy in sight. This worked to great effect and allowed us to blast through levels much faster than I could on my own. The lack of online co-op doesn’t really sting too much, though it would be nice to have for those times when a willing partner isn’t available.
The biggest problem is that the co-op really doesn't add anything to the experience. Sure, it's fun and a good pair of players will blast through the game easily, but there's no real reason to do it other than that you can. The aforementioned delegation of duties isn't because of any kind of necessity, it exists largely because you are left to invent a reason to bring the other player along. The shooting never gets out of hand to the point where you'd need the extra firepower, and stray bullets can mean the death of off-screen survivors, a threat made doubly so because of the extra player.