Pixel Junk Monsters Review
Platform: PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
The woods are under attack! Tiny villages of peaceful (and helpless) forest-folk are threatened by wave upon wave of horrible monsters that scuttle, flutter and trudge through forest paths to devour the innocent inhabitants of this island's shady glades. Only a brave defender of the forest, wearing a totem mask and grass skirt, can save the villages from certain fate at the hands of many monsters' digestive fluids.
Pixel Junk Monsters is a gorgeous and polished take on one of the most basic styles of strategy games: tower defense. Monsters approach various villages in waves, and only by building towers that slay the incoming monsters can you save those villagers. The underlying strategy game is great, but Pixel Junk Monsters' appeal comes just as much from the splendid, high-definition graphics and perfectly minimalist sound that make playing it a fulfilling experience.
The actual play is simple. Multiple waves of enemies, ranging from easily destroyed hordes of tiny blobs to faster spiders, flying behemoths and near-invulnerable stomping statues, advance through fixed paths through the forest. Any tree is a scaffold upon which towers can be built to slay those monsters before they reach the village you are tasked with defending. Some towers, like cannons to kill groups of walking creatures, are available from the first, assuming you have the funds to build them. Others, like a deadly hive, flamethrowers and laser turrets, can only be built once unlocked (researched) by acquiring enough jewels.
Defending the village is not as simple as it sounds. Some turrets only target ground invaders, while others only target airborne enemies. There are typically lots of trees on which to build, but not always in ideal strategic positions. Budgets are limited, and sometimes a dearth of jewels can cut off access to more powerful turrets. Even when jewels are plentiful, I often have to make difficult decisions concerning which turret to unlock.
Unlike some tower defense games, Pixel Junk Monsters involves a lot more than setting up a few towers and waiting to see if your villagers survive. Your avatar not only scrambles around the forest building towers, he needs to collect the jewels and gold that spew from the corpses of fallen monsters. Towers can also be improved, gaining experience from killing monsters to become more powerful or attack farther. Those same towers can also be upgraded, not through killing, but by spending jewels... or shamanistic dancing. (If your avatar boogies down in front of a tower, it slowly gains experience.) So there's always something to do, be it collecting resources, building towers, researching new towers or frolicking in front of a forest fortification.
The game's design is elegant, keeping basic play and strategy simple while making sure that there's always something important to do. But it's really the visuals and the sound that keep things constantly engaging. The visuals are stylized and simple, but crisp, in high-definition and add to the ease in and engagement with play. The creatures are abstract and yet scary and cute, simultaneously. The sound, too, is minimalist but engaging. I'd been playing for hours before I realized that I did not need to turn it off – I was even enjoying it. When I started paying attention, it was clear that the soundtrack (and the game's sound effects) use minimalist notes to convey a charming musical environment. When all the towers are firing (and flaming and freezing), things get a little louder, as they do when big boss monsters start stomping across the forest, but the sound design is entrancing.
The individual levels (just over 20 of them) each offer more replay value than you might expect, but I do wish there had been a lot more of them. The issue is that the difficulty ramps up quickly. The initial levels can be completed quickly and without much difficulty, but by the time I'd reached the medium difficulty, every level had at least one surprise that required a restart. For example, one level has two crossings over a river, but one of the bridges is out. The early waves of monsters lulled me into missing an obvious hole in my defenses. That's fine, and even fun, but it takes a lot of skill or patience to reach the hard levels – enough to discourage the casual player.
For example, reaching the hardest levels requires completing several earlier levels... perfectly. That's harder than it might seem, and means the average player will spend a lot of time replaying early levels past the point of fun. Instead, a few more levels and a slower creep in the difficulty level would allow for more variety and a more frequent sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, special levels unlock special abilities (like a faster run) that make harder levels easier.
Personally, I enjoyed Pixel Junk Monsters as a solitary puzzler, but the game supports a two-player co-operative mode. Played that way, the game is even more about communication than the single-player game is about pure strategic play. But either way, this straightforward puzzle game has a depth and charm that ranges well beyond its initial impression. Since the game costs under $8, given Frictionless Insight's review criteria, how can I not encourage you to try Pixel Junk Monsters? It's tremendous fun for not much money.