A few months back, it was referred to as either "the next PixelJunk" or "PixelJunk 1-4." For some reason, Q-Games didn't feel up to naming their own game, and, instead, asked the community for their help. A trailer was released to help spark some creativity, showing a game that looked a lot like a two-stick shooter, but appeared to break away from the genre in a number of ways. It seemed like it had an adventure backbone, some sort of a story, and interesting physics-based gameplay - all elements that don't really fit in with the Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD crowd. A variety of names came back, like PixelJunk Atlantis, PixelJunk Depths, and PixelJunk S.O.S!, but in the end they went with PixelJunk Shooter, which seemed to be a bit on the nose. However, their record has, to this point, been flawless, and it was assumed they were ready to, yet again, make something great. Sometimes assumptions are correct.
Right from the start, the PixelJunk charm shines bright. It takes place at some point in the future on a far away planet, where a mining operation went quite poorly, leaving dozens of workers stranded in a monster-infested underground base without any hope of escape. The job of the player is to rescue these workers, all the while destroying monsters and collecting diamonds scattered throughout. After undocking from the ERS Pina Colada, which looks like a large, yellow cruise ship, the game begins, with every level diving deeper into the ground, and the player encountering more difficult, varied foes. The first few levels are simple, with the player competing with lava and water, which mix to create rock, and serve as both damaging and healing factors to the player's ship's heat meter.
This duality only remains simple for a brief period, and slowly but surely, the game shifts from being a fairly traditional shooter to more of a physics based puzzle game. Additional substances like ice, gas, and oil are added, each reacting like they should when mixed with others. As expected, the workers don't have the highest tolerance to the more dangerous elements, so it's important to save them (via grappling hook) before they're engulfed in flames. When some puzzles involve knocking rock out from underneath a massive volcano in near proximity to some survivors, this obviously is a bit more challenging. The challenge is stabilized by a number of different "suits" that change the player's weapons and abilities.
This element, which is the most important aspect of the game, is also the highlight of the entire experience. It seems strange, but the quirky, 2D shooter has the absolute best liquid effects ever to appear in gaming. Sure, it might look technically better in full, retail releases like BioShock, but the level of interactivity is incomparable. Water flows. It actually flows, reacting to the environment. If a small opening is blasted in a wall, the water will slowly move through it. If it splashes into hot lava, as it often will, it will solidify, turning to rock. It's fulfilling every single time, and Q-Games makes wonderful use of it throughout the experience.
Puzzles can be extremely complex, relying on both timing and planning to assure that the workers survive, and while it can be a bit challenging at certain times, there are only a few areas of the singleplayer that could really be considered "difficult." It's a fairly short game, and rewards the player with more than enough extra lives to get through without a problem. The reason for this is simple: you actually don't need to save everyone. If a few survivors are fired upon accidentally it's no big deal. If some are washed away in a flow of lava it's really not a problem. In fact, despite occasionally wiping out half of the workers in a single stupid move, the game never actually had me restart an area for it, and, instead, opened the passage to the next area once there was no one left to save, no matter what that meant. What was important, however, is finding diamonds, and the game actually won't allow you to proceed until you've found the correct amount. In a way, it's a commentary on the importance of life versus wealth, and that's about as deep as the symbolism in the game gets.
Instead of symbolism, the focus is on a clean, polished experience, and there's nothing wrong with that. The presentation is simply brilliant, and though it doesn't push the cell processor to its limits, the clean, cartoony visuals are wonderful to look at. Musically, it has a nice, electric sound to it, mixing with the game's sound effects well. Even when things get hectic, with several different elements mixing together on screen at once, there's nary a slowdown, which is impressive when everything starts happening at once. As is the case with the other PixelJunk games, there's remote play, a leaderboard to show rankings, and the ability to capture footage, which can be uploaded to YouTube from within the game. Sadly, that's where the online capabilities end, and the cooperative experience - which is extremely delightful - is a strictly offline affair. It adds another dimension to the already stellar experience, and the lack of online multiplayer is a confusing move, and one that developers need to realize is a detriment to their game. Luckily, it's one of the only problems, and issues with the core product are few and far between.
When it comes down to it, there's no denying that Shooter is over too soon. Far too soon. Even for completionists, there's likely less than five hours' worth of play in the singleplayer, with the only real replayability in the local co-op. If there was online multiplayer this wouldn't be an issue, but it is. Not a huge issue, not a deal breaking issue, not something worth complaining about too much, but an issue. Hopefully this will be alleviated soon, since it sets up well for a sequel, and we'll likely be seeing some sort of downloadable content (or "Encore" as Q-Games likes to call it) sooner rather than later. Even so, the short time spent underground is so thoroughly entertaining that it's impossible not to recommend downloading it, especially at the more than generous price of $9.99. The developer's record remains untarnished, and while their latest isn't by any means their most content heavy title, it's without a doubt their best.