Version tested: PlayStation 3
An update to a PixelJunk game is nothing new, but while all previous titles in the series received free downloadable tweaks Shooter is the first to get a proper sequel that costs actual money. Perhaps that's understandable; the first game's brevity was its only serious problem, while its gentle puzzling and exploration seemingly offered plenty of room for expansion. This follow-up sees former Nintendo alumnus Dylan Cuthbert and his team at Q-Games attempt to address both issues, with mixed results.
The storytelling remains refreshingly economical. At the game's outset your small yellow craft is swallowed by a giant underground worm straight out of horror-comedy classic Tremors. The beast is hardly the fussiest of eaters, chomping through huge chunks of the surrounding mines, and thus trapping those workers in haz-mat suits who again require rescue via your ship's grappling hook.
From the outset, it's clear that you're in more hazardous territory than in the first game, and not just because your ship is inside a monster's stomach. Enemies are more plentiful and seem to require more shots to dispatch, while the environment itself presents unique dangers. Brush against the undulating fleshy walls and you can temporarily stick, poisoned by a purple substance that dissolves your vessel if you don't submerge in water to wash it off in time. Stalling peristalsis with a well-aimed bomb may provide a route to a new area, but the terrible roar that accompanies it often precipitates a race against reflux; poison or lava will rapidly pour in, forcing a swift exit.
If the first game referenced Eighties classic Thrust, Shooter 2 feels more game-literate, with a wider range of influences. The increased enemy count and organic environs of the first third invite association with the Mutant Storm games, while the bullet-hell second boss in particular suggests someone at Q-Games has been playing a few Cave shooters recently. Meanwhile, a new 'hungry suit', which attaches metal jaws to the front of your craft, temporarily turns the game into Mr. Driller, restricting your movement as you munch vertically or horizontally through bone to reach trapped miners and drop square rocks onto enemy heads.
The latter is the first of a series of new power-ups which imbue your ship with fresh abilities, from one which illuminates the gloom of the darkened caves in the latter stages, to another which allows your ship to travel through lava; water and ice, rather than heat, suddenly becoming your new enemies. More productive use is made of the grapple hook, too; there's a pleasing resistance to the levers you pull, while tugging apart crusty obstructions in the monster's body has the same gruesome satisfaction as picking a scab. The claw can also anchor your ship to swing points, providing control through passageways of disorientating gas bubbles. Meanwhile, some enemies require you to negotiate a spray of projectiles so you can get close enough to incapacitate them with the grapple before your bullets finally take them down.
While the majority of the puzzles still involve one type of fluid colliding with another, the suits make them a little more malleable. Magnetised oil can be guided to fill containers to activate mechanisms or push survivors through narrow tubes, while spraying water onto flat ice provides a handy grip point to pull aside the obstruction.
Even so, there's a strong feeling of familiarity at least until you reach the pitch-black caves of the later stages, where light plays a key role. Spraying lava over giant alien plants gives them the power to illuminate the inky gloom, which hides limpet-like creatures that swarm your ship should you remain in the black too long. They can be shaken off by dragging them into the light and rapidly spinning, and add a pleasingly different kind of threat to the regular bullet-spitting foes.
As with the first game, you need to rescue all the survivors on each screen to move onto the next, with the fifth screen of each stage holding the exit. You're allowed five deaths, though collecting 100 stars from defeated enemies reduces the body count by one. Because there are more critters to kill, it's easier to rack up the combo count and hoover up plenty of stars, compensating for the noticeable increase in difficulty.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the gem-hunting. The fifth stage of each level requires a certain number of diamonds to unlock, and while the first game's shorter and easier stages encouraged more thorough exploration to locate them all, it can be a real grind here. Some you'll only get a single opportunity to grab before they're buried under a sea of lava, or hidden forever from a moving light that might have advanced past their location before you even realised they were there. As collected gems don't count towards your tally until you've completed all five screens of a stage, it can take upwards of 15 minutes to snare just a couple of gems to gradually work your way towards the total required to open up the final stage of the third chapter.
(As a side note, it really is infuriating to be killed by an enemy that appears from nowhere just as you collect the final survivor on a screen, especially when that enemy is gittish enough to hide behind a gas bubble during a hurried escape from a rising lava tide.)
The change of pace from its more sedate predecessor Shooter now makes much more sense as a name - is one that will win some new fans but alienate others, especially as it invites more direct association with other twin-stick arcade blasters. Given that most of the threats especially in the early stages come from simple re-skins of the turrets, bats and burrowing baddies of the first, it's not a comparison that does Shooter 2 any favours. The boss battles are inventive, but otherwise enemies merely represent an annoyance, an obstruction to progress rather than an engaging foe to fight.
Fortunately, the new two-player mode is a saving grace. Each different arena houses seven workers, with the object being to rescue more than your rival. The twist is that you can only save them on your turn, with your enemy simply tasked with hunting you down before roles are reversed. The caverns have their own unique environmental features, from one with severe tectonic tremors to another where showers of hot magma can be triggered to cascade onto your opponent. There's a decent selection of power-ups that can be purchased to improve your ship's offensive capabilities or chances of evading detection.
It's perhaps a little unbalanced, with beginners at a distinct disadvantage until they've earned enough money to buy a few new powers, while most players will simply camp outside their opponent's base, waiting to greet their triumphant return with a hail of missiles. But even when losing seven games on the trot to an outrageously skilled Spanish opponent and I'm definitely speaking hypothetically here it's a lot of fun. Another nice touch allows you to collect credits in your ship while waiting to be matched up; a great idea when you're just a few 'Q dollars' short of that handy sonar.
But while this multiplayer mode is one of the game's most successful additions, it's curious that a series known for rejecting convention seems to be embracing the 'bigger, better, more' mentality here. The name PixelJunk suggests something throwaway, and it's perhaps telling that, in striving for substance, Q-Games has come slightly unstuck. Some will undoubtedly relish the tougher challenge, most will welcome its greater longevity, but there's no denying that this quirky series has lost a little of its unique charm.
7 / 10