Version tested: PlayStation 3
I hate PixelJunk Eden. It's confusing and frustrating and pretentious and overpriced and dull. I also hate it because I should have started this review two hours ago and I haven't been able to put the Sixaxis down. And now I'm going to be late to meet my Mum. "Why are you late?" my Mum will say. "Because I have been playing a videogame I hate," I will reply. "And yet I find myself compelled to keep playing, like a rat in a laboratory who continues to step on the switch even though 99 times out of a hundred it receives an electric shock instead of a peanut."
"You work too hard," my Mum will say, and secretly wish I'd become a doctor.
I hate PixelJunk Eden. And I can't leave it alone. Let's look at the evidence.
PixelJunk Eden is confusing from the off, thanks to on-screen instructions which are mainly gibberish. But the same could be said of many games; it's only later that PixelJunk Eden takes confusing to an entirely new level.
You play as a small creature called a Grimp (from "grip" and "jump", according to the press release) and you're tasked with exploring a series of stylised gardens. They're populated with trailing fluoresecent plants the Grimp can cling to. He can also attach a silk thread to the plants and use it to swing through their branches.
The goal is to find objects called Spectra hidden in each garden. To reach them, you must pollinate plants so they will sprout new tendrils and branches, creating new pathways. This is done by bursting the orbs of pollen that float around using your body or silk thread. All the while a time gauge ticks away at the bottom of the screen. You can pop special orbs to refill it, but if the gauge empties the game is over. (The trailer might make things a bit clearer.)
The controls are simple - use the left stick to determine the direction in which you jump and swing, and press X to jump and cut your silk thread. You can't control the power of your jumps, and have minimal control over your character when it's in mid-air. The skill comes in working out when to jump from branch to branch, and when to swing straight through them.
That's not what's confusing. What's confusing is the game's wild and carefree disdain for consistency, and the way it throws its head back and laughs in the face of the laws of physics. Many jumps are hard to judge, because the game seems to decide whether your character will make them based on how it's feeling at precisely that moment in time. A plant that looks impossibly far away might be easily reachable, and vice versa. So you're left confused about what your character's capable of, which routes through the level are feasible and why these two aspects appear to change on a moment-to-moment basis.
Which, obviously, is frustrating. However, PixelJunk Eden takes frustrating to an entirely new level.
The Spectra are usually hidden towards the top of the garden, so to reach them you have to follow an upwards path as you jump between plants. It's easy to miss jumps, for the reasons explained above. Unless you've managed to pollinate every seed in sight (all the while racing against the clock and coping with fictional physics, don't forget), there won't be many plants below to catch you when you fall.
So you're left watching helplessly as your Grimp tumbles through space and lands right back at the bottom of the garden. The frustration is compounded by the fact you know you're going to have to navigate all those plants once again; you'll have to repeat all those stupid jumps without any real confidence they're going to work. Meanwhile, the pollen will be ebbing away from any seeds you managed to pollinate but not sprout, so you'll also have to do all that again. This sort of thing happens too often, pushing PixelJunk Eden across the line between challenging and frustrating.
You could argue I'm just rubbish at the game. True, Eurogamer MMO's Oli Welsh completed the first level in two attempts, while it took me nine. But he gave up on the second level after a few attempts and a lot of swearing. (He claims this isn't because he's rubbish at the game, but because he was "bored and wanting to go back to work". Make of that what you will.)
For starters there is the capital letter in the middle of "PixelJunk". Yes I know this is characteristic of products associated with the "PlayStation" "brand", but it's still "stupid". Then there is the music. It's all "ambient beats", as I believe they are called, by people who can't tell the difference between "relaxing" and "boring". The visuals put me in mind of LocoRoco as "reimagined" by an advertising agency. One of those ones with a name like "Pants" or "Sandwich" or "Twat".
As further evidence for the prosecution, I refer you to Gamasutra and the speech made by Q Games co-founder Dylan Cuthbert at this year's Independent Games Summit. In it he referred to "seizing back control from the bland merchants". He also described his own game as being "kind of like an organic Mario", which is akin to Ronald McDonald describing Big Macs as "kind of like reduxed filet mignon".
(Observe also the prevalence of quote marks in this article, and the use of italics, and of words like "prevalence". That is how pretentious PixelJunk Eden is; it is so pretentious it is making me pretentious. Even more pretentious than I already am.)
This one is perhaps unfair. PixelJunk Eden costs GBP 4.99. That is not much money to pay for a game that's swallowed up the best part of my day. However, I have spent most of that time performing the same jumps over and over and over and over again, watching my character tumble through space, and swearing. GBP 4.99 feels like a high price to pay for this experience. Even though it isn't.
See points 1, 2, 3 and 4.
SO WHY CAN'T I LEAVE IT ALONE?
Because it's good. It's certainly no Mario, organic or otherwise. I stand by my assertions that inconsistent physics and poor level design make for a game which is frustrating. And having to start all over again, all of the time, is boring.
But PixelJunk Eden still manages to be addictive. The more you experience and experiment with the control system, the more you realise how innovative it is. You feel as though you're learning to master something, and you want to keep getting better. As you improve, the stupid physics become easier to cope with, too.
And, for all its pretensions, there is something quite beautiful about PixelJunk Eden. It's just about worth all the confusion, frustration, pretentiousness and frequent tedium. It's worth GBP 4.99. But probably not being late to meet your Mum.
7 / 10