Like Eden, and Monsters and Racers, PixelJunk Shooter is a 2D game that belongs firmly in the 21st century. Its simple, bright environments are rendered in perfect, crisp 1080p. Gameplay-wise it's familiar, inventive and deceptively complex. You fly your little ship through gloriously glooping levels full of magma or water or turgid black gunk, using your gun, missiles or grapple to manipulate them so you can get through.
The game plays with physics and magnetism and heat, throwing little alien enemies into the mix as well that skitter around and shoot things in your direction. It's part 2D shooter and part puzzle game, a mixture of sleek, modern visuals and physics and endearingly old-school concepts - just like its successful stablemates. Except hopefully not as uncompromisingly difficult.
The game's levels are grouped into three worlds whose levels all have different environmental features. Typically, there are pockets of lava or water or gunk behind destructible rock, and setting them flowing free through the level has all sorts of effects. Lava melts ice, obviously, but lava and water combine to make more rock, and the poisonous black stuff that fills the final world turns into deadly toxic gas when it meets water. Occasionally there are power-ups, like a lava gun, that let you manipulate the elements more directly, but usually you're guiding a lava flow towards an impassable block of ice, or dragging heavy lava or water bombs across a level to blow through an obstacle.
If your ship gets too hot, you have to dive into water to cool down before you explode - or, if you're playing co-op, a friend can grapple you to safety. The black stuff in the final world is deadly; you have to either stay the hell away from it or find a magnetic power-up that repels it from your ship. As well as simply getting through the levels, there are little subterranean survivors to collect and rescue with your grapple hook. Figuring out how to rescue them before unleashing a torrent of magma to clear the way to the end of a level adds a little extra strategic depth.
Most of the fun in PixelJunk Shooter lies in playing around with the elements. Shooting through magma flows sends disrupted globules of lava splashing over the sides of things. Missiles explode on contact with it, which serves no purpose at all other than making explosions. As you sink your subterranean craft into water or grapple something heavy, you can feel the palpable change in handling. The nasty black gunk, meanwhile, is magnetic - you can feel it pulling your ship in its direction. There's sophisticated code under the hood here.
As Q-Games' Dylan Cuthbert explains, Shooter actually taxes the PS3 hardware more than you might expect at first glance. "It's the way the fluid flows and mixes and blends," he says. "We're actually using the PS3 to quite an extent, because fluid dynamics aren't easy. There aren't many examples of it in any other game. To get that many particles moving on the screen required quite a lot of SPU usage on the PS3. It's come out really nicely, though, and we can do a lot with it - we can have a screen full of water, and it doesn't slow down at all."
Even with two players, several enemies and a lot of dynamic fluid on the screen at once, PixelJunk Shooter doesn't appear to be straining itself at all. It looks lovely, perfectly smooth and stylistically consistent. The end of the second world even hides a screen-filling boss monster with destructible gun-turrets.
Shooter's co-op mode is local-only; like Monsters, the game is a little easier with two players, but it's also less frustrating. Having an extra player is the equivalent of having an extra life, meaning you're not forced to start again at the beginning of the level as often. Some things, though, are made harder with two players - sometimes you only have a few seconds to get both of you through a gap after unleashing a lava flow, and the magnetic power-up that repels the black gunk also repels the other player's ship, making it quite a challenge to get both of you through safely.
It's more action-packed than either Eden or Monsters, and more accessible as well - presented with a ship that can shoot stuff, various liquids to play with and a lot of destructible rock, it's easy for anyone to figure out what to do. Is the new game shooting for a broader audience than the rest of PixelJunk's first series? "We've tuned it so that people who enjoyed Monsters will be able to enjoy Shooter," says Dylan, "but at the same time we're also aiming to grab people who like a good shooting game as well. It's not quite as hardcore as Stardust HD, it's more like a solid old-school vertical shooter - like R-Type."
In our experience of the game, though, comparing it directly to vertical shooters is misleading. It's more puzzler than shooter; you die a lot, yes, but it's usually because you've messed up a lava flow or fallen victim to poisonous gas or some other environmental hazard, not because you failed to dodge a beautiful but deadly pattern of enemy bullets.
Each PixelJunk game so far has been conceptually completely different - it's hard to believe that they were all created by the same nine individuals at Q-Games, over in Kyoto. What unifies them, as Dylan points out, is their commitment to graphical perfection. "The main goal behind Series 1 of PixelJunk is full HD, 1080p, 60fps, high fidelity 2D," he says. "We wanted to bring back 2D, because up until the PS3, 2D had always been on a standard TV connected with a shitty cable You didn't get the real colours, it was a smudgy mess on the screen. But now we've got the PS3, we've got full HDMI and brilliant, rich colours, and we wanted to go back to 2D a bit and see what we could do with it."
If there's another unifying tenet of the PixelJunk games so far, though, it's probably pad-smashing frustration. Aesthetically, Eden was ostentatiously modern, all dreamy techno and complicated plant structures unfurling beautifully against richly-coloured backdrops, but underneath it was a hard-as-nails, cold-hearted old videogame that hated to let you win. Both Monsters and Eden relied heavily on trial-and-error gameplay, and the latter particularly is notoriously one of the hardest games on PS3, not always for good reasons - though Q-Games did soften it up a little in a post-release patch.
Shooter is definitely challenging - it's easy to get caught up in the elements and die, or catch a few too many bullets from alien enemies - but the levels are short enough to prevent repetition from grating, and the very nature of the game means that though trial and error does play a part, it's mostly about figuring out how to get through a level rather than learning its layout. Besides, the PixelJunk games' difficulty is part of their appeal. They're pretty, sure, but they'll still kick your arse.
PixelJunk Shooter is an ideal downloadable game in many ways; inventive, accessible, visually and technically interesting, and it will probably be priced around the magic £5 mark. Playing with the game's gloopy liquids is always intuitive and fun, as is the bare-bones shooting. It's out within the next few months and looks absolutely ready for that imminent release. If it can sustain its appeal across three worlds worth of levels, PixelJunk Shooter could well mark the apex of the series.