Version tested: PlayStation 3
The fourth PixelJunk game has the most basic and functional title since the first, but as ever with Q-Games' genre-hopping download series, things aren't quite as straightforward and off-the-cuff as the Kyoto developer likes to make out. Racers was a rhythmic, track-hopping reaction test rather than a straight racing game, Monsters was arguably the most highly-evolved tower defence game on consoles, and the purportedly restful Eden turned out to be a tortuous and maddening platformer.
Shooter might appear to be shrugging itself off as another twin-stick blaster, but in fact it's a game of exploration, collection and puzzle-solving as much as action - as well as being a hypnotic physics plaything, thanks to its spectacular fluid dynamics. It's about as laidback as this famously testing series has ever been.
Recalling the classic Thrust - but nowhere near as difficult - PixelJunk Shooter has you steering a small craft through tunnels and caverns, rescuing stranded workers in conspicuous orange hazard suits. In each scene (there are five scenes to a stage, five stages to a world and three worlds in total) you need to account for all the survivors to unlock a door and progress. You do this by grabbing them with a grappling hook or failing to avert their deaths, but you can only do the latter five times before it's game over. Your ship, however, has infinite lives.
That's the first sign that Shooter is going to go a little easier on you than the 2D classics that inspired it. The second is the supple controls, although this is hardly a complaint; your ship handles exquisitely, with just enough momentum to manage, and a boost if you point both sticks in the same direction. The third sign is that contact with the walls doesn't damage your ship. Danger, instead, comes from the cunningly-designed enemies - bats, organic turrets and burrowing, spinning living mechanisms, all of which seem to have crawled straight out of the dank caverns of a Metroid game - and from heat.
Sometimes you generate this yourself (holding down the fire button unleashes an overheating volley of homing missiles), but most of the danger comes from the environment. In the first world, delving into the bowels of a volcano, you encounter pools and spouts of water and magma. Proximity to magma overheats your ship, while touching water cools it instantly. Reservoirs can be drained and rivers diverted by blasting away at stone barriers, but the game starts to get really interesting when you bring the two into contact, cooling the magma into rock which can be destroyed. Your ship's grapple can pick up and drop explosive water bombs, or giant sponges which soak up water and then release it in a steady downpour, like a helicopter fighting a forest fire.
Huge bodies of fluid are flung around the screen, behaving consistently and believably as they hiss and sizzle against each other, while you puzzle and blast your way through these tightly-conceived little mazes. Don't be fooled by the plain cutaway graphics with their bright, simple blocks of colour; Shooter is a proper 1080p spectacle and an impressive piece of physics programming. It's also driven along smartly by some great music - a funky, dynamic collection of upbeat trip-hop in the Ninja Tunes style by High Frequency Bandwidth.
PixelJunk Shooter's great achievement is that, having come up with such a simple, novel and joyfully interactive concept, it doesn't stop there, and also doesn't break anything by iterating. Virtually every stage throws new ideas, substances and combinations at you. Clouds of rising gas only warm your ship slowly, but choke survivors, collect under ceilings and explode when they come into contact with magma. Sheets of ice freeze water, but can be melted away by magma or laser beams bounced off mirrors. Hot, magnetic oil surges towards your ship, gathers around switchable electro-magnets, fizzes magma into nothing and creates gas when brought into contact with water.
Enemies that release trails of ice or gas are brought into the mix, as well as power-up suits that allow your ship to release streams of magma or water and grapple chunks of land or ice, or that invert your magnetic polarity or heat sensitivity. PixelJunk Shooter is a constant conveyor-belt of fun toys and exciting domino-chain interactions. It's part retro videogame, part chemistry set; part Geometry Wars, part Zelda. Only rarely does it fully explore the potential of all these different elements, but to Q's credit, that's because each idea is hastily dispatched in favour of something new. Nothing in PixelJunk Shooter outstays its welcome, even the three clever boss battles.
That goes for the game itself. Shooter is very short, although not quite as brief as the first two-thirds would have you believe. Boss levels are unlocked by collecting gems, some of which are well-hidden under rock, in magma pools or in secret caves off the edge of the screen. You'll more than likely need to start backtracking through earlier levels to meet the requirement for the final boss - and having done that, you'll feel compelled to hunt them all down, find all the special survivors and score a perfect survival rate on each.
Shooter also features online leaderboards and a score-attack option, which actually just exposes the scoring system in an on-screen readout. Rather than kills, scoring is based on collection of survivors and coins, which are scattered around levels and dropped by enemies, and can be hoovered up quickly with a quick spin by rotating the right stick. These give you a bonus which is then depleted by time, so good score runs involve finding the optimum route through a stage and a balance of speed and completism. It works well enough, but the truth is that Shooter suits secret-hunting better than it does score-attack; its primary drivers are exploration and lateral thinking, not skill.
A simple, local two-player co-op mode is included which doesn't change the game much, and doesn't have the chaotically competitive edge of, say, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, lacking as it does independent score-tracking or friendly fire. But it does suit Shooter's style and level design extremely well, so it's more than welcome. You also get PSP remote play support, and PlayStation Home unlocks to go with the fairly attainable Trophies.
PixelJunk Shooter is a taut, well-made and original game that's been lavished with good design and slick coding. It won't detain you long - and without giving too much away, the post-credits kill-screen suggests a DLC expansion is highly likely, as does PixelJunk's past history. But for every minute of those few hours, it's an unpredictable, fluidly entertaining blast.
8 / 10