While the PixelJunk franchise’s PS3 heyday has long passed, many of its concepts are well worth another look. None were ever quite as popular as PixelJunk Monsters, so developer Q-Games’ return to it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, but a lot’s changed in the world of tower defense in the past decade and what the team kept, and scrapped, is interesting to explore.
In case you missed the first one, Monsters is about tower defense with a little bit of action thrown in as you control Tikiman and run around collecting things and dancing next to towers to accelerate their growth. It’s not one of those set-it-and-run-it defense games, but instead a rather frantic one about making sure every moment is used wisely. You could constantly get the money that drops to get those new towers built, but waiting until just before they disappear will allow you to collect it all at once and spend more time getting your towers to better levels of strength and range.
PixelJunk Monsters 2 takes things in a different aesthetic direction that may seem jarring to some. Those who’ve paid attention to Q’s more recent work with games like The Tomorrow Children, on the other hand, won’t be so disoriented.
Those towers are the most traditional aspect of the game: there are cheap arrow towers, ground-only cannons with splash damage and specialized ones with elemental effects or intermittent overwhelming force. There are also bees! Bees are actually rather useful, as they just fly around and eventually damage an enemy without being constrained by traditional tower ranges. You’re limited in where you can place a structure: each must go where a tree stands, and building one knocks down some other nearby trees. It’s clear enough to know where you can build while still retaining some structure and letting the game look how it does without a lot of “you can build here” indicators everywhere.
While the franchise began with a lightweight, 2D-heavy look designed for the download-only space of a decade ago, PixelJunk Monsters 2 takes things in a different aesthetic direction that may seem jarring to some. Those who’ve paid attention to Q’s more recent work with games like The Tomorrow Children, on the other hand, won’t be so disoriented. The game messes with lighting and textures to create environments that feel like they’re made of real materials.
This sort of work takes a lot of effort to do, so there’s a lot of recycling done to get a lot of use out of each area. Rather than separate maps within an aesthetic, each batch of maps is set in the same place, with different spawn locations and the occasional barrier blocking off paths. This has the effect of making each feel like a real place that needs defending, and that’s a nice twist. Combined with how the game handles enemy spawns, though, it can be confusing on occasion.
About those enemy spawns: they’re weird and different, and it can certainly be a fun thing in a tower defense title to adjust strategies mid-map to accommodate a new threat. PixelJunk Monsters 2 takes this a bit too far, though, with its insistence on perfection even at the lowest levels. See, the map starts with a path drawn to see where the enemies will head, and you build accordingly. Except they change in later waves to completely different paths, and those paths are set.
Not knowing these means you’ll have to burn time with each map just playing through to see where enemies go, and it’s a long enough process that it feels really disheartening. The second time through, you’re more prepared, but what if the final boss randomly spits out flying enemies that go some totally different path at the last second? Having some degree of variability is nice for a game like this, but it makes the sometimes-half-hour maps you play as efficiently as you can feel ruined when you get your 19/20 score and miss out on the rainbow piece around which progression is built. This would (and largely does) feel fine on higher difficulties, but is a bit much to ask for players.
When you’re not collecting rainbow pieces, you’re collecting… tokens, which give you largely-inconsequential cosmetic items that look mostly the same and are so small on the screen when you’re playing that it doesn’t make much of a difference. We never felt particularly incentivized by this system, and that may explain the low interest in the game’s online multiplayer functionality. You can play with a friend locally and up to three players online, but we never saw anyone online when attempting matchmaking. Maybe it’s because, if you’re not the host, these coins are your lone reward?
It’s unfortunate, because Monsters 2 does really shine with friends. If you can organize play sessions or grab a local pal, you can each build towers and dance to upgrade them and generally strategize to take down enemies. Again, this would work better if the sort of ad-hoc strategies were rewarded, and it would also be of more interest if the game retained these scores for their own leaderboards rather than trashing anything that isn’t single-player.
You’ll have to burn time with each map just playing through to see where enemies go, and it’s a long enough process that it feels really disheartening.
It would also be better if local play weren’t so hamstrung by the single view and offered dynamic split-screen to handle different areas at once rather than being tethered together. The base mechanics of collecting and dancing already push players toward strategies that consolidate your towers into one clump (and probably the clump nearby the base so new waves can’t avoid it), but local co-op is especially beholden to it.
PixelJunk Monsters 2 does a lot of things right, and anyone missing its signature action will be more than happy with its return. There are some elements of the game’s structure that really could have helped it be more fun for more people, but Q-Games did enough to make it worth a look for some.