The tower defense genre is one that's very familiar to PC gamers. However, console gamers have rarely experienced the simple, and addictive nature of this offshot of the strategy genre. PixelJunk Monsters, the second downloadable title from Q Games, brings its unique style and meshes it with a time-tested gameplay formula. The combination is an overwhelming success, and adds even more depth to the ever-growing PSN library.
Although the presentation is decidedly simple, the execution is anything but. Hidden underneath the cute exterior is a game that's incredible difficult, and emasuclating at times. As easy as the controls and the concept are, this is easily one of the most hardcore games available on the PSN. PixelJunk Monsters will strain the minds of even the most cunning. Ultimately, its difficulty is a double-edge sword: it makes each level addictive and satisfying to complete, but also inspires a painful level of crushing frustration.
The basic premise of the game is quite simple. You play a dancing village chieftan that must protect his people from the ever growing threat of monsters. At your disposal are a variety of towers, each with their own specialties. Towers can specialize in attacking ground or air enemies -- some are versatile enough to handle both kinds. Of course, there's a cost to these towers. In addition to money, they will require time or gems to level up. An arrow tower, for example, will extend its range when powered up. The player can dance in front of a tower, and watch it very slowly power up. Or, the player can sacrifice their valuable gems to bypass the process altogether.
Of course, resources are slim. When improperly used, money can disappear quite quickly. Even more crucial than money are the green gems that occasionally fall from defeated foes. These gems will not only upgrade towers, but can be spent on unlocking new towers. A giant mortar, or a flamethrower, or a hive tower -- they can all be at your disposal, but at a cost.
At every moment, you are required to think about what kind of tower to build, and where to build it. Enemies will continue pouring into a level, regardless of your actions. Slow thinkers will be punished by an unstoppable flood of enemies rushing to the innocent people you're entrusted to protect. In spite of an indicator at the bottom left of the screen, players will find themselves often unprepared for the new challenges the game throws their way. This is where the frustration can kick in.
Sometimes, enemies will go down an unexpected path. Or, more often the case, a brand new enemy type will be introduced -- one in which the player is unfamiliar with. A flaw inherent to the genre is its reliance on memorization. Each session is very much an experience in trial-and-error. Players will fail, learn from their mistakes, and try again. Because each playthrough plays identically, there's very few surprises for players once they've learned each level. Some players will love the challenge, while others will find this quite frustrating.
Even on "easy," the game offers quite a significant challenge. The harder difficulties become almost unbearably unforgiving. Unfortunately, the game not only asks for, but demands, perfection from the player. Clearing a level without a single villager lost results in a rainbow. These aren't used for unlocking bonuses, however. These are necessary to progress further in the game. While clearing a stage is a challenge in and of itself, it becomes a whole new obstacle when a single loss is unacceptable.
Although we're fixated on the difficulty issues, we do want to reiterate that this game is incredibly addictive, most likely due to the highly rewarding sense of satisfaction one gets when successfully clearing a stage ... with no casualties. There's a lot to admire about the game. Not only is it affordable, it has a truly brilliant style that looks good on both an HDTV and on PSP (via Remote Play). Seeing your character dance is a small joy. There's also a lot of content to enjoy. The single player campaign is quite long, with 20 stages at your disposal. Players will undoubtedly play each stage more than once, so those in it for the long-haul will easily get over 20 hours of gameplay. Add a fantastic two-player co-op mode, and you have a lengthy game that costs as much as a sandwich.
Strategy fans are going to adore PixelJunk Monsters. The title once again reaffirms Sony's incredible commitment to providing unique experiences on the PSN. Yes, the game is an incredible value. Hours of single and multiplayer gameplay at a price that's really nice. But more importantly, it's a lot of fun. Yes, it features flaws that are so inherent to the genre. But, the challenge of getting that perfect run always seems so narrowly within grasp -- getting there can be quite a joy.
PS3 Fanboy score: 8.0