Without any hint of hyperbole, in my eyes, the original PixelJunk Monsters is legit one of my favourite games of all-time. It’s a standout title in a well-trodden genre — a tower-defence experience that absolutely nails what it sets out to do. Elegant and tight, but with enough depth to hook you in and keep you coming back for more, acclaimed developer Dylan Cuthbert and his team Q-Games’ 2007 strategy defend-‘em-up is a phenomenal example of well-designed simplicity over head-scratching complexity.
So, when the Kyoto-based studio surprise announced a sequel, that landed recently on PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, I just had to find out for myself if it stood tall compared to its fellow brethren. Though it’s lost a wee bit of charm in its conversion to a more 3D-oriented art-style, PixelJunk Monsters 2 is a worthy successor to a series that remains the gold standard in the tower-defence genre. And just like the original, the game really shines when a friend tags along for the ride in its deceptively sticky and addictive co-op mode.
If you’ve played a tower-defence game before, then you’ll be familiar with how the core mechanics work. You take on the role of Tikiman, a forest protector that is tasked with safeguarding his tribe of cute babies from waves upon waves of pesky, marauding monsters. While there is a new real-time Shell attack introduced in this sequel, the most effective approach to defeating the nasty critters from eating your loveable chibis, is to strategically build towers and quash the threat before they make it to your base.
The majority of the tried-and-true mechanics from the original game are embedded into the moment-to-moment gameplay experience in this newer iteration. As expected, each tower attacks autonomously, and each different type comes sporting their own pros and cons. Arrow towers, for example, still provide ample air and ground defence, while cannons solely lay waste to incoming ground adversaries. Dancing on towers slowly upgrades them into even more powerful armaments, though it’s good to be mindful that you’ve always got the option to spend gems — which are occasionally dropped by dead monsters — to quickly boost a particular tower when you’re in a pinch.
The constant juggling act of strategically placing the most effective set of towers in the best positions, while keeping a close eye on which ones to upgrade first, whilst also managing your finances, is the key to making it through the 15-20 wave onslaughts in one piece. Each stage always culminates in a boss encounter, and PixelJunk Monsters 2 puts a pretty neat twist on the franchise’s traditional formula by giving bosses the ability to spawn more enemies into the wave. It’s a subtle addition that adds a little welcome tension into the closing moments of each stage.
Another accoutrement is the inclusion of a third-person viewpoint – but, frankly, it’s more of a novelty than a considerable bonus. Additionally, 4-player online co-op is a freshly added option that can be accessed via the new hub-world. Sadly, the servers were pretty much empty as of writing. That said, its inclusion is undoubtedly a great addition that was seriously lacking in the OG PS3 version of the title. With a few friends in tow, the online co-op mode is definitely where it’s at.
Before I wrap up, if I had to ding PixelJunk Monsters 2, it would be for a couple of super minor presentational aspects. For one, though the new 3D-centric art-style is beautiful to behold, it doesn’t quite fully recapture the timelessness of its original 2D incarnation. Admittedly, this could be those rose-tinted specs of nostalgia creeping in, but if I had to choose a preference, I’d go with the original’s charming, painterly 2D art-style every time. Secondly, there just isn’t that much variety in the audio department. Compared to the first game, Q-Games’ sophomore effort feels like a marginal step back. Sure, what’s here is cutesy sweet, chill melodica, but sadly there just isn’t that much of it, which is a shame.
So, what do I think makes PixelJunk Monsters 2 so distinctly special? Well, it’s addictive. Like, seriously, addictive. This addictiveness stems from how effortlessly the tower-defence experience hits that elusive sweet spot between meditatively relaxing and teeth-rattlingly challenging – and it does so with unbridled aplomb. Further still, if you can manage to wangle a best friend into a weekly sesh, it’s a game that can quickly become as habit-forming as chain-smoking a pack of Marlboro reds behind the ol’ bike-shed, albeit a helluva lot healthier… thankfully!
VERDICT: The series’ addictive formula remains intact as Q-Games delivers their sophomore effort in their venerable tower-defence franchise. Despite losing a wee touch of magic in its aesthetics, the core experience is so mindblowingly habit-forming, that you’ll need a PJM-patch to keep you from seizing the controller just one more time. Like, just — one. More. TIME…