PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is a game with exceedingly robust level design.
However, the game is not a hard-hitting tale of descent into darkness, even though that’s the general plot. Across many levels and many stages, you’re tasked with finding resources and saving scientists. Besides that, your job is to deal with whatever strange anomalies and enemies that block your path. You’re a strange futuristic jack-of-all trades.
In short, PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate runs with a simplistic story. It aims to build atmosphere above all. The scientists you save will warn you of vague, impending doom, but that’s it. There’s no introspective boardroom talk, no Conradian descent into darkness, no allegory to Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Its storytelling is surface-level. Your job is to go in, find people, find resources, and kill everything.
That’s it. And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of
approach. In fact, PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate excels at
it. It prefers to dot its strange caverns with small animals and machines that tell their stories. At
intervals, you can find caves nestled between waterfalls
of magma, housing families of strange alien bats. Or you can find intricate ruins with machines still running.
But these elements aren’t telling you anything. They’re just there for a sense of completion in the world. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate‘s most cohesive theme is the idea that these scientists are foreign elements, and the ecosystem is driving them out through its apex predators. People – or aliens – have come and gone before us, and others will do so after us. The planet will prevail. And that’s as far as its story goes.
But while its story is laconic, PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate‘s major skill is in its ludic elements. A stage-based environmental puzzler, Ultimate depends on simple rules to define its gameplay.
It uses what’s called intricately-woven design. This is where several elements of a level or a stage are immediately visible, allowing the player to plan ahead.
In short, when you first enter a stage, you can see a good chunk of the area. This gives the player enough information to plan where to go, what to focus on, where to run to (and from), and how to get to the next point.
Instead of relying on information fed through a
continuous scroller (like Resogun) or a purely intricate
design (like any board-based game), PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate hybridizes its level design. While you might see the geyser of lava or magnetic fluid bursting at the edge of the screen, you won’t know if there’s water beyond that. You have to risk it, but failing to succeed feels as if it’s your fault. It’s a fair and
even approach to level difficulty.
And this level design element matters. In PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate, you pilot one ship with what is essentially a regenerating health bar. The Yellow Dart is a fast, speedy, maneuverable warship / rescue ship, capable of taking on all challengers. But it has a huge problem with heat. Several environmental hazards
will generate heat. Shooting will generate heat. Water will cool you off. This leads to a battle of control over space: you need to get to the next stage, but you also need to be aware of sources of water to cool you off. Holding down the fire button allows homing missiles, but generates more heat. Getting near lava, magnetic fluid, and gas generates more heat. When you overheat, the Yellow Dart crashes. Rinse and Repeat.
Moving forward depends on you not overheating. However, pretty much everything you do has a potential consequence of overheating. The logic in PixelJunk‘s design is to restrict the amount of recovery resources on the map at any given time. This is where hazard interaction comes into play. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate‘s hazards play with each other to form new things: water plus lava will harden to become rock. Lava plus ice will become water. Fluid plus water will become gas, etc. This hazard interplay forces the player to control but also manage what little resources exist on several maps. On later levels, this scarcity becomes more noticeable. Later levels aren’t exactly more difficult, but solving them begs more precision. Over time, you’ll find yourself juggling several resources to save all your scientists so you can move on to the next stage.
Once you’ve reached the end of the overworld, you’ll fight a boss. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate‘s bosses don’t feel as if they’re part of the game. Whereas the puzzles in the game’s environments are sometimes tricky, they never feel unfair. However, most of the bosses in PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate don’t follow the game’s intricate design. Instead, they’re in locked room stages, with limited environmental planning. Most of them happen in open areas with the boss in full view, but most bosses have a way of obfuscating that view. Worst off, they depend much more on fast reflexes than careful planning. People who enjoy the planning in the stages may be put off by the heel face turn they’ll experience fighting the bosses.
This isn’t to say the bosses are unnecessary or bad; instead, they’re out of place. In fact, the bosses of PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate are massive, looming, beautifully clasped-together behemoths of colourful, flat design. They ebb in and out of their environment, oftentimes supported by a company of minions. They create an innately busy area for the player. And most of all, they’re unforgiving. Most of them use the environmental hazards as weapons, so one wrong move and you’re dead. You have to be careful around them.
But to get to these bosses, you need to collect enough gems. Since each boss stage requires a certain number of gems, you may find yourself backtracking previous stages to look for them. Luckily, your HUD and your overworld tells you how many there are at any given stage. As a result, you know which stages and locations to focus on. But there’s no purpose to these gems other than to pad the game’s play length. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate‘s playtime would likely be half of what it is if there were no gem requirements. See, when you enter a stage, you have no option but to finish the stage. Therefore, if you’re short on gems and you need to backtrack, you need to finish that stage. It turns the stages into a grind, padding out the game’s playtime.
Yet this is still a simplistic and basic issue, and nothing that serious. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate still remains an exceedingly fantastically designed game. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to fault it, since it has a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish, and does so with aplomb. While the small number of overworlds might strike some people as short, it’s far from it. There’s a lot to love about it. It’s a beautifully crafted labour of love, masquerading as another side-scrolling puzzler shooter.