PixelJunk Monsters first appeared in 2008 and was instrumental in Kyoto-based developer Q-Games and talisman Dylan Cuthbert establishing a ’brand’ that would spawn several titles across different genres. After taking a break to develop the glorious remake Star Fox 64 3D on 3DS in 2011 as well as releasing Monsters Deluxe on the Wii U in 2016, Tikiman and friends are back with a sequel that manages to feel both reassuringly familiar and contemporary.
The premise of PixelJunk Monsters 2 is simple to grasp, yet the intricacies of strategy and resource management are difficult to master. From the outset, rather than moving a cursor around the screen to place towers to defend a designated area, (as was the genre trend when the original was released), you are in control of an adorable masked creature called Tikiman, tasked with protecting a group of precious baby Chibis from wave after wave of beasties that will follow set paths and reach your hut unless you take the appropriate action.
Early on, you'll realise that it's all about the coin. At the beginning of a stage, you are given a small stash of cash to build towers to protect your flock. Although enemies do follow a set path on their way to your hut, they have multiple routes, and there are different types of enemies to deal with.
All towers you can build have a limited radius, and you can choose from the three main classes of weaponry. The arrow tower is the all-rounder, but also the cheapest and weakest of the three. The ground-based cannon and air-based machine gun are designed for specific enemies and therefore more expensive. Fallen enemies drop coins that you can spend on more towers, but also gems that can be used to upgrade or be exchanged for fruit from a totem in each level called the Manic Merchant. While fruits can explode, slow enemies down or warn you of enemy paths, they can also damage Tikiman if handled incorrectly.
Each and every tree in a level can be replaced with a tower, which in turn can be upgraded five times. As well as using gems, another time consuming (but sometimes necessary) measure to upgrade towers is dancing next to them - it might sound silly, but it can be extremely useful mid-battle. Things might start out at a leisurely pace, but it really doesn't take long for it to ramp up the intensity. You'll need to think quickly and balance the positioning, proximity and variety of your arsenal. There are also situations with particular limitations, such as enemies that don't drop coins. This adds another layer of strategy and highlights the deceivingly complex nature of the game.
As you progress, you'll be given ancient tokens to spend on customising your Tikiman. There are a wealth of cool masks and shields to choose from, and can especially come in handy when differentiating one another in the local or online multiplayer. Playing with a friend can be a double-edged sword because if you stray too far away from your host, you’ll get pulled back. Not exactly a deal breaker, but mildly frustrating, especially when dealing with multiple tasks.
You'll be rewarded with a wide range of more elaborate weaponry for reaching certain milestones, such as upgrading a number of towers, using a certain amount of fruit and so on. It's fair to say that some of the weapons such as the laser don't really fit in with the naturalistic environments, but they are pretty fun to see in action and very powerful nonetheless.
At the end of a stage, you'll deal with a boss that is not only much more resilient than anything else faced previously, but it will also spawn enemies of its own, demanding your attention and resources to be split between the different threats. Some bosses even alternate their ground and air-based attacks, requiring both heavier and more varied firepower.
There isn’t much wiggle room regarding progression, as accessing the games five worlds requires an increasing number of rainbow fragments, earned by protecting all 20 of your Chibis. This can be a brutal learning curve at times, especially with no checkpoints when you’re one wave from a successful run, or there was just one enemy with a slither of health left that somehow managed to sneak through. With three difficulties (fun, tricky and mayhem) for each of the three stages, things can get hectic and frustratingly ‘all or nothing’. Each stage will take a lot of tries to learn both the layout, enemy waves and attack patterns.
One of the main technical differences from the first game (although the developer is working on a patch which will include the more traditional ‘full-screen’ option) are the bigger areas, a change that becomes more than apparent when you realise Tikiman doesn’t have a speed-up option. When things kick off, and they do, you’re constantly moving as your artillery needs repositioning and upgrading. Although each stage does have fenced off areas, it can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Anyone familiar with the first game will immediately notice the radical aesthetic upgrade. Basic 2D sprites and flat landscapes have received a complete overhaul, replaced with full 3D, almost Claymation-looking character models. Make no mistake, while everything seems to have a bit of a softer focus in handheld mode, PixelJunk Monsters 2 is absolutely stunning when docked. Whether it’s the lush green fields of Pockulu Forest or the lava-tinged Gardans Caves, the environments and the characters that inhabit them are bright and beautiful.
As well as the aesthetics, the terrain boasts a level of verticality and diversity absent from the original game that you can use to your advantage, but can also prove to be agonising when you are in a pinch. It is gut-wrenching to see a well-timed shot take out a dangerously close enemy, only to see the dropped loot spew all over the place and fall into a chasm or river and be lost forever. At best this is a harsh learning process, but at worst it can be the infuriating difference between success or failure.
Charming, addictive but sometimes ruthlessly unforgiving, PixelJunk Monsters 2 has made the transition into 3D almost unscathed. While there is a sense of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ in some instances, it's still a gorgeous, lovingly-crafted and action-packed tower defence game that despite a few annoyances, will delight, entertain and challenge in equal measure.