The straightforward name that PixelJunk Shooter bears conjures images of fast-paced, dual-stick combat against an unending swarm of AI drones intent on your demise. Strangely enough, though, shooting is but one small element in this spelunking puzzle adventure. As you wind your way through danger-filled caves, you must use your noggin to mix disparate liquids to free your trapped friends and harvest the precious metals buried miles below the surface. An occasional enemy will spring forth, spraying a slow-moving barrage of missiles or bullets your way, but these are minor obstacles. Just ignore its misleading name. PixelJunk Shooter is the most accessible of all the games in the PixelJunk series, using tight controls and a cheerful aesthetic to pull you deep into its underground adventure. That accessibility never dissipates, making this by far the easiest and shortest game in the series as well. In the five or so hours it takes to reach the end, this well-paced adventure rarely challenges, but it always manages to surprise and entertain.
Miles below the earth's crust, an excavation crew runs into a bit of trouble. Although the crew members foresaw the dangers of flash floods and lava flows, they did not anticipate a horde of mechanised monsters tormenting their every move. It is up to you — the intrepid pilot of a durable yellow ship — to rescue your distressed co-workers and put an end to the dastardly menace wreaking all this havoc. You are equipped with two tools that will help you free your trapped friends. Your dual-purpose gun can strike down enemies who unwisely decide to fire upon you, as well as carve a path through sturdy rock. Once you are near stranded survivors, you fling out your trusty crane to pull them safely into your ship. Each section in the multi-stage levels is cleared when all of your human pals have either been rescued or killed, but if you fail to save enough of them, your game ends and you are booted back to the very beginning of the level. The crewmen can die if they are attacked by enemies, drown in a sea of lava or succumb to an ill-placed shot from your own ship, but these dangers are easy to avoid, so you rarely have to worry about restarting a level.
The challenge comes in the form of elemental puzzles that take a bit of patience to figure out. As you dive deeper underground, you come across a variety of liquids that threaten to halt your progress. Your ship is susceptible to heat, so if you fly too close to a sea of bubbling magma, your ship overheats and, subsequently, blows up. Pools of crystal clear water, however, counter the excess heat. If you destroy a rock barrier, you can mix the water with lava to form a cool, sturdy rock. When you come across viscous tar later in the game, your ship's engine's can get clogged by the gelatinous slime, causing you to lose control and crash into the unforgiving rock. If you mix the tar with water, toxic vapours form that slowly deplete your ship's shields. If you add a drop of lava to the gaseous mist, though, you create an explosive chain reaction. There are other elements that also crop up during the course of the adventure, and trying to figure out the best way to combine them to not only save your own skin but also your friend's fragile lives creates a rewarding and often thrilling experience.
A splash of water will cool down that steamy lava. (Credit: GameSpot)
In addition to the stranded crewmen you must save, there are buried treasures to hunt for in each level. These carefully hidden gems can reside underneath a bed of rocks, at the bottom of a sea of lava, or embedded within a block of ice. Although it is relatively easy to rescue the many survivors and make your way through each level unscathed, it's much more difficult to uncover every hidden treasure. Not only will you need to be proactive with your shooting — a treasure could hide beneath any little rock — but you must also make clever use of the elements at your disposal. It only takes five or so hours to make your way past the final boss, but hidden gems extend the length of this game a few more hours. Trying to nab every treasure not only adds onto the play time, but it's also a lot of fun, forcing you to push your puzzle-solving skills to find every last one.
At the end of each of the three episodes, a giant boss awaits and is eager to dispose of you after your heroic antics. These are the only parts of the game in which you are truly challenged from a shooting perspective, and this extra wrinkle gives the game a bit of flash to complement the well-crafted puzzles. These hulking beasts aren't too difficult once you figure out their patterns, but they require you to be constantly alert because they can kill you with one blast, ratcheting up the intensity as good boss fights always do. If the caves feel lonely, you can team up with a friend, but this makes an already easy game far too simple for its own good. If you do die, you respawn 10 seconds later, which removes any fear of death you may have had during the single-player game. There just isn't enough to do at any given moment either, so cooperative play usually involves one person solving the puzzle while the other floats back and watches.
While you're navigating these lava-filled caves, PixelJunk Shooter is a blast and presents a consistent stream of new dangers that force you to continually change your tactics to succeed. But Shooter is ultimately too short for its own good, abruptly ending just when you're getting into a groove. A few more episodes or a level creator would have done wonders for its long-term appeal. Despite its brevity, this is the most accessible and entertaining game yet in the PixelJunk series. The unique puzzles are a lot of fun to solve, but it's the sheer joy of existing in this world that makes Shooter so difficult to put down. The cartoony visuals and hypnotic soundtrack build on the initial appeal while the silky smooth controls make it fun just to fly around. Misleading name aside, PixelJunk Shooter is a clever puzzle game that always manages to entertain.