Dance Tikiman! Dance!
Despite being a long term gamer (20 years and counting) there’s one genre to which I was very late to the party – tower defense. I’ve never really been a PC gamer and I didn’t own a smartphone until 2010 so it’s a genre I wasn’t introduced to until I bought my Playstation 3. Since then of course I’ve played many a tower defense title but the one that started it all for me was PixelJunk Monsters back in 2008. It proved so popular that it got a fresh batch of DLC and a full, deluxe edition on the PSP. Fast forward to 2012 and developer Double Eleven struck a deal with Q Games to bring the classic to the Vita. Double Eleven despite only being founded in 2009 have already won awards with LittleBigPlanet and more recently ported Limbo to the handheld so I was keen to dive in and see how the remake has been handled.
If you haven’t played PixelJunk Monsters before you’ve seriously missed out. Tower defense games are everywhere now (particularly on the mobile market) and so it’s often difficult to differentiate between them. The difference with PixelJunk Monsters is that rather than using your traditional cursor to magically create towers you control Tikiman in his quest to save his (remarkably egg-like) babies from the onslaught of creatures that want to eat them. The game has a cute, almost hand drawn look to it that is bright and colourful and looks absolutely stunning on the Vita. You won’t find muted greys and blacks here; instead you are treated to a vibrant kaleidoscope of colour that really does look beautiful in motion. Transferring the levels from a huge TV to the Vita is also handled well. Using pinch gestures (or the left shoulder button) you can zoom in and out on the action so you’re not left squinting to see things on screen.
Battle takes place on individual maps that are littered with trees. Any tree can be made into a tower by Tikiman and while initially you only have limited resources, as your towers destroy the enemy the ground becomes littered with coins and (less frequently) blue gems enable you to build better defenses. Towers cost coins and researching new ones at your base requires blue gems. As things get more chaotic it also becomes mandatory to upgrade your towers in order to defeat bigger numbers of stronger enemies. You can check your towers experience status by pressing the right shoulder button and they can be upgraded in three ways. They slowly upgrade on their own as they deal damage to enemies but you can also use blue gems to upgrade immediately or if Tikiman stands in front of a tower he will do a cute little dance that slowly upgrades your turrets. Handily each tower starts with a little green flag sticking out that changes colour as they are upgraded. This adds a huge amount of depth to things as you run from tower to tower trying to upgrade as quickly as possible whilst still being tasked with collecting coins from dropped enemies and in later stages researching new towers at your base. For such a cute game PixelJunk Monsters gets difficult quickly and while Tikiman initially moves quite slowly as you complete special levels your stats are upgraded.
The Vita update as I’ve mentioned previously has touch screen gestures and some work better than others. It all comes down to personal preference I guess but I found that using the d-pad was more accurate when cycling through the ring of tower types than swiping the touch screen. You can also tap the screen to select a tower but the x button serves just as well. The left analog stick controls Tikiman but with this version you can tap an area on the screen and Tikiman will run to where you point him. This is accurate and works well as it can give your thumb a rest – you really do run manically across the maps and I found myself using this and the zoom feature most often. Elsewhere there aren’t a lot of other changes. The HUD remains faithful to the original and is clean and never obtrusive. As is common with this type of title there is a bar on the bottom left of the screen which shows you what enemy type the next wave will be and how long you have to prepare. If you complete perfect waves (i.e. without losing any of your twenty babies) you are given coin bonuses after the wave to further help with proceedings.
Completing levels without losing any of your offspring gives you a rainbow for perfecting the level. Rainbows are extremely important as they work as the game’s unlocking mechanism so replaying levels to get a better score is mandatory. My only real complaint is that the game gets really, really hard. It can be a little frustrating to get all the way to wave 19 of 20 to have a loan spider get by your defenses with next to zero health to clutch one of your babies at the last moment. Rest assured though that technique is key and so progression comes from learning the sequence of waves of enemies and the route they will take, in order to prepare watertight defenses and upgrade and use the right sort of towers to achieve the perfect score. While this replaying of levels repeatedly may turn some people off I found it to be a healthy challenge that while at times can be frustrating never feels like the game is cheating you. You can of course set the difficulty to casual in the main menu which lowers enemy health but I found that this hurt my pride too much, plus completing the game on regular mode unlocks hardcore mode which can only be tackled by the absolute elite. Make no mistake; the cute graphics hide an absolute beast of a game here.
This version of PixelJunk Monsters contains an absolute wealth of content. The levels are split into three islands (four if you count one island randomly generating levels based on a word you spell). Tiki Island contains 21 levels, Gati Gati contains 11 and Toki Island contains a further 15. While easy levels contain 10 waves the majority contain 20 so it will take you a seriously long time to see everything on offer. Add to that the Tiki Hut which contains 24 challenges with specific criteria (such as completing levels without upgrading towers or by hoarding resources) and you have easily as much, if not more content than many full price releases. The only drawback is that despite the new touch screen features there aren’t any new and exclusive levels. Hopefully the game will be a success enough to warrant some extra DLC with new levels, though what is here will take ages to grind through. Also I was surprised to find no platinum trophy on offer. Given the £9.99/€12.99/$14.99 price point it’s a shame but there are still 21 trophies up for grabs and many surround completing levels with specific criteria as is the case in the challenge levels.
There really is a ridiculous amount of content on offer for the price of admission – just don’t expect new levels if you’ve already beaten the PSP title. What I can assure you is that PixelJunk Monsters: Ultimate HD is a fantastic port that looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and plays beautifully. There is never any slowdown, controls are tight and responsive and gameplay never gets old. If you’re up for a serious challenge you need look no further and Double Eleven also have the advantage of being first to the table with tower defense on Vita. Fieldrunners 2 is due out soon but it will certainly take one hell of a game to dethrone PixelJunk Monsters as the bar as been set very high indeed. You can pick it up when it launches with next week’s Playstation Store update.