Crispy Gamer

PSN Pundit: The Agony and Defeat Within PixelJunk Monsters

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Confounding. Of all the games that are downloadable on the PlayStation Network, none is more lamentably difficult and, at the same time, strategically brilliant than PixelJunk Monsters. Both a triumph of devilish engineering and a dubious monument to perplexing gameplay, the cartoonish, six-megabyte offering from Q-Games plays harder than most console offerings on the market today. To say it is challenging is an understatement, kind of like saying Diablo Cody?s Juno is just another pregnant teen. There?s a lot more than challenge to the cute monsters that so craftily attack.

Yes, easy levels are indeed aptly named, giving you the feel of how to play the Tower Defense game while letting you finish 10 or 20 attack waves without feeling much woe or death in your camp. You?ve placed towers that shoot cannons or arrows, and they seem to work! Oh, glee! And you? You are a proud, game-faced tortoise plodding on courageously to save your smiling, slacker Weeble-looking townspeople, who do nothing but cower away from the chomping of adorable-looking but ravenous monsters.

When the game hits the first medium level, however, the difficulty ramps up appreciably. Teeming, quick-moving spiders by the scores come at your wimp-ass tribe like those creepy, marching arachnids in director Frank Darabont?s landmark adaptation of the Stephen King novella, "The Mist." It?s not pretty, and you?ll have to play the level over and over, perhaps for a couple of hours, before you figure out how to beat it. But you are not going to bask in victory by using only arrows and cannonballs as your strategy for fighting. That hint alone should cut down your frustration level appreciably. You?ll need towers with bees, lasers, ice waves and electricity to succeed.

Wanna play tougher? You?ve got a giant, lunking Bigfoot-like boss at the end of each level. Just when all of your weapons seem to have killed the big bruiser and he appears to have no life left in his health meter, the mortally wounded dude sallies forth, eating your last squeaking townsperson. So you?ll have played the level for 20 minutes, only to have everyone crushed by this slow-moving, smiling, stinkhead behemoth. I say there should be a way to cut him down immediately when he?s weakened, like a final, crushing, finishing move in Mortal Kombat.

If you think that doesn?t bring enough moan-filled woe to your downloadable gaming life, there?s more difficulty ahead. You can?t move from easy to medium to hard levels without chasing rainbows. In other words, you have to ace levels without getting any of your townspeople eaten. It?s tough enough to get through the medium levels this way, but trying to get seven rainbows to proceed to the hard levels simply infuriates me. I get soooo disgustingly close and then one spider breaks through to eat one of the meek for a snack -- and yet I can?t stop playing.

But here?s the source of everyone?s exasperation. Q-Games has created a hardcore game that seems like a casual game. That?s not completely new, as it?s been attempted by David Jaffe with Criminal Crackdown and the Mustard Brothers with Undertow. But here, the game design is like Jigsaw from the Saw movies -- sly with a nasty, murderous streak. It makes you go Awww-so-pretty when you eyeball the toy-like creatures in a game that not only looks simple enough for anyone to pick up, it looks simple to win. But my guess is that each level has to have certain weapons placed in exact (not just precise) areas for you to ace a level. Here at Crispy, we?ve had e-mail discussions about the supreme impenetrability of the game. I?ve made it past more levels than most folks, but I?m stuck on the early hard levels. And yes, someone?s put up videos on YouTube to show you how to garner perfection in every level. That?s too much of a silver platter when you just want a sentence or two of hints, which the game?s instructions never offer. While I firmly believe PixelJunk Monsters is one of the better games ever to be released for the PSN, its extreme intricacy prevents me from saying it will be one of the greatest games ever for the Network. That?s sad, because it could well have been.

Then, there?s Go! Sports Skydiving, a stunt parachuting game that takes place in the air. You can do fancy formations as you jump and enjoy the photorealistic rendering of National Geographic HD-like environs complete with the soothing sounds of whooshing wind and chirping birds in the background. There?s a relaxing, adventurous quality to this that?s annoyingly broken up by buzzing and clanging as you get points for tricks. As you near terra firma, you?ll be asked to land on a target, a feat that?s trickier that you?d think it to be, to be sure. All of this is done by moving the Sixaxis controller rather than pressing buttons on the device. It?s a nice addition, but they could have gone the extra mile by allowing players to control with the PS3?s camera peripheral.

In the air prior to the parachute opening, you get to move like an Olympic gymnast (minus the gym floor) with freestyle acrobatic tumbling. In Go! Sports Skydiving, moving frenetically about like a crazed jumping bean is heartily encouraged. All this cartwheeling, vaulting, rolling and busting moves doesn?t get me going, however. Maybe it?s partly because the faces on the divers don?t react with much emotion through their helmets, so the game?s single- and multiplayer modes don?t have much soul. When you look up as you jump, the sky seems endless. But, for me, even in this infinity of azure and blue, there?s not much there.