Review: PixelJunk Shooter 2: The Belly of the Beast
As sequels go, PSN’s PixelJunk Shooter 2 excels, bringing the familiar environment from the first game together with new enemies and elements that tweak the experience for the better, all the while continuing the story of the modern 2D space shooter.
Aptly subtitled “The Belly of the Beast”, PixelJunk Shooter 2 starts your rescue ship off immediately after the end of the first game; the opening of the game’s three areas being (spoilers for the first PixelJunk Shooter) the inside of the giant alien worm that swallowed your ship at the end of the last game. But whereas the danger level of the molten planetary core of the original game was high, the sequel proves there are things worse than lava, and the poisonous gas and bile of an alien worm monster is indeed quite deadly. While the first game put you against environmental liquids like lava and oil, which can overheat your ship’s system to the point in which you’d crash and burn, poison screws up your controls and slows your movement, making sure you can’t evade harm. The only way to combat the effect is to nose dive into a pool of water and wash the stuff off, though the H2O reserves are strategically placed to make that tricky.
Like the first game, you’re on a rescue mission. Scientists have been exploring an uncharted planet only to discover hostile alien life that attacked and stranded them. The player must fly their ship, using the left analog stick to move and the right stick to aim, and escape the planet while taking as many people with them as possible. The left triggers expel your grappling, used both to rescue survivors and grab environmental objects, and your right triggers fire. Holding the button down fires a slew of homing missiles, but quickly builds up the overheating meter. Proximity to lava will slowly build your meter as well, while getting shot will sky rocket the meter. Once full, you’ll lose almost all control of the ship and slowly fall toward the nearest hard surface. You’ll explode on impact unless you land in water, which has a cooling effect.
Back are the suits from the first game as well as a couple of interesting additions. While you can still take control of the Inverse Suit (you shoot lava, heat keeps your engines stable, and water harms you) and the Anti-Magnet Suit (deflecting gushes of oil as well as some attacks) the Hunger Suit adds chomping teeth to your ship. While this helps you bite through cave walls you otherwise would not be able to penetrate, your weapons are disabled and your movement is confined to left, right, up, and down spaces instead of the full range of space. The frequency of which this suit comes up in Episode 4 can be frustrating (PixelJunk Shooter contained episodes 1-3, the sequel ranges from 4-6) but it helps vary the gameplay from the original title early on. The Light Suit is the most interesting of the bunch, though: while Episode 4 has you contend with heavy bedrock and poisonous bile and Episode 5 weathers the extreme elements, Episode 6 pulls you through darkness. This is new to the series and is a fun surprise two-thirds of the game through. Your ship must navigate through poorly lit caverns, the catch being that if you stay in an unlit area for any amount of time at all aliens swarm your ship, slowing you down and overheating your engines to the point of death. There are ways to combat this and the most effective of these is the Light Suit, which acts similarly to the Anti-Magnet Suit but instead of becoming invincible to oil you become invincible to the harm the darkness brings.
While the game does a great job of adding new elements to a game that could easily be part of the last one – you might not even notice the separation if played back to back with no title screen – it maintains its old school sensibility. It contains its own brand of environmental puzzles to keep you thinking while blasting away at the ugly threatening to murder the researchers. You might have to cool lava by clearing a path to make water flow, pull a variety of switches (all at once, sometimes) to release flammable gas that when ignited will burn through ice, or follow a well-planned maze – and all of these puzzles are clever to some degree.
Each episode contains 5 levels with several sub-areas each, and at the end of each episode is an epic boss fight. We’re talking bosses you wear down, not bosses you outright kill. These fights are in stages; you might attack a weak point until its HP falls by a quarter and then the boss will morph or reposition to reveal a different weak point, changing up the fight several times. While this becomes both exciting and stressful, being killed at any point during the fight will start you off at the beginning before you did any damage. A typical design, sure, but these bosses are throwing everything from the level before at you: smaller monsters, lava, explosive gas, bile, you name it – not to mention its own charging attacks, so failure is frustrating. You have to be on your game or you’re dead.
I was particularly impressed by the boss of Episode 5, an ancient turtle crab thing that corners you in a vertical corridor, spews lava, burns the air, shoots ricocheting beams, shoots his face at you, and swallows you up and spits you out of its tail’s face. The fight turns into homage for Space Invaders, your ship armed only with your normal rapid shot facing the top of the screen as enemies fill it. Your only hope is to shoot, shoot, shoot and dodge like mad, finishing with a strategy you’d used against one of that episode’s new enemies: a crystal ball-looking thing that is only vulnerable when you grab the ball, tug at it, and simultaneously shoot. The tail will falter, sucking you back in and out of the real mouth again for stage three of the fight, and so on.
During your travels and epic arcade fights the soundtrack upholds the high quality of the first game, an ultimate fusion of instrumental indie rock and electronica with hints of hip hop. It’s a soundtrack that works perfectly for a game but could easily work as a non-soundtrack music album. Click here to see an example of the music.
While a second player can always join in on Adventure Mode to help ease the challenges of the levels by having two ships on screen at the same time, there is a new online multiplayer mode, as well. It’s a one-on-one battle in which one player must gather as many scientists as possible into a safe zone while the other is playing seek-and-destroy, coming to obliterate your ship (though with limited visibility). You switch roles several times, and whoever rescued the most scientists wins. Experience points are divvied out, which can be used to buy weapons to help increase your defensive or offensive capabilities per match. The better you do, the more planets you’ll unlock to play on. It’s a fun kind of match to play for a few minutes but I wasn’t compelled to sink a lot of time into it.
PixelJunk Shooter 2: The Belly of the Beast is a great sequel to a great game, and will even stand well without knowledge of part one. The variations on levels, enemies, and new elements makes for a new experience in familiar territory – but that’s a good thing. There’s no re-imagining and no change in art direction for this sequel (I’m looking at you, Xenosaga: Episode II), it’s just the kind of straight fun and frustrating challenge you’d find at an arcade machine when you have a sock full of quarters and the entirety of a skipped school day to focus. Pick this one up and tell your friends to do the same. They won’t regret it.