Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: PixelJunk Eden



PixelJunk Eden is the third PSN title released for the in-name-only PixelJunk series, and it’s another new direction for the Japanese developer Q-Games. PixelJunk Racers was a mediocre puzzle-slash-slotcar racer, PixelJunk Monsters was a critically acclaimed tower-defence and strategic resource-management game, and Eden – well, it’s an entirely new take on the burgeoning swing-em-up platformer genre.

You control a small creature called a grimp, and by using the three basic movements – gripping, jumping and swinging – you work your way through the levels in search of the 50 lost ‘Spectra’, which are scattered throughout the levels. As you’d expect, though, the Spectra aren’t easy to find: they’re often located at the highest points of the levels, meaning you’ll have to grow your own platforms to reach them. And that’s where the game starts to get interesting.

From a gripping position, you can make your grimp swing in circles on its silk strand simply by rotating the left analogue stick. This is pretty fun in itself, although the strand breaks relatively easily, and you’ll only last five or six full rotations before the silk snaps and you go flying off at whatever tangent you happened to be on. While spinning, though, you can catch the floating ‘Pollen Prowlers’, which explode in little puffs of pollen. Catching more than one Prowler on a single silk thread increases the available pollen; and, once you’ve hit at least five, you can also pick up oscillator crystals, which keep your grimp ‘in tune’, and give you more time in the level.

Pollen is the most valuable resource in the game, and the more you can get, either by catching the Prowlers or defeating the enemies in the level, the more platforms you’ll awaken. If you’re close enough to a seedpod when you’re catching pollen, it’ll get swept into the pod, and once it’s collected enough, you’ll be able to germinate the seed, and grow another flower, a patch of grass, or something that looks suspiciously like a turgid sea tulip. The constant cycle of germination, the omnipresence of pollen gametes in the gardens, and the grimp’s role as a vector for the pollen all add up to a pretty fertile experience. There’s a lot of ‘flowering’ going on – let’s leave it at that.

Once you’ve impregnated enough seeds and sprouted enough tumescent plants to reach the Spectra, you can unlock even more plants in your home garden, the titular Eden. These new plants let you climb, jump and swing your way to the entrances of more difficult levels, each of which has five additional Spectra to find.

Keeping your ‘oscillator’ ‘in tune’ is a major problem with the game, and one that almost breaks the experience. From being a relaxing platformer with fine-tuned jumps, Eden suddenly shifts to a nagging race against time, with the constant threat of failing a level. Once you’ve mastered the art of predicting the waves of the world’s fluid medium, jumping ahead of your target and timing your spins for maximum pollen and crystal collecting, though, the time limit becomes less of a problem as you work your way through the gardens.

This is a blessing, really, because the next big issue crops up as you’re working your way through. Each level has five available Spectra to collect, and for some reason you can’t get any more than one new Spectra each time you play through a level. At least for your first play through the game, this means that four out of five runs through any particular level are redundant, as the seedpods reset each time you revisit the level. That would have been fine, if slightly irritating, for the first garden you visit – heavy-handed simplicity as a training tool isn’t a new concept – but for it to happen in every single garden? It should have gone without saying, but level (and time) redundancy is never a good feature to enforce on players.

The game’s issues aren’t insurmountable; they’re just annoying. Perhaps a tighter editorial cycle near the end of the game’s development would have resulted in something more user-friendly. The obvious comparison to make is with thatgamecompany’s flOw, although it’s more of a conceptual frame of reference than any concrete similarities between the two. flOw, after all, went through the travails of being developed for the web before it went anywhere near a PlayStation console.

But where flOw could put the unsuspecting gamer to sleep, Eden demands your attention. Jumps are easily missed in the early stages of the game, and while you can still correct your course slightly mid-fall, it’s often difficult to reach the very top of the level again, particularly if you haven’t woken all of the seeds below you. Eden’s driving technotrance background music also helps keep the tempo going, and it changes in each level, as do the primary colours of the level.

All three games in the PixelJunk series hit different genres, which is a bit of a surprise, given most developers’ tendencies to stick with proven hits. What Q-Games offers, though, are fresh takes on proven genres, all wrapped up in clean and bright HD textures, packaged for sale for a bargain ($15.50) through a distribution network that doesn’t rely on the gaming equivalent of food miles, extra plastic packaging, or dealing with the multifarious behind-the-counter grimps at videogame stores. And that works just fine for me.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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