Tower defence games are tricky things, I reckon. At their worst – and their worst is generally still pretty entertaining – they can feel a bit like clicker games. You buy stuff and place stuff and the enemies obligingly shuffle on through your maze, but the challenge has been eaten away by the sheer overwhelming force on your side and so you’re left just watching the numbers change – one side’s health being whittled down, another side’s loot slowly pooling. You get a hint of the hidden life of maths, sure – the way that one enemy, placed in the middle of a line of troops, will make it much further on their health than those in front or behind do – but it’s an empty, sugary sort of game when the designer’s attention starts to slide.
In PixelJunk Monsters the designer’s attention never did, however, and in PixelJunk Monsters 2 it still doesn’t. This is an odd sequel – many things are completely unchanged, while a handful of the tweaks can initially feel a little arbitrary – but there is beauty in it nonetheless. Some of the beauty lies with the original design, but there’s one big addition that, for my money, makes things surprisingly fresh.
Superficially, it is business as usual. You’re Tikiman, running around in a series of cheery environments, protecting your village and its inhabitants from wave after wave of invaders. The art style has moved on, from flat cartoons in the first game to something claylike and chunky here – an old children’s animation perhaps, not quite as weird and Soviet as the aesthetic employed in Q-Games’ glorious oddity The Tomorrow Children, perhaps, but still something that invokes stop-motion handicraft with its harshly-lit sets and plasticine models with pipe-cleaner skeletons tucked inside.
The rules and the pieces of this game, however, seem very similar. Tikiman can trade the trees that line the attackers’ paths for turrets, one at a time, as long as he has the cash to do so. There’s the light generalist of the arrow turret, and heavier specialists such as the anti-aircraft turret or the ground-based cannon. You can still level the turrets by dancing near them as well as by letting them see action or pumping in gems, and the further you get through the campaign the more turrets you unlock, some unleashing lightning or freezing or setting fire to the ground, while one, my absolute favourite, is a knotted lump of beehive, causing clouds of stingy little bastards to follow you around doing damage. No one turret truly shines, though, because this is still not a game about saving up for the single unit that will solve all your problems. It’s still a game about finding the right spot for the right tool – knowing that an arrow turret with that wonderful wide range works beautifully at a bend in the road, say, while a cannon is best deployed when the path grows narrow.
Enemies, equally, are as unshowy as the turrets, even though they’re now wonderfully plumped together from clay and poster-paints. The heavies shamble in or are carried on balloons. The spiders flip over and die when you nail them with a cannonball. The floating, buzzing horrors get a little lower when they take damage sometimes. What matters, more than the charisma of any single unit, is the way they are strung together, and the way their ordering forces you to think carefully about the towers you place and the spots you place them in. Just as enemies can undo a successful run instantly, simply by taking a different path than the one that is initially advertised at the start of a level, this is a game where you can place a turret and instantly – instantly! – know that you have stuck it in the wrong place, even before an enemy has encountered it. The maths are simple and you can spot an error with ease. How many minutes will pass until you’re staring at the defeat screen caused by this single misstep?
It’s still a wonderful thing when it’s all ticking along, when the towers are zapping enemies and the enemies are dropping coins that allow you to build new towers. Such are the finely-tuned pleasures of this kind of game that it doesn’t matter if it’s hard to spot a new enemy or a new turret type standing out amongst so much chummy familiarity. Even more pleasingly – although ‘pleasingly’ is clearly not quite the right word – the slight ambivalence of PixelJunk Monsters has survived. Even before you take into account the basic strangeness at the heart of tower defence games – are you a hero or a truly horrible mechanised bully? – there’s the fact that good old Tikiman is running around and chopping down trees in order to replace them with cannons and lasers. No wonder each level ends not with a Popcap-style blast of Ode to Joy, but with a slow, shuffle-footed fade to black before the stats screen appears. Survival, relief, but little in the way of a proper celebration.
The more you play – whether solo or on local or online co-op, the latter a bit of a risk given some empty servers at present and an unhelpful browser system – the more the changes to the formula start to announce themselves, however. Just as I would look at a new tower and wonder whether it was truly new or not – I generally ended up feeling I had probably encountered it in the original game – I would look at the screen and think: couldn’t I used to see the entire map all the time? I’m pretty sure I could, and now I can no longer. While there’s a limited ability for panning the camera, Tikiman must now rove around more expansive landscapes and know that he can never see all of the action at once. I like this, frankly, because it provides a welcome jolt of panic that adds time-management and spatial-management to the tactical side of things and makes the whole thing feel, weirdly, a little more fair. Equally, I like the new camera mode that allows you to squeeze a trigger and place yourself right behind Tikiman as he runs about on the paths. You can hunt for coins and gems this way, but it also just offers a thrilling glimpse of what’s at stake. Here’s you, so small and inconsequential, really, even if a new tweak means you can bounce off enemies on occasion and do them a little damage. And here are those guys, towering invaders suddenly filling the skyline.
The big change, though, is visible in almost everything: it’s physics. The move from flat drawings to a sculpted terrain means that physics starts to play a real role for the first time. A cannon on a hill might reach further than a cannon in a ditch, sure, but those life-saving turret-granting gems and coins that your enemies now drop are as much the pawns of gravity as anything else. They can roll away from you and bunch in hard to reach places. At one point I had an AA gun that was perfectly placed for chewing through invaders, but which saw all their coins fall into an abyss. This is a game where these things matter, where coins and gems mean new towers and new upgrades. Physics adds an extra way to make things hard for yourself because you didn’t think properly – just as it allows for the wonderful payoff you can get when you sense a huge ball rolling downhill to crush your enemies at the last minute.
Typical Q-Games eccentricity, I think: a game that seems to cleave very closely to the original formula while adding a quirk that quietly gives you a whole world of new things to think about. A game that eats away at your goodwill by loading you into a world map in which the first two areas I came across were walled-off DLC, but which then makes a bunch of simple stages scattered across a handful of lovingly themed environments the kind of thing I will genuinely return to again and again, unlocking new difficulties and finding new tactical approaches. PixelJunk Monsters 2 isn’t as fresh as the original, perhaps, and it’s not as gloriously dark and confusing as The Tomorrow Children, but it is precise and clever and it asks quite a lot of you when you’re playing. For me, that was enough to win me over.