Flip it, stick it, play Donkey Kong on it.
Ever since I wrung every ounce of fun out of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I’ve been dying to discover another strategy game that’s equally engaging in both portable bursts and longer sessions on the home TV. In the months following, nothing new has spoken to me, and even personal favorite Darkest Dungeon fell flat in the transition to Nintendo’s side of the court. When I caught wind of PixelJunk Monsters 2, however, I thought it might be the special something I’ve been searching for.
Arriving some ten years after its predecessor, PixelJunk Monsters 2 is a game which feels tailor-made for Switch in the same way the original shone brightest on PSP. Both are tower defense games with a bright, outdoorsy aesthetic, simple mechanics, and levels which are easy to pick up, put down, learn, and revisit. The major difference is that PixelJunk Monsters 2 makes the jump to 3D, opening a whole new dimension of gameplay and movement – which proves to be both a blessing and a curse.
Those unfamiliar with the first installment will have no problem picking up PixelJunk Monsters 2, as the “How To Play” section is quite extensive. That being said, the basics are almost instinctual. The core gameplay revolves around transforming pre-placed trees into towers, which can attack ground enemies, air enemies, or both. You build and upgrade these fortifications using gold and gems dropped by foes, protecting your precious “Chibis” from increasingly nasty waves of monsters. Surviving a level with all twenty Chibis gives you a Rainbow Fragment, which are used to unlock new areas.
It’s within this central gameplay loop that PixelJunk Monsters 2 shines the brightest. The levels are generally well-designed, the tower selection allows for varied strategy, and perfecting a stage on any of the three difficulties is immensely satisfying. Although the game currently only has fifteen levels spread across five areas, the real challenge lies in learning and perfecting each stage permutation to collect the all-important Rainbow Fragment. The strategy completionist in me loves this aspect of the game, as it provides no end of playing and tinkering before you can push through to success.
The cogs and gears which form the central experience of PixelJunk Monsters 2 seem straightforward, and they are. The only frills on the game’s core are the ability to customize player character Tikiman’s mask and shield, and new power fruits which can inflict various conditions such as burning or freezing on enemies when stepped upon. I enjoy this simplicity, as it provides a versatile template which can be appreciated by newcomers and seasoned players alike. Unfortunately, the basic nature of the gameplay is complicated by the game’s newfound ambitions regarding the third dimension.
Attempting to translate a top-down two-dimensional title into a 3D experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but PixelJunk Monsters 2 seems completely unsure of what to do with its additional plane. The game adds an optional third-person camera mode, which is fantastic for traversing the overworld and appreciating the gorgeous graphics, but functionally useless for a genre so dependent on knowing what’s happening on a map at all times. This lack of awareness is where Monsters 2 really suffers, as it extends far beyond an optional perspective.
Whereas the first PixelJunk Monsters provides a cut-and-dry overhead view of the entire level, Monsters 2 focuses the eye-in-the-sky on Tikiman, only revealing what’s directly around him at any given time. You can move the view a bit in any of the cardinal directions, but the game entirely lacks any sort of zoom or map function. Instead, you can only ascertain the level by running around and exploring it, removing critical time from laying your defenses. There were many times when a wave began and I had no idea from where it was approaching, simply because I didn’t have time to properly traverse the level. Although the idea of stricter time management in a tower defense game is a good direction, it’s done better here by spending gems to improve towers versus standing next to them and taking the time for an “upgrade dance” – not by running down the clock trying to ascertain the fundamentals of a stage.
It’s as if the game was constructed with complete lack of regard for how its components would interact. The core experience is wonderful, but it’s undercut by a system which is so preoccupied with allowing players to appreciate the visuals that it ignores the core tenets of a tower defense game. The idea of building towers on higher ground for more range is amazing, but Tikiman often slides down slopes or gets stuck up against rocks while jumping for those taller trees. Adding traversal hazards for Tikiman such as pits and lakes could be compelling, but instead their true peril is how they hinder resource collection, often by acting as inaccessible sinkholes for any loose coins or gems which bounce inside when dropped. PixelJunk Monsters 2 expands on the idea of playing a character in a level instead of being the hand of god, but it does so in all the wrong ways.
The ideas are good, but they often fall flat. After a couple waves, enemies will begin to take different paths through a level – but it’s impossible to tell which path, especially when you might not even know what the entire stage looks like. The online co-op mode is fantastic in concept, but not so much when I realized the game will warp players closer to each other to keep them all on the same screen, preventing individual players from working to secure distant portions of the map. Once again, the lack of a total overhead view bites PixelJunk Monsters 2 hard.
It can be frustrating, sure, but overall I’ve enjoyed the game. The aesthetic is wonderful, the essential gameplay is solid, and the challenge provides me with a decent reason to pick up and play a stage or two on the go. It’s been a net positive, but unfortunately, the devil is in the details. There might be some who aren’t as bothered by PixelJunk Monsters 2’s problems as I am, just as I’m sure there are those who despise them even more. If you’re a tower defense fan looking for a title with a good balance between price point and content, or even someone looking to break into the genre, you could certainly do worse. PixelJunk Monsters 2 may not be my next big strategy game, but it’s a decent stepping stone on the journey forwards.