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PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD review: unreasonably hard, undeniably fun

on 30 July 2013

When we reviewed PixelJunk Monsters' Encore expansion back in 2008, we noted that Q-Games' tower defense outing had received an “exponential leap in difficulty.” Within hours of starting PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD, I was feeling that white-knuckle frustration for myself. I've never been tempted to switch to a game's easy setting so quickly, but tuning Ultimate HD down to 'Casual' is a viable approach to feeling out a level and easing yourself into its trial-and-error gauntlet. In that respect, Monsters hasn't changed much in five years. What HAS changed is everything that makes this PlayStation Vita port the very best way to play PixelJunk Monsters: polished visuals that bring eye-popping color to life, touch controls for another (lesser) input option, and the full summation of content from previous versions, plus change.

That last bit is especially important, because it means that PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD has a rather alarming amount of content and replayability. Each of the game's 47 levels tasks you, the Tikiman, with defending 20 of your babies back at home base. Enemy creatures come in waves to kill the babies, and you must construct offensive towers at tree sites across the landscape to cut down the hordes. As you defeat monsters, you amass coins for buying new towers and gems for upgrading existing ones or unlocking new types. As tower defense gameplay tends to be, it's engaging, intense, and rewards critical thinking. There's nothing quite like the sinister elation of setting up the perfect killbox and mowing down enemies who move helplessly within range.

An impressive amount of stage variety yields similar sensations in totally unique scenarios. One of my personal favorites, Apocalypse Beach, brings in dozens of flying monsters over sea. By setting up anti-air turrets along the shore, I get that preemptive strike but lose a fortune in loot that falls into the ocean. I can set up my defenses farther back, but I need more firepower to compensate for the monsters' closer proximity to my babies. Finding failure and success in dozens of give-and-take situations like this one keeps gameplay remarkably fresh. There are (almost) always more trees than you'll need to use, and, consequently, more options than you'll know what to do with.

Frustrations arise when only one or two of these options lead to success. It's one thing to ask players to learn the right strategies from their mistakes; tying victory to a select handful of tower configurations is another matter entirely. Most stages take between 10 and 30 minutes to clear—once. But in mid- and late-game stages, even the slightest misstep is often worth a retry, wiping that progress. Between these retries and just plain failed attempts, I could spend upwards of three hours getting trounced by a single stage—on Regular difficulty. Switching to Casual to get a better feel for stages was a blow to my pride; I can't imagine the saint with enough patience to rainbow every stage on the unlockable 'Hard-core.'

Those rainbows—awarded for clearing a stage without losing any babies—are your carrot-on-a-stick, and, if anything, the almost overwhelming difficulty of PixelJunk Monsters serves to make these utterly intangible rewards some of the most compelling prizes in gaming. You can earn them on any difficulty, but small visual differences (like a cloud on Casual rainbows) taint your achievement and push you onward to bigger and brighter things. Literally—progression across the game's three islands is tied to how many rainbows you've earned. A host of side paths and Medal Challenges encourage further play. The latter is an interesting diversion when a break from the rainbow grind is needed, tasking you with completing certain stages under interesting conditions. Only using certain types of towers, staying on one side of the map—these derivations will make you better at the game, and they sure beat grinding the same waves ad nauseum to find the right defense through trial-and-error.

Another wrinkle is the random level generator that spawns a layout and enemy waves to match any five-letter combination you enter. The results are surprising and inventive, but they’re rarely balanced in the same way as campaign levels. Still, it'll take dozens—if not hundreds—of hours to finish the game at large. Anything extra is just icing on a cake that contains the best tower defense gameplay your PlayStation money can buy.

Yes, PixelJunk Monsters is hard—sometimes unreasonably so—but it's also undeniably, incredibly fun. The simple joys of amassing wealth, watching a new flag rise over an upgraded tower, or selling a tower for an explosion of upgrade-fueling loot would be plenty, but executing the swift death of a dozen monsters is triumphant in ways that keep me coming back. Apparently, others feel the same—this is the fourth PixelJunk Monsters release in less than six years, and veterans won't find much (or anything) here that hasn't appeared in prior versions. In fact, Ultimate HD is almost note-for-note the same as 2009's PSP release PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe.

What hasn't been seen before is this version's level of visual prowess. Ultimate HD leverages PS Vita's OLED screen and extra horsepower to push cartoon brilliance with stunning clarity and a framerate that only (imperceptibly) dips in rare screen-stuffed moments. This remaster is colorful simplicity polished to a mirror shine. It’s also backed up by an enthralling soundtrack. When it comes to judging a game's musical score, I usually try to come up with some kind of clever description that masks my own musical ineptitude. But during marathon sessions of PixelJunk Monsters, one point kept coming back to me: this game sounds like original PlayStation-era Spyro games. It's breezy and soft, but just frantic enough to keep you on your toes. It struck a nostalgic chord with me, but PlayStation newcomers should enjoy its whimsical tone all the same.

Ad-hoc and online cooperative play round out the offerings in Q-Games' latest. I lament the lack of online leaderboards (seriously, what the heck? PS Vita's competitive landscape is built on asynchronous bragging rights), but there's enough content and addictive gameplay here to make $14.99 seem paltry (and make Plus subscribers' early $11.99 seem downright generous). PixelJunk Monsters might be the only tower defense on PS Vita, but the series' accolades and fan following are well-deserved. PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD will break your spirit without breaking your bank, and that's more than most woefully short, hand-holding, 'blockbuster' games can say.


Kyle Prahl is PSU's Managing Editor. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook for a heaping helping of Minnesota nice.

PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD Review by Kyle Prahl

-The Final Word-

The latest PixelJunk Monsters lives up to the series' pedigree, making no concession on punishing trial-and-error gameplay while delivering undeniable fun over dozens (hundreds?) of hours.
  • Rewarding tower defense gameplay
  • So. Many. Hours.
  • Splendid visuals and score
  • Cruel trial-and-error
  • Almost no new content
  • No online leaderboards
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