PixelJunk SideScroller is certainly a departure from recent entries in Q-Games' downloadable series. It drops a lot of the inventiveness from the free-flowing Shooter series to craft something a bit more manic. On paper it sounds like a step-back, but in execution it's almost certainly the best PixelJunk title since the brilliant tower-defense re-imagining, PixelJunk Monsters.
The PixelJunk series has always prided itself on outstanding visual styles, and SideScroller is no different. Heavily inspired by the vector visuals of yesteryear, Sidescroller's bold colour palette is complimented by a collection of warm post-processing effects that gives the game a real distinctive look. Scanlines, glare and a brilliant monitor curvature effect provide the game with a tangible warmth that conjures up memories of musky arcades and the sting of lingering cigarette smoke.
It's an evocative piece — not just through the sentiment of its visual style. The gameplay too harks back to the days of Gradius. But while SideScroller is a game heavily inspired by the classics of the shmup genre — it's still got a personality of its own.
The game actually borrows quite a lot from its predecessor, PixelJunk Shooter 2, which many will remember went a bit bullet-hell itself earlier in the year. Despite being locked to a singular direction, the motion of your ship is vastly reminiscent of PixelJunk Shooter, and so too are the enemies and environments. Sure everything's been given a throw-back lick of paint, but the game is still set within the same "universe".
The fluids and gases from PixelJunk Shooter also return, although nowhere near as prominently. This time you'll be dodging the odd stream of neon lava or dashing towards a pool of water just to claim your health back, but never manipulating fluids in order to solve puzzles. Mainly because you won't have time. This is a cramped and claustrophobic experience that takes every opportunity to toss bullets on screen.
It's a game based on quick reactions, and not just those of your ship's placement, but also your offensive decisions. Throughout PixelJunk SideScroller your craft will be equipped with three core weapons: a machine gun, a laser and bombs. As you'd expect, each of these weapons have strengths and weaknesses, and so you'll need to make quick judgements about which weapons to select and also upgrade via power-ups that pop-up on screen.
Cycling through weapons isn't as smooth as we would have liked — especially for a game so dependent on pace — but after a few hours it'll become second nature. You can get through the game's early stages using nothing but the machine gun, but if you intend to earn the top scores, and make it through the game's concluding stages, then you'll need to be much more tactically aware of your weapons' strengths and weaknesses. In short, the machine gun is your multi-purpose death dealer, while the laser provides slower more powerful blasts and the bombs deal with fixed opponents attached to walls.
Taking props from bullet-hell shooters, PixelJunk SideScroller is not an easy game. Thankfully it overcomes its difficulty barrier by providing frequent checkpoints and the ability to restart at a previously earned checkpoint after the 'Game Over' screen is shown. Sure you'll lose all your points, but you won't have to restart the level, making the experience much more manageable.
SideScroller does some cool things with its leaderboard implementation, most notably generating obtainable score targets while you play. These help to push you over the finish line, and give you an indication of what you need to do to score as highly as possible. The game's driven by a neat combo system that rewards you with consecutive kills, and the level design is laid out in a manner that makes it possible to keep your combo score refilled for an entire stage.
Boss fights lavish the package with some set-piece dazzle, and are even more brutal than the levels preceding them. You'll need to learn their patterns to get through unscathed. Casual players will find some frustration in these encounters, but if you're concentrating nothing is impossible.
Switching the game's difficulty to hard inverts the title's colour palette — a twist that takes some serious getting used to. Those that venture their way through Hard will also unlock a gray-scale visual style to accompany the game's Brutal difficulty setting.
Despite the numerous difficulty options, if you don't get caught up in SideScroller's leaderboards then you'll find somewhat of a slender offering here. It's a lot shorter than PixelJunk Shooter, and there's less of a reason to replay levels. The odd hidden collectible is still available, but unlike Shooter there's less incentive to go exploring.
Q-Games would probably argue that this is because of the genre SideScroller is inspired by, and they'd be right. But for all of the game's strengths, it's still worth questioning your enjoyment of bullet hell shooters before committing given SideScroller's relatively steep asking price.
If you're a fan of arcade experiences of old, then PixelJunk SideScroller is a rare treat. The shmup genre has been largely under represented on the PlayStation Network, and Q-Games' latest really fills a void. It might not have quite the same experimental ambition as its predecessors, but it still feels remarkably refined.