PixelJunk 1-4 Hands-On: Better Than a Lava Lamp

By Greg Mueller, Apr 29, 2009 11:11am PDT Sony recently showed off the latest title in the acclaimed PixelJunk series of quirky downloadable games at a pre-E3 press briefing in West Hollywood. Although PixelJunk 1-4 was revealed last week, it hasn't yet been given an official name. Name or not, the game was playable at the event, and looked to be pretty far along in development.

PixelJunk 1-4 has players piloting a small craft through a series of subterranean caverns interspersed with pockets of magma and water. The goal of the game is to safely navigate each stage and use the ship's grappling hook to pick up survivors who are scattered throughout the level. Exactly what kind of ordeal these orange-clad guys have survived, only to be stranded deep underground, is still a mystery.

The game controls similar to dual-stick shooters like Super Stardust HD, but the focus of PixelJunk 1-4 is on problem solving rather than blasting endless waves of multicolored enemies. In the demo stages that I played, enemies were ancillary diversions and rarely posed any sort of threat.

As mentioned, the caverns that make up each stage are dotted with pockets of magma and water. By shooting the terrain around these pockets, you effectively control the flow of the opposing elemental liquids.

Magma will burn your ship and kill any survivors it touches, but water will cool your ship and also cool any magma it touches, turning the magma into rock that you can then blast out of your way. This tactic of alternately cooling magma and then blasting it out of your way is the key to solving each stage.

In addition to the varied terrain, there are other environmental factors to consider as well. The ship has a heat gauge that you have to keep an eye on throughout the game. If you spend too much time hovering near magma, you'll overheat and die. To keep your heat gauge in check you can find a pool of water and take a quick dip, which quickly lowers your ship's temperature back into safe operating range.

I played through four stages of PixelJunk 1-4 and only died once. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the survivors I was trying to rescue. There are seven survivors at the start of each level, but if you accidentally incinerate a few or hit them with a stray shot from your blaster, you can still finish the level and continue playing the game. The incentive to rescue survivors is a higher score at the end of the level.

As I progressed through the demo, the stages became more and more complex, requiring thoughtful planning and strategy to control the flow of magma and water. In later levels I found a couple different tools that I could pick up and use with my grappling hook.

I found a sponge that could be dropped in a pool to soak up water, then be picked up and used to drop that water on open pools of magma. I later grabbed a water bomb, flung it, and watched it explode with a satisfying splash and then quickly cool a large body of magma.

Publisher SCEA calls PixelJunk 1-4 a "flow simulation," which is an apt description. There's something almost hypnotic about watching the water and magma move and collide with a satisfying hiss of steam. It's this simple pleasure that makes PixelJunk 1-4 a unique and oddly engaging game.

There's no word yet on how many stages will be in the game, but according to Q Games representatives, it'd be safe to expect at least a couple dozen. Additional features such as remote play and the ability to upload clips of your games to YouTube should sweeten the deal when PixelJunk 1-4 comes to PlayStation Network later this summer.

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