Japanese developer Q-Games should be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act. Downloadable PSN game PixelJunk Shooter, the fourth in the quirky and varied series, is much more than a shooter. It would be better titled: PixelJunk Shooter but Mainly a Puzzler, with Great Physics.
While shooting is the game's central mechanic - the shooting of lasers, homing missiles, jets of magma and water - it is not a side-on shooter in the traditional sense. It does not rely on twitch reflexes or android-like hand-eye coordination. It does not rely on the kind of skill you see nutcases showcase on arcade "shmups".
Instead, the game has more in common with Just Add Water's recent retro PSN game Gravity Crash. Smart, rather than skilful, craft movement is the order of the day. And while you need to shoot to kill on occasion, you'll mainly be shooting to manipulate the environment.
But it's easier to get to grips with than Gravity Crash. The control scheme is simple and accessible: The left stick moves your craft, the right aims, R1/R2 fires and L1/L2 deploys the grab claw. So, you can move your craft about the cavernous levels, turn so you're facing behind the way you're going, and let off some laser fire. In this way, Shooter's more like your straight up twin stick shmup. My only gripe with the controls is having to quickly rotate the right stick 360 degrees to perform a ship spin - a move that absorbs point-giving orbs and bores through vulnerable rock. Half the time the move doesn't trigger, and it's hard work on your right thumb.
Each of the three "episodes" is made up of five stages, and each of these is made up of five levels. They're all set on some mysterious planet, where a colony of energy gathering humans has unearthed something nasty. You arrive to find out what's going on, and rescue the stranded workers. Plot's not the point, of course, but it should be noted that Shooter's "story" is fleshed out more than in any previous PixelJunk game. The 1080p PixelJunk 2D graphics make the tight, winding spaces as eye-catching and colourful as you could hope for, and the breezy trip-hop music, from High Frequency Bandwidth, fits the tone perfectly.
The gameplay, like the controls and graphics, is structured with simplicity in mind. Each level exit only opens once you've rescued all of the workers. To rescue them, all you need to do is grab them with your ship's extendible claw. It sounds simple, and it is, but it can often be harder than you think. Some of the workers are trapped in hard to reach areas you initially reckon are impossible to access and must be some sick joke on the part of Q-Games. But in some respects, the easy to grab workers pose the biggest problem. Workers are vulnerable, and in PixelJunk Shooter, friendly fire is a real danger.
Shooter's genius is environmental manipulation, and the tools you're given to do it. It comes as no surprise to discover that Q-Games toyed with the idea of calling the game PixelJunk Elements, because that's exactly what the game's about. At first, it seems overly simple. The early levels ease you into its complexities: You're able to blast away soft rock with bog standard laser fire, eating away at the level itself as you search for workers. Stray close to lava for too long, and your ship will overheat and crash - taking a dip in water cools you down. But things soon get much more complicated than that, and Shooter becomes the hard PixelJunk experience the series is known for.