Tower Defence games have come on leaps and bounds over the past decade and it’s been that long since Pixeljunk Monsters, and then the expanded Encore game out. The cute monsters ambling along to kill your babies to the lighter than air soundtrack meant many hours of so-close-but-not-quite-winning battles in the search of perfect runs. It was difficult but its crisp simple design meant it was easy to understand, reset, and try again.
Funny then how a decade passes and in the effort to make a game so much better in every way leads to a game that is fundamentally more difficult to keep track of and understand whilst changing only a few key things. It makes for slightly misbalanced gameplay in the pursuit of modernisation, but with a few tweaks that are reportedly about to be patched in shortly, Monsters 2 should be a raving success.
At its core, Monsters 2 is a near same game as the original but there have been two big changes – it’s now in 3D and the maps are much larger than a single screen. This poses two issues that the game does not address well. Firstly with things being in 3D it feels much more unfair and random when you launch a cannonball and it misses for example – but your enemy bounces off and through structures anyway. It looks and feels more randomised in how it damages your enemies and I have no idea why (the gap between cause and effect perhaps?) but it makes things feel less satisfying. The second issue is that with bigger, more complex maps, the game does a poor job of helping you understand where the next wave is coming from. Previous with a single screen, you’d see all the entrances and be able to deal with your enemies. Although markers at the screen side do help, often they don’t appear and you get a text bubble saying “they’re taking a different route?”. This often leads to you running, at a slow pace, around the map itself working out where they are coming from. This is very frustrating with flying enemies because they don’t follow a ground-based path. It makes your first run-through of every level essentially a mapping exercise which is a chore as it feels unfair.
To combat this, you can run the game (and it’s the standard view) from a near top-down perspective to lay down your towers, collect coins and gems, and upgrade. Currently, the zoom for this is a little too close for comfort and the dev team are currently working on patching in wider zooms. This would solve almost all the issues I run into in the game itself as if you look beyond the issues stemming from a lack of view and therefore prompts as to what’s going on, the game is utterly charming. [EDIT – The patch added a wider zoom out but this doesn’t fully solve the issue.]
Graphically, the game is stunning. It has a lifelike claymation-style with that photo filter that makes big things look like cute little toys. It’s cute and cuddly and absolutely fantastic. Tikiman, your character, can now jump and many of the stages are built with the gradient in mind. Each stage has three difficulties and although the overall pace of the game is quite pedestrian, it needs to be so you are given a chance to traverse the landscape and then plant your towers. Towers can be levelled up by dancing next to them as before, or by gems. The gem system is slightly different this time around too. You need gems and coins to buy anything other than a standard arrow, cannon, air gun or ice tower – and that’s for each tower you buy. Often the gems are rare to find so it makes you very choosy, which is why the fact that routes keep changing means your plans are never in place for too long and you need several runs through to make sure you understand the patterns and then prioritise.
The game also features a co-op mode but no co-op specific maps, and there are only 15 maps in total, with three difficulties each making them feel new. Some of them have challenges associated with them like having no gems in a level or only one baby, so you need to have a perfect run, but these are few and far between. Some maps have boulders to push down hills as last resort attacks which is great fun, although the environment could have been more interactive since one area is in a volcano, and the other a snowy mountain. Elemental effects in maps I’ve seen put to great effect elsewhere, but there’s none here. There is fruit you can buy and throw at the enemies too but aside from the bomb fruits, they have little effect on the enemies at all and feel a bit pointless. Often levels early on are really tightly paced so you’ll need all your gems and coins for tower upgrades. I don’t think I’ve bothered with fruits in a serious game run once.
Pixeljunk Monsters 2
I think if I hadn't been treated to gems like Defense Grid and Defenders of the Valley, I wouldn't know where to pick holes in a tower defence's game design but PixelJunk Monsters 2 feels like 2 steps forward, 2 steps back and then a shimmy sideways. Once you've wrestled with the camera zoom there is a great game to enjoy. It is just a shame that all this beauty has come at the price of usability.
Graphics are sublime.
Tower defence mechanics are still as strong as ever.
Tikiman, his costumes and the world you inhabit is adorable.
Co-op is interesting and provides a unique hook.
Having to collect your coins and gems is often part of the strategy.
The camera needs to be wrestled into submission.
The lack of visual prompts on your first playthrough, when combined with the above issue, makes the game feel a bit unfair at first.
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