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PS3 / Playstation Network
If you’ve played Flash games on the Web, you’ve probably run into at least one tower defense game. The basic concept: place a bunch of weapons towers along the walls of a maze, and try to kill the enemies in the maze before they reach the exit. It's an immensely popular genre; gaming blog Joystiq even called one of the better expressions of the formula, Desktop Tower Defense, one of their top games of 2007. Considering that the Flash games are free to play, about now you might be wondering why you’d plunk down $10 to grab PixelJunk Monsters, a downloadable PS3 tower defense game. Couldn’t you just play another Web game and get the same experience?
Well, yes and no. PixelJunk Monsters is a tower defense game, it's true, but there are more than enough twists to make this version different from the dime-a-dozen versions you can play online. For one, you can’t point and click to build towers; instead, you have a cute masked avatar who walks around building towers. This means you have to actually think about what order to build towers in; building something on the other side of the map means you’ve got to actually run across the map, stealing valuable time you could be using to pick up coins from dropped enemies or dancing inside towers to upgrade them. (Did I mention you can dance inside towers to upgrade them? Genius!) Another twist is that instead of being able to place towers anywhere, you have to use the available trees as placement points for your towers. This adds an extra bit of challenge because not all trees will give you optimal defensive coverage.
The little tweaks here and there add up; underneath PixelJunk Monsters’ adorably cute exterior lies a surprisingly challenging game. If you think you’ve mastered tower defense games on the Web, don’t be too sure you’ve figured out Monsters. The level design is more inventive and challenging than the average, and the game balance has been tweaked such that there isn’t one obvious strategy to pursue, like there can be with the free Web games. When you throw in the additional challenge of trying to beat each level without losing any of the little munchkins you’re protecting, you’ll probably end up replaying stages over and over trying to figure out just the right build to keep up with the relentless waves of invaders.
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Let me be brutally, embarrassingly honest with you for a moment: I suck at PixelJunk Monsters. I can’t begin to count how many times I had to restart the second Easy level -- the second! -- in order to survive all the waves with all my lives intact. You’d think this would be a recipe for frustration, and normally it would be -- but not for Monsters. Maybe it’s the soothing music or the cutesy art direction, or maybe it’s just the ability to immediately restart the level whenever you want, with no loading delay. But failure in Monsters is far from being a major downer. This is especially surprising given that when I fail repeatedly in most games, I want to either sulk in a corner or break my television. Rarely have I seen a game where the emotional price of failure is so low.
And perhaps this is why I really like PixelJunk Monsters, even though it sends me back to the drawing board so often. The game is just plain fun, no matter if you win or lose. And if you find it’s just too hard to work out the proper strategies on your own, there’s always co-op with a friend to give you an extra edge. Don’t think you’re paying $10 for a rehash of a Web game, because Monsters is so much more. (Buy it, 90/100)