In the budding years of the “Tower Defense” genre, Q-Games came out with their take on the formula with “Monsters” and to my great surprise, it turned out to be one of the best of its kind.
In fact, as one of my early digital downloads on the PS3, it saw a great deal of playtime, both solo and in local co-op. I absolutely adored the game as did my co-op partner, so much to the point we managed to perfect every single stage in the whole game. Not because of some trophy as those didn’t exist back then, but rather because we liked the game so much and we wanted to see if we could (shocking, I know).
Almost six years later, a version compiling various expansions and improvements over the years has finally made its way to the Vita and reaffirms something that I’ve known all along.
The premise of Monsters is as simple as “kill everything that moves.” There’s no teenager with spiky hair destined to save the world, nor is there moral ambiguity in dispatching the invaders. The design of the Tikiman and Monsters speak for themselves without the need of any convoluted pretext and the game is all the better for it.
While the objective is simple, achieving that goal with any kind of efficiency is an entirely different matter.
Each Tree in the level marks a location where a tower can be built with their own strengths and weaknesses. The most common two towers are the arrow and cannon towers. The arrow tower has a great range and is able to attack enemies both on the ground and air but is relatively weak with moderate reload speed. The cannon on the other hand is incredibly short ranged and slow but has a powerful splash damage that can only hit enemies on the ground. As the game progresses, more and more towers are unlocked, like the laser tower which has great range and can attack any flying enemy in a straight line.
The towers can be upgraded naturally by landing killing blows on enemies, but that takes too long for it to be a viable strategy. Instead, the Tikiman (player controlled character) can stand inside the tower and do a little dance (make a little love, get down tonight) to slowly get the experience meter on the tower to rise. If even that is taking too long, gems which rarely drop from enemies (also hidden in trees sometimes) can be used to instantly upgrade a tower. As an upgraded tower often has better range, reloads quicker and is always more powerful, it’s important to try to upgrade as many towers as possible. However, gems are a precious commodity indeed as they are also used to unlock more advanced towers or even higher interest rate earn at the beginning of each wave, so it’s usually unwise to spend all the gems on upgrading towers exclusively.
As important as upgrading is, picking the right position for the towers themselves is the true key to success. There’s nothing more wasteful than building a tower in a location where it won’t be able to hit much of anything. A cannon tower built too far away from the lane might as well be a gardening gnome for all the good it’s going to do. Luckily, there is an option to sell towers at a slight gold loss, so one mistake doesn’t automatically equal failing a stage.
Also, as monsters drop gold and gems as they are killed, it’s up to the player to go around picking the treasure before too much time has passed lest it all disappear into salty tears for the Tikiman.
Combing all of those elements, the true brilliance of the game shines in how time is managed within the level.
Should I sit on this tower trying to raise its level? Should I be looking around random trees hoping to find some hidden gold or gems? Should I go around building new towers? Should I spend the gems to instantly upgrade this tower or should I save them so I can unlock a more advanced tower for use? Should I spend my gold now to build a bunch of towers to play it safe or should I keep it till the beginning of the next wave to earn more interest? THERE’S GOLD EVERYWHERE ON THE GROUND, OH GOD ITS BLINKING ITS GOING TO DISAPPEAR IF I DON’T PICK IT UP SOON!
These questions and various panic attacks were a constant in any given moment during a stage. One could watch someone else play PixelJunk Monsters and see it as a very slow experience but the amount of thinking and split second decision required to play it properly is actually quite intense.
Fortunately the folks at Q-Games aren’t completely sadistic as they have the decency to show what the next wave of enemies will be, but as the levels become more and more challenging, figuring out where they will spawn or what path they will take can become a game of trial and error.
There is nothing more frustrating than making it 10-12 waves into a hard stage running perfect and lose it all when the monsters bypass most of my defenses by going a completely different path. So, what I started doing was to do two runs of the same stage. First, I would play it normally without trying to “rainbow” (perfect) the stage to see where the enemies spawn, what paths they would take and etc. If I’m able to rainbow it the first time around, great. If not, I will play it again fully knowing what to expect and use that knowledge to finish the stage without letting a single monster reach my precious hut.
Outside of the frustration of trial and error, the Vita version has some slow downs during the more hectic moments where dozens of enemies are exploding into shiny gold coins that litter the entire screen. Luckily, these moments are few and far between and don’t affect the overall experience too much so I consider it negligible.
The content added for the Vita version include original PixelJunk Monsters, the expansion “Encore” and the extras from the “Deluxe” version on the PSP. Add to all that the ability to play co-op online via WiFi with anyone in the world and this is the clear definitive version of Monsters.
When I picked up PixelJunk Monsters Ultimate HD, I worried that it might not have aged well or perhaps that I just remembered it fondly due to the rosy glasses of nostalgia but after playing it again I can say with great confidence that not only is it great game to have on the go, it’s one of the best tower defense games ever created.
If you own a Vita, there’s really no reason why you should not have this game.
Fun Tidbit: There is also a random generated level based on a five-letter keyword but I found it to be uninteresting compared to the normal levels.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.