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PixelJunk Raiders

PixelJunk Raiders

Written by Eric Hauter on 3/1/2021 for STA  
More On: PixelJunk Raiders

PixelJunk Raiders is the damnedest thing. It is a game at once engaging and off-putting. If the goal here was to make a video game simulation of an unforgiving alien planet, then PixelJunk succeeds wildly. But some players might have a hard time settling into its unique groove, as it is unlike much of anything else I’ve encountered in gaming. There are long periods of stylish, moody silence and beauty, punctuated by utter panic. But once PixelJunk Raiders sinks its hooks into players, they may find themselves unable to pull away. And the potential for community engagement is completely unique and unprecedented.

Be warned though: PixelJunk Raiders is not interested in your sensibilities. It does not want to hear about how you don’t like running for 10 minutes over long, barren expanses. It has no patience for your thoughts about how combat should work. Don’t like deteriorating weapons? PixelJunk Raiders doesn’t care.

This is a game that will either bend you or it will break you. You will either get on board with its peculiar rhythms and demands, or you will walk away – and PixelJunk Raiders won’t miss you when you're gone. Much like the unforgiving planet it is set on, PixelJunk Raiders is utterly indifferent to your experience. That’s what made me hate it, and then that’s what made me love it.

I’m not typically a roguelike guy, though I do indulge in the genre on occasion. It takes me a while to get used to games that expect me to die – where dying is an integral mechanic, rather than a punishment for not being good at the game. But I have played enough roguelikes to be accustomed to the loop. But PixelJunk Raiders is so peculiar in its cadences that I was utterly thrown off for the first few hours of the game.

In PixelJunk Raiders, the planet of Tantal has been invaded by a mysterious force. Various aliens have appeared on the surface of the planet, gathering its inhabitants and holding them hostage in citadels scattered across the landscape. A few of these survivors have managed to hide on the outskirts, but most of the natives are held captive in rooms and on rooftops across the numerous settlements on the planet.

As a young nameless mercenary, the player makes runs down to the planet to free the captives, transporting them to safety. Along the way, players must find weapons, supplies, and treasure, all scattered about the landscape. Goodies are hiding in jars, embedded in rocks, and tucked away in chests and furniture. If you see it and it looks like you can smash it, you probably should.

Weapons come in two flavors. Handheld stuff, like the typical swords, shields, daggers, and spears can be equipped in one or both hands. And then there are “Imprints,” which are items that you can drop on the ground – stuff like mines, jump pads, blocker walls, and even trained aliens that will fight for you.

A lot of my initial problems with PIxelJunk Raiders were my own fault; I was immediately running towards the citadels to rescue the captives without first taking time to stock up on swords and goodies. Sure, you can punch baddies to death (the early aliens are known as “Brians”), but it takes a while to do. And the bad aliens are prone to ganging up on you, bringing you to an early grave.

What I didn’t understand was that, beyond the citadels, there are many small adventures to be found out in Tantal’s seemingly barren wastelands. Surely PixelJunk Raiders didn’t expect me to run across a blue desert for three minutes to go find a sword and some money, did it? It turns out that yes, that was exactly what PixelJunk Raiders expected. And it took me a while to understand that you do not have to engage with the aliens. Sure, you get more points to level up if you do kill everything, but standing and fighting when running away is an option is sometimes unadvisable. It’s best to live to fight another day.

A large portion of PixelJunk Raiders is spent trucking around the wastelands on foot, looking towards possible points of interest in the distance. Reaching those points of interest to kill a few aliens and loot a few chests and pillars. This might sound slow and boring, but I would instead describe it as “meditative.” The pulsing music, the bold and brilliant colors, the comic-book animation, the 1970’s sci-fi vibe, it all adds up to something that feels remarkably similar to the thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction pieces of decade’s past.

Of course, its not all like that. PixelJunk Raiders delights in lulling players into a false sense of security, and then springing something obscenely unexpected on them. Crazed monsters that you have never seen before come springing out from the sand, or come loping across the dunes on an entirely unnatural-looking set of legs. In these moments, you might find yourself changing from a secure, “I’ve seen it all and have figured out how to handle it” badass mercenary into an “Oh lord, what is that thing? Drop everything and just run!” screaming coward. Never comfortable allowing the player to settle into a game loop for too long, PixelJunk Raiders is constantly switching up the paradigm, reminding you that the game simply does not care.

Beyond the imprints and weapons, PixelJunk Raiders gives players a few other ways to turn the tide ever so slightly. Each time you level up a rank, you are given a single perk point (called software patches in PixelJunk Raiders’ parlance) to spend on things like additional health or damage, or new combat skills. Early on, you should take the health. Trust me.

Occasionally on your return to the ship, your mercenary buddy Mark the Merc will offer you a free patch – usually a new power or weapon. But the stuff you get is a mixed bag; the super strong weapon you are granted takes forever to fire. Perks often come with drawbacks; Alien DNA you can splice with your own often comes with benefits like “gain 50% damage at full health, but lose 30% damage if lower than full health.” There is a push and pull to PixelJunk Raiders, and the game is not often interested in letting the player get too far ahead.

Another (and long term, perhaps the most interesting) quirk of PixelJunk Raiders is the game’s unique implementation of the Stadia State Share feature. I’ve created a video about how it works, because the implementation is so unique that it could completely change the way the game is played. Players are able to save off a copy of their procedurally generated levels, plunk down some imprints like mines, and then pass that level with the goodies intact to another player. Essentially, the State Share feature will allow players to crowd source levels – with each player saving off some bonuses to the State Share file, and then creating a new one and passing it on.

It is my sincere hope that some sort of community forms among PixelJunk Raiders fans. This feature is simply too powerful, unique, and cool to ignore. Players will need to establish a repository of State Share files online somewhere that everyone can draw from and contribute to. I can envision an eventual system of save links and walkthroughs online. “Load up – go north to collect cash – two Brians to defeat there – then go to the east citadel and activate the 14 imprints on the south side. Go south to lure the walker to the imprints, making sure he hits the mine field.” Stuff like that.

I don’t mind saying, PixelJunk Raiders has been an absolute bear to review. Early players are brave explorers, but if things go as I hope they will, those pioneers will be mapping the procedurally generated land for those that will follow. I’ve felt much like the Lewis and Clarke of video games, forging into an unknown land that will eventually be tamed by the masses. I’ve been wandering the wilds with the full knowledge that next week the Stadia fanbase will invade this planet and start whipping it into shape.

Frankly, once the public gets their hands on PixelJunk Raiders, the tone and tenor of my review may quickly become outdated. There is a possibility that this game goes viral, with State Shares being flung across the internet far and wide. I sincerely hope that it happens, because in that scenario, PixelJunk Raiders could possibly make video game history.

PixelJunk Raiders is one of the most beautiful, moody, and tough games I've ever played. But it is the potential of the Stadia community crowdsourcing the game that makes it such a fascinating and unique experience. A unique experience on its own, PixelJunk Raiders has capacity to become a gamechanger if the gaming public choses to adopt it. Either way, this is a fascinating piece of video game history in the making. Attention should be paid.

Rating: 8.8 Class Leading

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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