As near as I can tell, the story for PixelJunk: Monsters goes something like this:
John Q. Tikiman has a problem. A big problem. A Monster problem. In between paying bills and taking care of the Tikikids, John's islands are being invaded. With no choice left, he is forced to use magic coins to transform trees into instruments of destruction. Monster Destruction. John Q. Tikiman is TIKI-DEFENSEMAN.
That's a close approximation of the rich, storied lore of this interesting take on the tower defense genre. Ok, ok, so they never come right out and call him John. Or Tikiman. In fact, nothing I wrote is ever said within the game itself, though something similar, though far less dramatic, was probably used in the promotional material found on the Steam page.
Whatever liberties I did take with my description of the game and its events, the key thing to take away from this is that Monsters is a tower defense game. It's non-traditional in the way the key mechanics are brought to bear, but let there be no doubt that you are defending a key position from hordes of enemies through the use of literal towers that attack automatically. Where Monsters makes its separation from the usual fare is in the use of Tikiman as the focus of the action, giving the player a physical point of contact, rather then the standard semi-omnipresent director.
That presence on the map is the core of Monsters. Where a standard tower defense allows for little in the way of interaction outside of placing towers and making upgrades, Tikiman forces direct action. Want to make a tower? Run to the tree, pay the fee, and watch it grow. Need coins to pay for more towers? You're running through their scattered corpses and collecting the coins they drop. Where other games in the genre automate, Monsters forces action.
In fact, even in inaction, you are forced to make choices and stay active. When not paying for towers or collecting goods, Tikiman dances his way to upgrades. Each tower has an experience meter that fills by killing enemies; when it fills, the tower gains a level, increasing in power, range or area of effect. Set Tikiman in front of a tower, and that xp bar fills up like it's killing a constant stream of baddies. The process takes longer the higher the level, but it's incredibly useful, especially when planting towers in preparation for future raids.
If there is any dark spot to the whole having a physical presence thing, it's that Tikiman moves like a slug crawling across the salt flats. Even after an early upgrade, he is torturously slow. He's also susceptible to the packs of monsters, as they stun him and cause him to pop like Sonic, though he hemorrhages coins instead of rings. They're not hard to avoid... unless you like threading the needle trying to pick up coins through the small breaks in some of the larger enemy groups. In the grand scheme of things, it's only a minor annoyance, but in the mid rounds, when you are trying to make up some ground on the expanding horde of marching monsters, seeing that explosion of coins from a minor misstep is almost heartbreaking.
It's biggest flaw, however, is in the requiring of perfection to progress. Maps are divided into easy, medium, and hard difficulties, and everything beyond the initial easy maps, including the second and third island, is gated off. With things becoming more difficult as you go, progression gating is expected, even welcomed as a way to keep you from getting in over your head. Monsters takes that gating one step further though, requiring rainbows to open the gates. Rainbows are only earned when you finish a level without losing any of the 20 tiki-people you have to protect, in essence, finishing the level perfectly.
Doing this on anything higher then the casual difficulty becomes an exercise in trial and error. Monsters is excellent at finding ways to change things up, either by adding new twists to the enemies, like shields against a particular tower type, or increasing their speed and numbers. I found it's ability to switch things up refreshing, but as I was forced to play whole levels over and over again in this quest for perfection, it quickly became irritating. Infuriating. Hell, if I was John McEnroe I would have set the island ablaze just as quickly as he's melted stadiums with his rage.
It's unfortunate, but I was able to deal with it by turning the difficulty down. It pains me to say that, makes me feel like I have to turn in some kind of gamer credibility card, especially because I pride myself on being able to deal with “difficult.” The difference here though was that I just didn't want to spend the time playing the same levels over and over. I didn't want to spend the time learning the intricacies of every round, not to beat the level, but to beat it perfectly. It's that extra word, perfectly, the key to the locks on every island of Monsters, that brought down the entire experience.
Quest for perfection aside, the muted yet cutesy visuals and bumping, thumping soundtrack make it hard to hate on the game for any extended amount of time. The three main islands do a great job of presenting multiple looks and environments, even going so far as to pair “dangerous” terrain, like the lava floes surrounding an active volcano, with the more difficult levels. The titular monsters themselves maintain this aesthetic, all of them cutesy and simplified. In fact, if it weren't for their single minded determination to turn your tiki-folk into spirit goo, I wouldn't have the heart to call them “monsters” at all.
It would have been nice to see a bit more variation in the monsters, as you end up defending against the same types throughout. I'll admit, seeing the same monsters through helps immensely with strategy development and tower deployment, and it makes the times when new, unknown monsters appear feel more engaging, but I've been spoiled by other games in the genre, especially Plants vs. Zombies, where each level is an exercise in defending against new, ever mounting threats.
The soundtrack is a mixture of pleasant beats and what can only be described as jungle drums. Those drums drive home the tribal feeling. The tempo rises and falls as Tikiman performs actions, reaching it's peak each time he settles down to boogie in front of any of the towers. It can be a little overbearing if you like to watch/listen to things while you play games, but it's easy enough to adjust in the settings.
Finally, for those seeking to defend in groups, Monsters does offer co-op. You can play local or online, though if you are really itching to play this way, local is going to be your best bet. Originally released on the PS4 in 2008, the PC release hasn't brought out a giant community in force, and while there are connections to be made across Steam, they are few and far between.
For what it brings to the table, PixelJunk: Monsters Ultimate is a great package. Tons of content, engaging gameplay, and a cute look really set it apart from other entries in the genre. I think it takes a huge step back in requiring perfect runs in order to progress to new areas, but when compared overall, it's one blemish on the surface of an immensely interesting experience.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!