In an era when Hades can win IGN’s Game of The Year award for reinventing the roguelike wheel, and more straightforward games like Dead Cells remain fun after countless runs, PixelJunk Raiders is a major disappointment. Despite a distinct visual style reminiscent of trippy synthwave albums or Moebius paintings, PixelJunk Raiders (perhaps the final Google Stadia exclusive) fails to distinguish itself from the competition in any meaningful way. It does put forth some inventive ideas, but at the same time stumbles over the basics too much for them to matter.
As a fresh-faced bounty hunter, it’s your job to rescue a bunch of desert-dwelling aliens from squid-faced baddies. But beaming down there in the flesh would be stupid, so you’ve got a limited number of digital avatars to complete your mission. It’s a thin setup, but certainly a familiar one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and you’ll often hear the same lines from your swarthy mentor congratulating you on nabbing some treasure.
PixelJunk Raiders Gameplay Screenshots
At first glance, PixelJunk Raiders (which bears no meaningful connection to the long-running PixelJunk franchise other than that it’s from the same development team) makes a great first impression. The randomly generated alien worlds you beam down to are awash in a mix of brightly colored, clearly defined landscapes that practically pop off the screen when bathed in moon or sunlight. Massive deserts give way to lush forests and strange alien architecture, and I was intrigued when I first discovered an underground bunker buried among the sand. A solid synth soundtrack helps keep things feeling “alien.” Giant stone pillars draw your attention skyward, where the faint outlines of other planets and moons remind you of just how small you are. Though each map is pretty massive, giant space cubes and plumes of smoke above each major location help to keep you from getting too lost.
Once you get a bit closer to the action, things fall apart. Each town you come across looks almost identical, save for the layout of the buildings. Raiders wants to give you the impression these kind aliens had a somewhat bustling community, but the drab exteriors and cookie-cutter market stalls, pottery, and interiors do anything but. It doesn’t help that the rooftops of most towns – where a lot of powerups and other important items end up – are just barely out of reach of your triple-jump, requiring you to either find a small ladder on the side of a wall or use the wildly inaccurate super jump while ducking and weaving around enemies.
Finding enough survivors to rescue can be a chore unto itself. Though Raiders makes it clear how many survivors are in each location and highlights survivors you’ve already seen while being busy fighting aliens, I often found myself having to circle settlements multiple times and dig through various identical buildings to find the last one I was missing. And if you were expecting the act of rescuing these kindly folks to be interesting, witnessing the same animation of grateful relief each time makes it feel like you’re rescuing a bunch of Chuck E Cheese animatronic characters. That’s if you can even rescue them in the first place, since having even one enemy nearby will block you from completing the interaction, and you’ll be forced to search around for that little jerk in the same laborious way.
The same sense of repetition applies to all of PixelJunk Raiders’ other locations, including forests and alien cities that climb a hundred yards into the sky. From afar, they’re initially tantalizing, but once you get deeper in and realize how repetitious the scenery is (and how enemies might get stuck between trees or within a force field, making them harder to find and kill), it quickly loses its luster. The same goes for underground bunkers that follow a painfully similar layout and offer relatively meager rewards.
The only bright spot of exploration was when a plume of smoke occasionally led not to another flat, dull town but what appeared to be the deadly aftermath of a battle between a few other bounty hunters like myself and three giant humanoid enemies. While the prospect of a mysterious encounter fueled my imagination, and stumbling upon it felt like a truly one-of-a-kind chance, it ultimately never led to anything meaningful.
Combat misses the mark as well: your battles with enemy aliens big and small feel a mile wide and an inch deep, and it’s where most of PixelJunk Raiders’ issues rear their ugly heads.
Given its roguelike nature, I was willing to forgive Raiders for being remarkably punishing right out of the gate. At the start of a mission your bounty hunter is equipped with little more than their fists, three lives, and a health bar that gets wiped out in about as many hits. In theory, this encourages you to explore the desert wastes and open up ancient vases or loot enemy bodies for swords, daggers, hammers, or shields. In practice, you’re more often just collecting gems that don’t immediately serve any purpose. Actual weapons are notably harder to find, and unless you select a specific perk, you end up losing everything upon your painfully sudden death.
The weapons themselves are hardly distinguishable from one another. All swords, no matter how fancy, result in the same flurry of strikes, and two-handed hammers seem to stun enemies a little better but aren’t much more useful. When you add in the fact that they’re so fragile that they lose 1% durability for every strike, it’s even worse. If you weren’t into weapons breaking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you’re going to absolutely hate it here.
PixelJunk Raiders’ combat is not exactly a tower defense, and not quite aggressive Dark Souls swordplay, but a poor mishmash of the two that combines fairly standard melee fighting with setting traps for enemies. You can lock onto a target, although I found doing so to be stifling due to how it restricts your movement, and you’ll trade swings with them before their obvious wind up finishes and they slash you. One on one, it’s relatively mundane stuff, rushing to deplete their health bar before they can take a sizeable chunk of yours. When contending with groups it’s far more difficult, especially once long-range and bigger enemies get added to the mix. It’s a decent variety (my favorite being the Wild Wild West saw blades that pop up out of the sand and try to mow you down) but once you figure out their one or two tricks, combat rarely manages to surprise. A floaty sense of movement (which is only aggravated if your internet connection stutters) kept it from ever feeling like I was growing as a fighter.
I found setting traps to be a slightly more effective, yet equally frustrating approach. Mines are effective at wiping out groups of smaller enemies, or putting a serious dent in larger ones, but kiting enemies into them is a dull and frustrating experience, made even worse by the fact that it’s hard to gauge how far away you need to be to avoid getting caught in your own blast. Also, once they’re gone, they’re gone, including a mistakenly placed mine you dropped in the heat of battle.
Imprints – digital clones of various enemy types that fight for you – are similarly useless. They’re okay at distracting a few enemy grunts with physical or elemental damage, but it’s rarely enough to thin out the larger horde that’s constantly, relentlessly chasing you down.
Other items let you jump high into the air or launch a giant area-of-effect attack after defeating enough enemies. It gives combat a little bit of an extra flair, letting you ground-pound downwards into an enemy’s skull or fully banish a giant back to its dimension, but only when it works as intended… which isn’t often enough.
Ready Player None
Weighing down the already mediocre combat is an aggravatingly barebones upgrade system. In between missions, you can upgrade your bounty hunter with alien DNA that provides passive bonuses like poison damage or a berserker status that rewards aggressive play with extra damage for 10 seconds. Software patches are interchangeable upgrades that allow for things like wielding hammers, different attack types, and increased health or stamina. The problem is that all of these patches feel critical to the combat loop Raiders throws at you, so missing one or more feels like I’m playing with one arm or leg tied behind my back.
Some seemingly vital abilities are locked behind these patches, like the ability to loot your corpse and retrieve all your remaining gear and currency, or the ability to wield something like a shield in your left hand. And yet, the rate at which they’re doled out is quite stingy, forcing me to make tough decisions – which would be good except they’re between things that feel like they should have just been installed from the get-go. Do I boost my health so I don’t die in one hit, but lose all my gear? Or do I make myself a glass cannon and trust the camera won’t trap me into a corner for a swift end? These aren’t fun questions to ask, at least in this roguelike.
While out on a mission you can find upgrades to your agility or raw attack power, but never enough to feel like they’ve made much of a difference in how you fight.
Perhaps the most poorly balanced part of PixelJunk Raiders’ upgrade system is the fact that you’re absolutely, positively buried in gems and treasure that can ostensibly be used to create more powerful weaponry – good luck finding the console you need for it, though. In the more than 20 hours I played, I very rarely ran across a weapons station, but found countless vases in the desert that gave me gems instead of ready-made weapons. Honestly, it was like Raiders’ economy didn’t know what its stores were doing.
One mark of a good roguelite progression system is encouraging that “one more run” feeling, when you’ve burned a couple hours leveling up but think that this one – this one – will be the one where you really pop off. Part of that magic is when the road from start to death is long enough to feel like a meaningful obstacle to be overcome, but short enough to feel manageable. PixelJunk Raiders scoffs at this notion, with missions often dragging out for maybe 30 minutes, maybe even an hour if you die and have to restart. Staring down a mission objective to rescue more than 20 survivors, I felt queasy knowing I’d easily be at it for an afternoon if I died suddenly at any point in combat. In the end, no amount of experience points, alien treasure, or upgrades felt worth the time I’d have to put into a mission. Let the evil squids have the planet if they want it so bad.