A space rescue adventure from Kyoto’s inimitable Q-Games, PixelJunk Raiders has the bones of a great action game. Its mix of planetary exploration, scavenging and alien-killing is unusual enough to make an impression; the art style, which lands somewhere between a 90s anime and the cover of an old science-fiction novel, is glorious; its planets are beautiful; the retro-futuristic vibe is refreshing and colourful. Unfortunately I just haven’t had any fun playing it.
Dropped on to a planet where you must rescue disappointingly static alien civilians from squid-like invaders who’ve taken over their citadels, the first thing to do is forage for weapons and blueprints for useful gadgets. Scanning the horizon for the telltale smoke-plume of a crashed ship, buildings or ruins leads to loot and currency – but if you die, as I often did, you lose it all. Several times I respawned on a planet stripped bare of resources; faced with the prospect of trying to pummel aliens to death with my bare fists to grind out enough currency to open a locked door, it was usually easier to just restart the whole mission.
Raiders’ combat is fun and bouncy but a little imprecise, which would be excusable if the penalties for failure weren’t so harsh. It looks like an arcade game, and it’s structured that way, with randomly generated missions that give you a fresh challenge each time, but it is oddly sluggish in the hands. Getting around its planetary microcosms takes too long, despite a cool rocket-jump that propels you across the surface. Enemies respawn unpredictably. Everything is slowed down by having to trawl around looking for weapons or collecting gems that you need to open doors and chests. These ought to be snappy 10-minute rescue missions, not drawn-out ordeals.
PixelJunk Raiders is currently exclusive to Stadia – Google’s attempt at a Netflix-for-games streaming service, which lets you play on any screen – and there is evidence of Google’s hand in the game’s production, in that some of its features seem oriented more towards showing off the Stadia tech than towards fun. You can find echoes of other mercenaries (or your previous self) hanging around, and share stages with other players who can use your gadgets to give themselves an advantage. If this worked in practice then it would help to even out the difficulty, but I never found that it did. It’s hardly asynchronous multiplayer on a par with Dark Souls.
Despite the frustrations, there could be something excellent here, and hopefully Q-Games will get the opportunity to improve it. A few balancing tweaks and decreased reliance on collectible currency would help dramatically with the pacing. As it stands, these beautiful-looking space-rescue missions feel like chores rather than adventures.
PixelJunk Raiders is available now; £19.99, or included with a Stadia Pro subscription.