Pixeljunk Inc. Hands-On Preview: Interstellar Soup Kitchen

What if all that mining and crafting had a real goal?

This is the question Pixeljunk Inc. asks, and it’s better for it. Q Games’ latest entry into the Pixeljunk series — and the first one to debut on PC first — is very reminiscent of other block-based construction games like Terraria and Minecraft. However, where those games falter in providing the player with a clear, in-game goal to set out and accomplish, Pixeljunk Inc. gives players a greater purpose to their wanton destruction of the environment. It’s not a title for those wanting to build grandiose castles or elaborate dungeons, but if you’ve ever wanted to construct a base all about harvesting and refining indigenous lifeforms into soup, Pixeljunk Inc. has you covered.

You are a prospector, sent to a planet to harvest its natural resources. Each map is different, with a variety of hazards such as hostile enemies that attack your base, or gas-producing baddies that drain your oxygen. You must brave these dangers to do two things: gather the construction materials to build your base, and harvest the native wildlife to create delicious interstellar foodstuffs.

Gathering construction materials is easy, as everything breaks down into blue particles that you then gather and spend to expand your base. Harvesting wildlife is a little tougher, as not all animals want to be hauled off to the kitchen to sate the appetites of galactic gourmands.

Base construction is a lot simpler than placing each wall brick down, piece by laborious piece. Instead, you select from a list of pre-made base parts — such as corridors, extractors, kitchens, and the forever-important launch pad — and arrange them into a base that fits your particular wants. Want a nice, symmetrical, efficient, self-sufficient base replete with defenses and robotic servants? How about a disorganized, organic mess that feels less like a factory and more like home? It’s your call.

These choices make Pixeljunk Inc. feel a little more like a business sim than a sandbox construction game at times, and it’s to the game’s benefit; the more concrete goals and simplified base construction keeps you focused on constantly progressing, rather than being overwhelmed with options and being unable to decide what to do next.

Like most games of its type, Pixeljunk Inc. includes basic physics and fluid dynamics. However, it also has one important addition to sandbox construction physics: cave-ins. Properly supporting mines, tunnels, or even your base is incredibly important, as a cave-in can quickly spell doom for you or your meticulously-built project. It’s a nice new layer to the sandbox construction genre, and while it has appeared in other games in similar veins such as Dwarf Fortress, Pixeljunk Inc. is the first mainstream game poised to do it properly.

Once you’ve built yourself up a bit, you have to deal with more substantial threats to your culinary empire. Labor management becomes incredibly important, as you can’t do everything yourself without slowing down the pace heavily. Instead, you must hire robots and task them with important activities, such as breaking rocks down into construction materials or hauling soup off to the launch pad. In addition, your base will undoubtedly start to be attacked by wildlife pissed off by the encroachment of technology, or by competitors from space, so setting up a proper defense is essential to making your home a safe place to be.

One key to this expansion of both business and military efforts is research. Players must balance researching things like tools and defenses, as advancing one means you aren’t advancing the other. While you may have a more powerful mining laser, or a buzzsaw that effortlessly chops apart terrain, obtaining those tools means you didn’t spend as much time researching robots or defensive turrets. Because of this, each player’s game will look a little different. Some might focus more on pure economics, opting to defend their sprawling base by themselves. Others might pour into defense, creating a compact base that still requires a player to run effectively.

If you want to speed up your construction or labor efforts, you are welcome to invite another player to join you. Co-op functions exactly the same as single-player, with the exception that another player joins you on the field to help or hinder you. There wasn’t a significant difference between single-player and co-op during our preview, other than the addition of another player, but it’s undoubtedly a fun way to engage in sandbox construction fun with your friends.

Pixeljunk Inc. oozes the classic Pixeljunk aesthetic: clean, outline-free designs with strong color composition and informative silhouettes. If you’ve played Pixeljunk Shooter or Pixeljunk Monsters, you’ll be instantly familiar with Pixeljunk Inc.’s visual style, although it’s a little more cartoonish than in previous efforts. This emphasis on clean readability makes Pixeljunk Inc. stand out from its competition visually as well as mechanically, as most other sandbox construction games use lo-fi art instead.

Pixeljunk will no doubt have a hit on its hands with Pixeljunk Inc. The game’s not quite as free or expansive as competing titles, but it makes up for that through a tightly-focused scope based around proper business creation and a greater purpose to its construction. It channels the best of games like Terraria and Theme Park, while maintaining its own clear, thoroughly goofy, identity.

Pixeljunk Inc. is due out on Steam soon, with a possible console version to follow should demand be there.


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