Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, there is plenty to like in PixelJunk Raiders starting with its art. Its simple yet vibrant style could be taken straight from a graphic novel. There’s a certain cartoony appeal to its movement and design. Your hits are accompanied by the woosh of hitting the air and a blur behind the weapon. As you jump through the initially barren planet of Tantal, puffs of smoke are left underneath your feet. It gives a real alien feeling to the movement, which is already quite unusual in the first place.
In PixelJunk Raiders, you play the role of an explorer who travels onto the destroyed lands of Tantal to save the survivors from the mass arrival of thousands of harmful aliens. You have to defeat surrounding aliens and rescue any survivors you find. The majority of your time with the game will be spent dealing with this gameplay loop. Drop into an area, defeat the surrounding enemies, save survivors and warp out again. What makes this interesting is you take the form of an avatar that can survive in this hospitable world. You arrive at your mission with three lives and whatever gear you’ve managed to scrounge up. If you die with all three lives – and don’t kill the 100 enemies needed to gain another life – you either have to start from the top or quit the mission.
The mission structure is very similar with slight changes as you go on, with a few missions that have bosses and similar ideas. The missions that don’t involve the same actions are rare in PixelJunk Raiders. Unfortunately, clearing out areas and rescuing survivors becomes so formulaic it loses a lot of its charm. Some survivors send you on small quests like destroying certain objects or killing big aliens, but it blends together after a while.
PixelJunk Raiders does take some steps to deal with the repetitive nature by using its upgrade systems. These have nice ways of making you feel like you’re constantly progressing but the midlevel progression starts to feel a little shallow. During missions, you can find stat bonuses that affect different things depending on what they say and you can find weapons with limited durability. This means that – by the end of the mission – you will likely be a lot stronger. You can find upgrades that deal with strength or defense and waiting for the right one to pop up is a nice way to make your midlevel build work the way you want it to. This resets once you finish the level. You can keep weapons but all stat boost are gone. In exchange for this, there are two more upgrade paths. One of these upgrades the number of survivors you get and the other is upgraded with your score.
As your score goes up, you unlock points that can give you more health, unlock the use of certain weapons, or more. The survivor upgrader path changes all the time almost like a battle pass. You unlock a new level and choose between one of two things. They could be cosmetic choices, DNA, or weapons. DNA is used to provide buffs to your character at the expense of a nerf. You might be able to move faster at the expense of being spotted quicker.
PixelJunk Raiders is full of this risk/reward system and can get quite challenging because of it. Even with a big upgrade to health, some aliens can take you out in singel hits. As the bigger aliens become more common, I often found myself aimlessly walking around hoping to spot something that can help. That’s where some rather interesting multiplayer mechanics come in. As well as weapons, there are items you can deploy that help you fight. This could be a mine, a minion, or some health restoration. As you explore around, you see the effects of other players across the world in its state share system. Sometimes, you can use the equipment someone else used in your combat. I might see a character in the distance and can give money to use that character’s item. If they used a turret in their world, a turret will come out for you.
This is essentially a risk as you have no clue what they used, I’ve often spawned a mine when I needed health or health when I needed a mine. You will likely die quite a lot in PixelJunk Raiders just getting your feet and that can be an interesting challenge. Unfortunately, its combat and world just aren’t strong enough in the long term to keep me invested when the difficulty gets a bit easier. You are often left grinding missions in order to get just a little bit more power but weapon swings are too clunky and dodges are a little too exploitable. It just lost its sense of fun for me as I ran around enemies that were far too strong or slaughtered enemies that were far too weak. Its lock-on system is often a bit frustrating and many of the weapons are quite unsatisfying with the handful of swings it takes to break them.
I really want to like PixelJunk Raiders. I like lots of its ideas and wish it did just a little more with them. Its exploration seems thought out but the procedurally generated worlds feel a little stale. Its roguelite aspects are nice but not varied or fun enough to really want me to unlock them. Its multiplayer functions are interesting and the enemies have some really nice designs but killing them feels tedious. It’s just a few steps away from something I could like. It grabs something that could be good and just makes it feel a little alien.
TechRaptor reviewed PixelJunk Raiders on Google Stadia using a copy provided by the publisher.