It’s been out a while, but you know what? It takes a while to play! PixelJunk Eden, the four year old PSN platformer, has mysteriously appeared on PC. What did I think of its ambient amblings? Just bouncybounce your way below and I’ll jolly well tell you Wot I Think.
“Yes, but what next?” was a question I kept asking for the first couple of hours with the utterly lovely PixelJunk Eden. It was serene, and I was in no way objecting to playing its gentle, meandering levels, but it wasn’t making sense as a progressing game. Leaping my tiny spinning character around vivid, gorgeous levels, in the hunt for Spectra, offered a soothing, calming time, but I felt like it was supposed to be proffering more. Then it did.
If there’s a criticism to be levelled at PJE, it’s a failure to communicate. While exploring things for yourself can offer much, not understanding the purpose of what you find can be problematic. And although it eventually reveals all, it takes its time doing so, and I fear may lose some people’s attention along the way. And it ought not, because this is a really fine thing.
A 2008 PS3 hit, the PC re-design is no slapdash affair. Rethinking the control to the mouse, it relies on a left, right and middle button for all actions, elegantly offering an ever-growing number of controls. At first you begin simply jumping your guy (outside the game called “Grimp”) with the right mouse button. Click to jump, then holding the button down you can influence his spin as he arcs, steering but not ultimately controlling him. He’ll stick to any surface (the horrible name apparently being a portmanteau of “grip” and “jump”).
Then comes the thread, allowing Grimp to spin on a string from any organic surface for a few rotations. Later left and right clicking at the same time will cause you to thump downward, and then comes the middle button with the ability to retract your thread, and teleport back to the last stable surface.
The aim, such as it is, is to collect the five Spectra in each Garden. To progress through these levels, you need to collect a sort of digital pollen by jumping through floating enemy florets. Gather their scattered remains (either by jumping through them, or sweeping over them with your thread) and they’ll glide over to fill nearby – uh – blob seed things, which when full of pollen will change colour. Jump into them and they’ll sprout and grow new organic platforms that will help you reach further up or along the Garden.
That, for a bit too long, seems all there is to it. But all the while, along the bottom of the screen is a synchronisation meter, slowly and mysteriously depleting, but not fast enough to worry about. It can be refilled by collecting “cystals”, which look more like protozoa, but for the longest time I wasn’t sure why.
Get far enough in and all this makes sense. Gathering pollen has a cost, and soon you’ll find you can’t just freely leap about like the young, fresh-faced Grimp you once were. You’ll need to balance collecting crystozoas alongside it, even forcibly generating them through various techniques you’ll learn as you play. Run out and you’ll fail the level.
Also very slowly introduced are new level elements that affect how you explore, some making things remarkably tricky and forcing you to rethink your tactics, others simply making it more fun to fling yourself around gathering dusty bytes and watching the level organically growing around you.
And it’s sublime. For all the time I was struggling to understand the structure of the game, I was still happily playing it, still delighting in trying to make tricky jumps, curling Grimp onto distant platforms, and reaching that seemingly impossible Spectra for eternal glory.
The art design is constantly wonderful, each Garden vividly unique. I can’t do justice to the crisp, minimalist beauty, so just take a look at the screenshots. And this is accompanied by ambient music from the same designer, an artist known as Baiyon, if it was important for you to know. It all fits perfectly with the slow, gliding movement, creating a surprisingly calming experience. The mouse controls work perfectly, and it looks stunning at high resolutions, making me hope that Q-Games will see fit to release more of their PixelJunk games this way.
If there were one change I would ask for, it’s a restructuring of how the Spectra are gathered. At the moment, it’s one at a time, with the level stopping, going to an interminably slow series of screens that tell you that, yes, you’ve collected one more Spectra, and then eventually letting you go back in to carry on. Unless you’ve unlocked a new Garden, at which point it will force you to play that one instead. I may be wrong, but I thought the PS3 version was structured so that the second time you entered a Garden you had to collect two Spectra, then three, four and finally five in one go. Here it’s needlessly broken up in a very disjointed fashion, that unnecessarily breaks the flow. It’s only after a Garden’s complete that you can have a free-for-all, seeking all five at once, which I think would be a lot more fun first time in.
But that’s a niggle. This is a really splendid thing – gentle, lovely platforming, with a zen-like atmosphere and constantly evolving ideas (once they finally get started) with each new Garden. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, but more importantly, it’s enormously engaging to play.