PSN Review – PixelJunk 4am

PixelJunk 4am is part game, part music-making/mixing software, and part freeform experience. No one part of those components ever overtakes the other, which makes describing PixelJunk 4am even more difficult. So, to put it a different way, PixelJunk 4am is a game without most definitive components that make a game. It’s music making without the unnerving intimidation of using music software, which most times is far from friendly to new users who understand little about music. It’s also an artistic experience, one that allows the player to make what they want without penalty, fear of failure, or barriers in the form of the usual constructs associated with gameplay (levels with predefined paths, music that must conform to specific patterns/rhythms set by the game’s developers, etc.). PixelJunk 4am is just good-natured, accessible fun with music and is one of the most unique titles available for the PSN or PlayStation Move.

PixelJunk 4am is simply about just making music for the sake of making music in an easy and intuitive way. The tutorial begins by introducing some basic concepts, such as effects, which are achieved by holding down the Move button and moving the controller. Seems simple enough, right? The tutorial then moves on to other concepts such as “pulling” loops for the four different tracks (Synth, Bass, Drum, Rhythm), muting tracks, reverb effects, and more. Initially, while playing through the tutorial, a feeling of intimidation may sink in a bit at first. However, as quickly as that feeling can sink in, that’s how quickly it fades away. Q-Games has already taught the player everything that they need to know and once they’re in front of the gameplay area, the lessons learned come into focus and the lack of a failure state allows players to get creative and begin enjoying the game right away. Nothing is imposed on the player—playing the game is very loose, free, and fun. No “bad way” to make music really exists in the game.

So what is PixelJunk 4am‘s core gameplay? Users select a track set of gameplay “canvases” (visualizers with tracks), then start making music. They make music by creating effects, reverbs, pulling loops (holding down the T button and releasing in the center of the “canvas”), muting tracks (holding down one of the four face buttons that correspond to the tracks, which can also restore them), and more. Loops fade in and out over time—indicated by the activity of the visualizer on the screen—so new loops must be pulled from the four corners of the canvas. Players can change between tracks on a set on canvases by pressing Select. Players can also enlist the help of a friend, who can mix his or her own music independently of the first player, or can also help the first player pull off new and different techniques not possible with just one Move controller if they select the same canvas.

The music creation in PixelJunk 4am is enjoyable, non-traditional, and freeform. However, after playing for a while, the question of whether or not enough game exists in PixelJunk 4am begins to emerge. On one hand, as it is, PixelJunk 4am is a different kind of music game experience that is empowered by its unorthodox roots. If it became “more” of a game, that could be its undoing. On the other hand, the premise of mixing the same songs over and over again for groups of PSN users begins to wane in strength a bit. PixelJunk 4am has no characters, no worlds—nothing more than its canvases and its technology to present to the player in the form of gameplay. PixelJunk 4am‘s technology could be used to power quite an interesting music or rhythm game, but again, adding gameplay elements to it may destroy its appeal. Still, PixelJunk 4am is also such a compelling experience that it standing on its own is worth it.

A player’s performance is live for everyone with the Live Viewer to see. Players can offer “kudos” to performing players by waving their Moves during a player’s performance. Kudos and viewer totals periodically fade in and out at the bottom of the screen to let the player know that people are enjoying his or her performance. The player can also notify friends via Facebook and Twitter as to when he or she is performing. The social element here is interesting and the notification to other players via social networking that someone is playing would be great for games with online multiplayer, but will anyone other than PixelJunk 4am enthusiasts turn on their PS3s, sit down, and watch a performance? How many active users will be around to watch in the time ahead? If some kind of online cooperative music mixing were possible, maybe the notification system would have stronger appeal. Again, the game has a crossroads: if cooperative music mixing was added, it might interfere with the game’s core experience.

One tiny nitpick is that the game offers a series of canvas sets, but isn’t really specific on how to unlock them. I had played PixelJunk 4am‘s first “Random” canvas for over an hour before quitting out to discover a new tutorial for previously undisclosed functionality was available and that new canvas sets had been unlocked. The game doesn’t really communicate what, if any, criteria there are to unlock them. The developers may have just wanted players to enjoy the experience and not worry about earning new levels, but not really knowing how they unlock at all is just a bit odd.

PixelJunk 4am really has no target audience or ideal gamer. Gamers who like music will like it, gamers who like innovative games or unconventional gameplay experiences will like it, and gamers who just want to have fun will like it, too. The game offers stress-free, relaxing gameplay that allows its users to be as creative as they’d like to be. Although PixelJunk 4am may have a lack of traditional game elements, that same lack of traditional game elements is what makes it great and one of the most fascinating and intuitive experiences available for PlayStation Move. Anyone who thinks that Q-Games’ music experience is for them should definitely consider it up, as the odds of them being disappointed are slim to none.

PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score

+ A unique, stress-free, music experience like no other

+ Ease of accessibility and enabling the user to create whatever they want without penalty

– Lack of traditional game elements may or may not appeal to some gamers

7 out of 10