In the distant future, the highest-rated TV show sees people jettisoned on a desolate planet and filmed as they try and survive for as long as possible. Billions watch as participants run and gun their way through alien hordes, in a desperate bid for survival. Still, things could be worse – it could be hosted by Piers Morgan.
The story doesn’t really matter, of course. It’s a pretext for some side-scrolling, base-building, shoot’em up action.
You play as the titular Pixel Gladiator on a side-scrolling 2D stage, starting only with a simple pistol – aimed using the right analogue stick – to defend yourself from hordes of aliens. Enemies come from left and right, and you must run and gun your way to survival.
A few gadgets are on hand to help. Killing enemies near a camera results in cash, which can be exchanged for upgrades. It’s possible to build walls around the base and then stack those walls with turrets, while the pistol can be switched out for a meatier weapon. In fact, there’s a vast array of upgrades and trying them all out is both fun and necessity.
We particularly liked the drones, which make maiming a breeze. Weapons of mass destruction cause significant damage, likewise, but are only good for one use.
These upgrades are purchased between rounds, which helps with pacing. There’s a decent variety of enemy types, too. Some explode when killed, some are just huge tanks, and others are massive flying worms which take up a sizeable portion of the screen.
When you get into its groove, Pixel Gladiator can be very satisfying. The central loop of killing, upgrading and killing some more is meaty and fun, but it can feel rather slight. Every ten rounds there’s get a boss fight, which is great, but a decent run is often based more on the luck of which enemy types you get rather than proficient shooting.
It’s further hindered by a lack of progression, mostly caused by every fresh run starting anew, which also causes repetition to soon set. Not even the extra ‘modes’ can rectify this, changing just the arena set-up. One has floating platforms. It’s as stupidly difficult as it sounds.
Visually it’s … fine, I guess. Chunky sprites and nice use of colour evoke the games of the past while looking a lot better than they ever did. It’s all a bit familiar, though. We’ve seen lots of pixel art games, and Pixel Gladiator doesn’t quite do enough to set itself apart from the rather crowded pack.
That’s Pixel Gladiator’s problem in a nutshell. It’s good fun, but it feels characterless. Anyone who buys this will have a fun couple of hours blasting around but expect it to tail off quickly.
In terms of reality TV this is less Pop Idol and more Fame Academy – all the right ingredients, just lacking in that magic pizazz.