This is almost two reviews for the price of one.

I can’t talk about PixelJunk Monsters unless I begin with Desktop Tower Defense. The free flash game is a compelling and addictive time-waster with simple rules and intuitive controls. A couple lines of monsters march across a big empty space; it’s your job to build towers to destroy them. Dead monsters become gold, which purchases and upgrades new towers. These can be placed in a straight line, in little clusters or, if you want to play for a while, in a maze shape to herd the monsters all over the board and give you more time to chip away at the really tough ones.

Like all free things, however, there are limitations. A save system is notably M.I.A., so you have to play through the entire game every time you want to get to the point where you failed last time. Failure is assured, but with no easy way to get back to the point where you kicked it, eventually the appeal wears down.

Even so, the appealing hand-drawn items and cute little sound effects keep me coming back. I know the game will piss me off after an hour, but I can’t help myself. I might walk away for a few days, but then I hit the bookmark and it’s like day one.

So, then. PixelJunk Monsters is a sort of Japanese PlayStation3 take on the tower defense genre DTD does so well. The basics are quite similar: You’re a little shaman protecting a hut crowded with timid little village people. Monsters are on the move; wave after wave of cute and dangerous beasts. Build towers to wipe them out, one by one.

The differences, however, turn out to be massive.

First, you can only build where trees stand — each tower requires one tree. You’ll build with two resources: gold and gems. Gold is relatively plentiful but gems are far more limited. You’ll use gold to place individual towers (and as in DTD can recoup a bit by selling off unneeded ones) while gems either buy fast upgrades to individual towers or research new technology.

The biggest change, and key to the game’s challenge, is that everything is done by a little guy on foot. Your unnamed shaman has to stand near a tree in order to build a tower there, and he’s got to stand near a tower to upgrade it. Stand around long enough and he’ll dance, giving a little upgrade boost. General McShaman also has to gather every coin and gem dropped by dead monsters. (He’ll occasionally find some in trees, too.)

That’s the thing that gets to me every time. In addition to being in the right spot to build a new tower as soon as there’s enough gold to do so, you’ve also got to be somewhere else grabbing gold and gems. They disappear before long, so much racing around the field ensues. Run into a monster and you’ll drop gold and gems and be stunned for a few seconds. Even the flying ones, which is a bitch since they can fly above ground weapons.

Before you even start to factor that pedestrian warchief into the mix, the game is already heavy on trial and error. Get used to the idea of the first attempts with any map being a trial run as you figure out where to place the first towers and, in some instances, where the monsters are going to come from and what path they’ll follow. Once you know the monster starting point and in what order the waves will come you can play the level for real.

There is at least a Super Mario World style map used to select levels; unlike DTD you won’t have to play through a long string of encounters again when you blow it. And once you’ve got the basic movement of a map down, you can start to figure out how the trudging shaman fits into the picture.

As in other tower defense games, your biggest threat is often going to come from the sky. Some levels have only one or two waves of flying enemies; others have several, which attack at varying speeds. Since the area-effect ground weapons (cannon, fire, etc) don’t affect flyers, you’ll have to have some anti-air guns in place and (ideally) upgraded before each wave. It’s easy to forget about doing this, and even when you do, you might often feel like the anti-air guns aren’t all that effective.

I’m not convinced about the overall weapon balancing. Cannons, anti-air guns and the basic arrow towers seem severely underpowered, even when upgraded. Fire towers, on the other hand, are a near guarantee of success. Plop a couple down right where monsters enter the board, spend a few gems to upgrade them immediately, and you’ll be knocking down 75% of any ground wave right off the bat.

Like DTD, the visuals are low-fi (not as low-fi, but considering this is the PS3 it’s all relative) and the sound effects are cute and appealing. The effects are good enough, with neat little blasts from the fire, laser and Tesla towers.

In a nod either to longevity or broad appeal, there’s also a co-op mode where two players oversee the same map and share gems, but have unique treasury. In addition, there’s the option to play PixelJunk Monsters on a PSP via Remote Play, which is pretty neat; if my PS3 didn’t suck energy and shit heat like a jumbo jet I might leave it on when I left the house so I could take advantage of that feature.

The question is whether you’ll be more into the military-type strategy of tower defense, or whether the nuts and bolts of resource gathering and management become the game’s real hook. I’m in the first camp, and can’t see going back to the relatively short campaign more than a few times. If I didn’t have to walk a little shaman from one end of fantasy Gettysburg to another I’d be a lot more likely to experiment with varying strategies. As is, I can only play a board or two at a time; the experience isn’t as addictive as it could be and I’m left loading up Desktop Tower Defense in my browser once again.

(Note: while the screens have Japanese text, the US release is all in English; these are the only screens I have that accurately represent the current build.)

Desktop Tower Defense

8 out of 10

PixelJunk Monsters

6.9 out of 10