The Strange, Strange World of Axel & Pixel
When I first saw screen shots of Axel & Pixel, and heard the music on the official website, I thought to myself, “This could be art.” A&P is a point-and-click puzzle game in which you guide Axel and his dog Pixel through a lush dream world and occasionally play some interesting, but ultimately awful, mini-games. After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that A&P is artistic, but it’s not art, and while it is engaging at times, it’s not always exactly fun.
Like most point-and-click puzzle games, you control a cursor rather than the hero. The cursor lights up when hovering over a point of interest, thus keeping a great deal of frustration (and pointless button-mashing) at bay. You can access three clues per stage. Don’t be too quick to turn your nose up at them; since A&P is based in a dream world, a good deal of the puzzles defy logic. There are 24 stages, with each stage being about one “screen” with a handful of puzzles. Just when you get into the groove of traversing through this dream world, a mini-game will slap you in the face and force you to remember a bygone era of games back when games actually weren’t that fun, but what they lacked in fun they made up for with difficulty. Thankfully, there are only three of these mini-games, or four if you count the final boss.
A&P is fun, but when a game straddles the line between being a relaxing series of puzzles in a world that eschews reason, or mini-games that involve racing, skirting around obstacles, and jumping over bottomless pits, I don’t think you can have both. The former gives A&P a unique look and feel, while the latter makes it seem cheap and a little frustrating. Fortunately, the mini-games are short, and none of them are impossible.
Also, I don’t know how to break this to you, so I’ll just say it: A&P has Quick-time Events, or occasional on-screen button prompts that must be followed. Everything bad that can be said about QTEs has already been said, so I’ll just leave you with a warning: They’re there. It’s not over the top, but QTEs do happen in A&P. Sorry.
Replay value is extremely limited. Silver Wish Games tried their best to add items that can only be snagged within a limited window of opportunity and which eventually unlock something of dubious value, but I have yet to play a point-and-click puzzle game with any real replay value. And so it is with Axel & Pixel. This is the nature of the genre, and not a flaw per se. And really, I doubt whether many of us expect to get more than a handful of hours out of an inexpensive downloadable game.
But what we do expect from a game like this is a fresh experience, something free from the confines of big budget mediocrity. Something that escapes the rule that says when a lot of people invest a lot of money in a game, then as few creative risks as possible should be taken in order to successfully find that lowest common denominator and maximize the game’s appeal.
That’s what bothers me about A&P. It’s a creative game… but it’s not nearly creative enough.
If you’re a small studio, and you don’t have a board of directors breathing down your neck because they’re terrified of losing a lot of money, then why hold back? What legitimate reason is there to craft a dream world, but not make it too dreamy? Is it because the studio lacks talented visionaries? That’s a problem easily remedied; go to the nearest art college, pay a handful of kids mere peanuts (and the prestige of helping design a video game), and they’ll come up with some of the most intensely charming, and subtly disturbing, images that anyone has ever seen. Of course, you need people with experience to act as guides, and also to filter out the nonsense and the garbage, but I think game makers in general, and not just Silver Wish Games, would be shocked at the creative potential available among those too young to censor themselves. A game made like that might just be remembered forever. And as a bonus, the young are notoriously easy to control!
Let me give an example of how A&P holds back and thus comes off as borderline mediocre. Now, some of A&P’s characters look very, very nice. They look three-dimensional, and are colored and shaded in this visceral, “unclean” way that makes them look just a little bit dangerous. I found myself using the zoom feature several times to get a better view of them. But the two main characters, on the other hand, were either made early on when the project had a different, simpler visual style, or they were purposely kept cartoonish in order to appear nonthreatening. I feel like I have seen the protagonist and his dog many, many times before; their common features and predictable behavior can be found in any children’s Saturday morning cartoon.
Which means the main characters are completely overshadowed by the weird shuffling beasts that do things like drink crude oil, or sit and glare and make hostile grunts, or wait for me to pet them so they can turn into a butterfly. Some of the creatures look so unique that I can’t easily point out anything similar to them. Maybe some obscure 70s psychedelic album art? The only reason I can think of, concerning why the makers didn’t want the hero and his dog to look as outlandish and unique as the other denizens of the dream world is because, well, that would just be too disturbing, wouldn’t it?
But aren’t all the best fairytale dramas just a little bit disturbing?
As for the music, it’s really good – that is, on the rare occasions when it comes out from its hiding place! Much of the game’s audio concerns the goofball sounds coming from Axel as he mumbles, stutters, and gibbers incoherently. Much of the time I simply drowned out A&P’s audio, which was a real shame because there were a few rare occasions in which Axel would shut up, the music would kick in, and I really did feel like I was traveling through a dream world. Otherwise, I can’t imagine that the play-testers had their speakers turned on, because Axel sounds like he needs to be medicated.
The story is sparse, but that’s perfect for a game like this. The chapters are divided by Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, which provides a sense of structure to the narrative and gives a feeling that the stakes are increasing as the journey continues. Although I do wish that Spring had a few more strange creatures and some more weird plant life, and even though Winter was bleak, dark, and mechanical, I wish it had gone to even further extremes. The last boss brought to mind a primal frost giant from Norse mythology, or Dante’s idea of Satan partially frozen in a massive lake of ice. A very nice touch, though it was hard to enjoy the scenery thanks to Quick-time Events!
If you are going to download A&P (and it is worth it if you like point-and-click adventures, and can stomach a few tiresome mini-games), then I suggest you take it slow. The game is short; you can finish it in less than four hours if you don’t stop to admire the scenery, but there’s no reason to run through it. Instead, play a little bit here, a little bit there. Maybe play one stage per day right after you wake up; start your day with a “gamer’s rush” to help you through your tortuous eight hour workday. A&P would be nice in doses… because I definitely don’t recommend dedicating one large chunk of time to it.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Worth the price of admission. 2.8 Control
The relaxing point-and-click scheme is marred by QTEs and difficult mini-games. 2.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Great music that’s rarely on the scene and annoying voice work make for an odd couple. 3.4 Play Value
A unique experience with a few flaws that, unfortunately, stand out in sharp detail. Even while enjoying A&P, I found myself wishing that the makers had had the confidence to go further with their vision. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.