Friday, October 16, 2009

Axel & Pixel, or Point-and-Clicking Your Way Through Dreams

That crazy thing in the upper right is the Ice Giant. One of the reasons that I’m a huge fan of services like the PSN or XBLA is the remarkably short turnaround time between game announcement and release.  It was but a few months ago that 2K Play announced they’d be putting out Silver Wish Games’ Axel & Pixel on Live Arcade.  And lo and behold, it’s here!

Silver Wish is a small developer out of the Czech Republic, and the indie feel definitely shows.  Get your handy Indie Game Checklist ready.  Bizarre story?  Check.  Nonmainstream gameplay?  Check.  Unique, hand-drawn art style?  Check once more.  Andrew touched on this Checklist in his Blueberry Garden preview, and I think the overall sentiment applies to Axel & Pixel.  These qualities are inherent to indie games just as certain qualities (lo-fi recording, monotone yet cutesy vocals, and odd instrumentation – to name a few) are intrinsic to “indie” music.  It doesn’t cheapen the product, though it does help define it.

Axel & Pixel lives comfortably in this indie world.  Should you live there, too?

It’s appropriate that a game so centered on its art style features a painter as its protagonist.  Poor Axel.  The opening cutscene shows him relaxing in his cabin with his trusty dog Pixel.  A mischievous rat plays some ominous music on a gramophone and boom! – man and his best friend are stuck in some kind of dreamy paint world.  Yes, the backgrounds are gorgeous, the perfect photosurrealism in which to hunt and peck for helpful objects.  But what makes them exceptional is their contrast to the simple cartoon style in which Axel and Pixel are drawn.  The pair look like something from the early Cartoon Network days (think Dexter’s Laboratory or Courage the Cowardly Dog).  Silver Wish accomplished so much with this one design choice.  Not only are Axel and Pixel impossible to lose track of in the environments, but they are permanently rendered outsiders.  You simply cannot look at them and think, “Oh yeah, they belong here.”  Finding them a way home becomes that much more important.

I mentioned hunting and pecking before.  A design trope of the point-and-click adventure genre is the “Drag your cursor around until you find an interactive object” game.  It’s an unfortunate result of the combination of user input and environment design.  Usually, the better games rise above it, even if they occasionally stoop to such frustrating measures (hell, I remember spending half an hour trying to find a specific pixel to kick in Full Throttle and it remains one of my favorite games ever).  You will occasionally need to do this in Axel & Pixel.  Sometimes the painterly designs are so elaborate that you might not see an object at first, having assumed it’s just eye candy.  And some of the more interesting elements in a level will prompt Axel to sketch them, part of an optional series of collectibles that results in a painting (not unlike Braid’s puzzle pieces).  Thankfully, Axel & Pixel, like most modern adventure titles, features a hint system, granting you three per stage (if you want them).  I never used more than one per level, and when I did, I often found that Axel was standing right on top of what I needed to click.  Facepalm.

god this game looks great.

While many indie games are skewed towards older audiences, Axel & Pixel doesn’t feel that way at all.  Hell, it’s opening level includes a Throwing Snowballs At An Ice Giant quick-time event.  Few of the puzzles are uber-challenging in a logic sort of way, and the loading screens often offer a hint about a key puzzle.  An early level is prefaced by a picture of an adorable snail yearning to munch on a nearby leaf.  I then had an “A-ha!” moment when I realized I could use a leaf as incentive to move the snail on my path.  And some of the stuff is just the right kind of young-mind-bizarre: use a giant dung beetle to clear away the rock-oops-I-guess-its-poop in my way, watch helplessly as an oversized dragonfly captures your dog.  Axel’s and Pixel’s interactions are charmingly animated, too.  I chuckled out loud watching him hoist Pixel up over a cliff, then laughed again as Pixel clung to his master’s head while they tightrope-walked across a chasm. 

Axel & Pixel won’t win awards for its innovative storytelling or reopen the haggard “games as art” debate.  It does, however, pack lots of whimsy.  The simple relationship between painter and dog is heartwarming, made both comical and adorable by the odd gibberish that is Axel’s speech.  The point-and-click works smoothly on a controller, and most of the pixel-hunting you’ll have to do is for peripheral content.  If you’re looking to spend an afternoon with something the complete opposite of this holiday season’s blockbusters, perhaps to cleanse your palate between epic first-person shooters, then pick up Axel & Pixel

You can find Axel & Pixel on Xbox Live Arcade for 8oo points ($10).  For more information, check out the game’s website.