“One day, Axel, a painter, and his dog Pixel, awaken trapped in a beautiful but perilous dream world of his own creation. Together, they must solve the mysteries of Axel’s landscapes to get home. Guide Axel and Pixel through this awe-inspiring world to help Axel fulfil his greatest wish: to paint a picture of all four seasons in a single day.”
The key graphical formula in Axel & Pixel is that of simple, hand-drawn cartoon characters against beautifully rendered real-life environments of the four seasons, each with their own special feel, with Spring featuring very subtle colours and a looming tone of that after-Winter feeling, while Winter itself is covered in soft-on-the-eyes whites, light blues and greys, with a strong emphasis on ice itself. It’s definitely the most visually pleasing of the four seasons and there’s an inescapable feeling of comfort and warmth along with it. In fact, the whole darn place is extremely pretty indeed. Each and every morsel of the dream world has a bit of life, magic and depth to it; some of the stuff around you has absolutely no significance to the game itself – like a little bell that you can ring, or a randomly placed yellow dollhouse in a tree – but they’ve lovingly plopped them in there for the fact that they have no meaning. I mean, does everything require a meaning? Not at all. Especially in Axel & Pixel. The mountains have this uncanny Rorschach quality to them: deliberately inserted obscure shapes that invoke images and meaning in your mind, including many faces and even a clenched fist punching towards us. Another thing that’s very interesting about Axel & Pixel’s graphics are the examples of innocent deception and visual trickery, in that not everything you see is what it seems; a seemingly insignificant fence on a hill is actually a fallen-over ladder that you have to use to progress in the level, and what appears to be an in-the-distance-and-out-of-reach mountain hollow housing a bird nest actually turns out to be in perfect reaching distance with a useful glass shard inside the nest.
Axel’s gibberish (also known as Czech) is the highlight of the game’s sound, ranging from the casual “Dit-dit-dit-dee-dee-dee” to an insanely frantic “HAYA-HAYA-HAYA!!!” whilst smashing the gunk and guts out of a giant strawberry… YEP! Axel & Pixel doesn’t have any spoken dialogue choices between characters (in the Broken Sword sense), but Axel’s gibberish-laden interaction with the world around him and the stunning spiritual connection between man and his best friend in audio form is more than enough to satisfy our noisy needs. In second place to the gibberish *ahem*, but by no means poor, is the game’s soundtrack, which is highly atmospheric and almost aura-like, comprising of pleasing ambient sounds with light instrumental glimmers scattered in-between, fully complementing each season’s theme, such as Winter’s soundtrack – the highlight of the game, in my opinion – which is very relaxing and mystical, with an instrument that sounds very much like a tune being played out on icicles being played alongside the ambience, if that’s the best way to put it. You could easily sit back, relax and drift away into yo’ very own dream world listening to Axel & Pixel’s soundtrack.
While Axel & Pixel is a point-and-clicker at heart, the gameplay doesn’t revolve entirely around that mechanic, and also goes as far as to include completely un-point-and-clicky mini games (all in 2D platform perspective, of course) that are, rather awesomely, part of the main story and serve as effective transitions between the four seasons. There are three mini games: ‘Hot Air Loons’, ‘Four Wheel Dives’ and ‘Sailing Through’, each covering simple navigation by means of hot air balloon, car, and sailing boat, respectively. All three of them are brilliant, but the friggin’ best one is Hot Air Loons which, as well as being insanely fun, is absolutely perfect for leaderboard competition (trust me, I’ve done it!), and will give you tonnes of fun. Mini games aside, Axel & Pixel is a point-and-clicker and does so extremely well, and there’s no denying the striking simplicity of the gameplay; it’s point, click, solve the puzzles, and have a banging time while doing so. You’ll find the odd QTE and aim ‘n’ shoot sequence in there to mix things up a bit to keep the player from relaxing themselves into a stupor too, but only in wee amounts. THAT is what Axel & Pixel’s formula is all about, and it never fails to stick to it. The gameplay itself is simple, and the same can sort of be said about the puzzles themselves, but not to extent of them being laughably easy because you’ll most definitely have to use your brainbox throughout the adventure, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results. Sure, the puzzles aren’t up to the brain-power standard of pointy-clickers like Decay, Broken Sword and Monkey Island, but they’re most definitely good examples of pointy-clicky puzzles with a highly accessible difficulty curve for all ages. That said, pixel hunting can become a problem during the duo’s grand adventure, and unless you’re able to tap into the game’s mind and steal the solutions from there, you will inevitably become stuck for a solution at least once, particularly in the later levels, but there just so happens to be a hint system if you become hair-rippingly stuck for a path, so you will never become stuck to the point of impossibility. The lack of an inventory, while hardcore fans of the genre might just phlegm over the idea, works surprisingly well as a sort of ‘real time’ puzzle element where collected puzzle-related objects in that particular level are used without the intrusion of an inventory menu, nor do inventory items carry over into the next level as all items from that particular level are always used in that level, so the fear of being overwhelmed by a plethora of items is never an issue. One for the good of all mankind, if y’all ask me. It’s also a rare example of a game that makes collectibles fun to collect (and there are a lot of people out there – myself included – who hate collectibles), even if there is only a small number of them hidden throughout the game, as there’s no trawling through a large amount of a level in order to find a hidden something-something, and, instead, a large number of them are accessible right from the beginning of the level. Stress-free collectibles – good job, Silver Wish Games!
The game – although a point-and-clicker – is very accessible and can be enjoyed by both adults and children with its simple gameplay and fascinating nature. You will, no doubt, fall in love with the loopy painter and his beloved four-legged friend in no time at all. A beautiful, heart-warming escape from the toils of our very own nightmare world. It’s so accessible, in fact, that my nine year-old niece had a friggin’ blast playing through the game, though, admittedly, she did pixel hunt a wee bit towards the end. From the get-go of gaining control, a pop-up pops up introducing the player to the basics, which are, would you have guessed, surprisingly basic and easy to grasp. That’s always a good move – as Braid did so friggin’ well – in introducing the player to the basics of the gameplay from the get-go, though Axel & Pixel’s is somewhat more intrusively so. All is forgiven, though! The mini games are unsurprisingly more accessible to, say, younger players for their simple controls and objectives: the objective of ‘Hot Air Loons’ and ‘Sailing Through’ is to travel as far possible, collecting as many stars as possible while racking up the highest score possible, of which there is no limit because the levels are infinite until the player runs out of health or fuel. The two start out slow and easy-going enough, but passing each checkpoint ramps up the speed and frequency of the obstacles to the point of absolute insanity until inevitable death occurs, in which case you’d hopefully have racked up a banging score. If not, there’s nothing stopping y’all having another go, which most definitely isn’t a problem as the games are mega fun! You then have the ‘Four Wheel Dives’ mini game in which the objective – driving a huge, bright yellow car through a series of obstacles – is more structured and time-based, where your score is dependent on how fast you complete each of the three levels, as opposed to the others which are collectible-based infinite loops of levels. Personally, this mini game is my least favourite because it simply doesn’t offer the same amount of satisfaction as the others, but it’s enjoyable for a quickie or some leaderboard competition among the community. Speaking of which…
First time players will complete the game in around three hours, whereas re-players will be able to knock it out in around one and a half hours, though there’s every reason to play through the game multiple times; it’s just that kind of game that you’ll want to play through many, many times just for the lovely experience and, of course, the brilliant mini games. That and the added joy of the leaderboards, covering story, balloon, car and boat mini games, and overall scores, which are prime examples of great leaderboard competition between Axel & Pixel’s small, but dedicated, community. The mini games, particularly ‘Hot Air Loons’, are banging, and that particular one is worth 800MSP on its own, paired with the fact that they’re just perfect for leaderboard competition, so you most definitely won’t find it hard to pump many, many, many hours into this game.
Along with Braid and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved², there is no doubt that Axel & Pixel is an essential XBLA purchase that should be on the hard drives of all. I would LOVE an Axel & Pixel 2, but whether this grossly underrated tonne of diamonds will ever receive one is another story. Quite literally, hopefully. One where the duo travels through time, perhaps? See, there’s an idea for a sequel, so please build it! PWEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE! And I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seems to be a running theme of pollution, war and global warming propoganda running through Axel & Pixel, such as a grotesque oil-guzzling monster working at an oil-ridden river with an oil well pumping away. There’s also oil-stained ice; a destroyed dam flooding the surrounding area with water, and, very interestingly, a monkey that seems both fascinated and petrified of a nearby missile being straddled by Evil Rat. A misguided message from the guys and gals at Silver Wish Games or, perhaps, just sheer coincidence? I know which one I’m going for, my dears. Moving away from the bad black stuff, the dream world is beautiful, bizarre, insane, charming, smile-inducing, bubbly, heart-warming, enthralling, huggable, safe, personal, comforting, embracing, natural… and just about every variation of those words. Multiply this by the lovable duo and all of the wonderful things you’ll see along the way – and, of course, those orgasmic mini games – and you’ve got yourself a big bucket o’ awesome-o-ness! Dreams just so happen to be one of those things that don’t like to stick around in peoples’ memories, but you’ll find it hard to forget about this dream, my dears. And you’ll be very glad of it too.
– The dream world is a thing of beauty, wonder, and absolute insanity
– Simple and awesome point-and-click gameplay
– Visually pleasing
– Beautiful, charming soundtrack
– Fantastic mini games
– Pixel hunting is maybe a bit too prevalent
Buy, trial or avoid?
A definite buy! Not only does Axel & Pixel offer a unique experience with the innocently twisted dream world and highly accessible point-and-click gameplay, but it also holds an immense amount of replay value in the mini games and leaderboard competition. If you don’t fall in love with the lovable duo within minutes, then… well, you’re just an old misery guts. BALLOON TIME!
Final score: 9/10