Axel is having a tragically awful dream. First his painting is interupted, then a large rat steals his keys and it's all capped by a large chunk of ice crash landing directly on the top of his house. Boy is Axel going to be angry when he wakes up. But before he can do that he and his dog are going to travel through two dozen levels solving puzzles and hunting for that large rat. Well, at least it's not one of those dreams where he's standing in front of an audience in his underwear.
This is the set-up to Axel & Pixel, the strange new point and click adventure game from Silver Wish Games (courtesy of 2K Games). For reasons I doubt I'll ever fully understand, Microsoft decided to upload this quiet little game on the same day as another point and click adventure, Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space. Apparently October 14, 2009 was the day of the graphic adventures, which is fine by me. But just because these two Xbox Live Arcade games share a genre that does not mean they are the same. While Sam & Max chooses comedy, Axel & Pixel takes you on an imaginative adventure unlike anything I've seen before. It's not perfect, but there's certainly enough puzzles to solve to warrant the $10 asking price.
I knew absolutely nothing about Axel & Pixel going in. The faux-box art was intriguing and it had an interesting name, but this Slovakian production had somehow completely passed me by. What I discovered was an interesting point and click adventure, along the lines of Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle and the aforementioned Sam & Max series. But this is not a comedy. While the characters and animations are often cute, there is nothing about the game that is even remotely funny. Instead it's a serious puzzle game where you go from level to level trying to solve all of the puzzles before moving on.
While the puzzles are always different, many of the levels play out exactly the same way. You enter a stage and see what you have to do, then you have to perform several steps before accomplishing your task and moving on. For example, in one early level you will need to build a boat in order to chase the menacing rat. Thankfully much of the boat has already been made, but you will need to move the butterflies, ring the bell, turn off the pouring water, fix the water spout, fiddle with the flowers, find a leave, turn the water back on and sail away. If you can do all of that in the right order you'll move on to the next level, where you'll have to solve another puzzle.
Thankfully not every level plays out with this formula. Some levels have you putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Another level will have you driving over huge mountains avoiding cliffs. In another level you will need to power your hot air balloon around rocks and other obstacles. These diversions are few and far between, but they often come right when you're getting sick of pointing and clicking.
One surprising twist in Axel & Pixel is the fact that you never directly control either character. While the main character and his dog are always present on screen, you play an omnipresent that is somehow able to interact with the background independently from the main characters. For example, you can use your cursor to interact with animals and trees. This is how you change the level and solve puzzles, all while the characters look on and watch what you do. That's not to say that your characters do nothing, there are a lot of times when you'll click on something and either Axel or his dog, Pixel, will rush over and perform an action. But this is not like most point and click adventure games, in order to succeed you will need to use Axel, Pixel and the magical cursor.
One thing I do like about this adventure is that all of the puzzles are self-contained in the level. In many graphic adventure games you will pick up items along the way that won't be used until much, much later. That is not the case here. You start each level fresh, so everything you need to solve the puzzle will be in that small area. This keeps the frustration level down, but also means that most of the levels are entirely too easy. That's not to say that you won't get stuck a few times along the way, but I didn't have much of a problem breezing through these stages. When all else fails all you need to do is slowly move your cursor around the screen looking for it to turn yellow. Point and click veterans will likely find the game's puzzles too easy. And even if you didn't grow up playing these games, it won't take you more than a couple hours to beat Axel & Pixel.
But let's say I'm wrong and you are constantly getting stuck. The developers have given you the ability to call for help up to three times a level. All you need to do is hold the "Y" button and the game will tell you what you're supposed to do next. If you exhaust all of your hints then you're on your own. But the truth is, most gamers won't need to use more than one or two throughout the course of the entire game.
The real draw here is the art direction, which reminded me a lot of Terry Gilliam's contributions in Monty Python's Flying Circus ... only without any of the humor. Both Axel and Pixel look hand drawn, while the objects around them have a much more realistic look. Much of the game's animation looks like it's quickly thrown together, rarely giving you more than a few frames of animation for any particular scene. Yet this style is unique and oddly compelling. The way the game moves through environments is interesting and artistically clever. That's not to say that the style will appeal to everybody, but it definitely has a look that is all its own.
The music is made up of soft tunes, none of them overpowering the graphics on screen. There are appropriate sound effects throughout the game, though Axel & Pixel has a decidedly minimalist approach. The one thing that did annoy me was the main character, which chooses to grumble instead of speaking English (or any other language for that matter). Early on it works, but by the end of the game I started to get annoyed with the similar sounds coming out of Axel's mouth.
Sadly there's not much else to do once you've beaten the two or three hour adventure. You can play the vehicle-based mini-games again, but those weren't fun enough to warrant a repeat visit. You can also go back and search for the hidden items, which include bones for Pixel and paints for Axel. You can try and beat the high scores, though I have no idea how this game generates the score at the end of the game. When all is said and done, you'll likely go through the game once and then move on to something else. You may want to revisit this dreamscape in the future, but this is not going to be one of those games where you play it every day.
Despite being short and on the easy side, I had a good time playing through Axel & Pixel. There's something foreign about the style and gameplay, I wasn't surprised to learn that this was programmed outside of the United States. This is not a game for everybody and chances are if you don't like the demo you will not like the rest of the game. However, I enjoyed the trip and look forward to seeing what Silver Wish Games comes up with next.