Whenever a game gets tagged as “games as art”, it gets my attention. I tend to enjoy games that display a high level of creativity, and fall outside the standard gaming conventions of Space Marine Shooter XIII or Fantasy World 101. Typically, any game that gets classified as “art” displays incredible artistic, storytelling, or musical talent on the part of the developers, and usually combines all of the above to become something very memorable and different for the player. When it works, these games can be utterly brilliant. Games like Loco Roco, Planescape: Torment, Okami, Braid, Ico, Beyond Good & Evil are shining examples of games with such a incredible level of artistic creativity that you’re almost required to like them. However, creating such a game can also be a crutch for developers who think they can sacrifice actual quality gameplay for some pretty pictures, sounds, or a kitschy gimmick. The recent Scribblenauts fell squarely into this category for me, as did games like Odin Sphere and Flower. Sure, they’re great to look at, but if you’re bored in an hour, no amount of eye candy is going to save it. In short, if a game is to succeed as “art”, it needs to have solid gameplay to back up all the actual artistry.
In theory, Axel and Pixel should be the very definition of an artistic game. The story revolves around a painter (Axel) and is trusty dog (Pixel) who live in an idyllic cabin in the mountains. When Axel falls asleep one afternoon listening to his record player, they are somehow transported into a surrealistic parallel universe, and must escape through solving a series of 24 different bizarre puzzles and mini-games.
I do have to give the artists at developer Silver Wish credit for creating a truly bizarre and intriguing world. The graphics are a strange combination of simplistic cartoons, incredible hand-drawn landscapes, and what looks like images cut-and-pasted straight from actual photographs. If you were to somehow combine the styles of Salvador Dali, Thomas Kinkaide, and your 5-year-old’s school art project, Axel and Pixel would likely be the result. I know it sounds crazy, but it works incredibly well and truly fits the unique nature of the game. The artistic design is far and away the best quality of this title, and I looked forward to each new level to see what kind of strange and amazing things the artists would be throwing into this world. The audio fares pretty well also, with some nice ambient background music and Axel using Simsesque gibberish-speak to let you know when he’s found something or encountered a problem.
At it’s heart, Axel and Pixel is a basic point-and-click adventure game. Each of the levels takes place on a single full-screen frame, and you are able to place your cursor on certain objects and click to interact with them. Active objects cause your cursor to change color or shape to somewhat indicate what sort of actions can be taken. It will turn into a paw if Pixel can do something with it, footprints to show Axel can walk or climb there, a or a hand to let you know that it can be moved. Your task, then, is to figure out what series of interactions or movements will allow Axel and Pixel to get from one side of the screen to the other.
Unfortunately, this is where things start to fall down. I’ve played a lot of adventure games in my lifetime, and don’t exaggerate when I say that Axel and Pixel might be the easiest one I’ve ever come across. Many of the puzzles have rather unique solutions (i.e. using bubble gum to create a slinghot to fling boulders at a dam that will wash away a giant pipe-smoking hedgehog when it breaks), but there’s no real challenge in finding them. Since there are typically only 3-4 active items on any given level, it’s simply a matter of trial and error to repeatedly click on them and find out which one pulls the lever, opens the door, or moves the boulder out of the way to access the next stage. It also suffers from a common problem in adventure games – the dreaded “glue the cell phone to the cat” syndrome. There’s no way for the player to logically come up with the solution because they don’t really make any sense, it’s just a matter of doing actions or combining items until one of them works. You’ll occasionally pick up items and put them in your inventory for later use, but the inventory screen provides no description as to what they are, and the actual on-screen graphics were too small to tell. Did I just pick up a bottle or a flower? Is that a gear or a plate? Without knowing what these items were, there was no real way to puzzle out how they could be put to use, other than basic guesswork. All that aside, I never got stuck or had to think about any of the puzzles for more than a couple minutes, and breezed through the entire game without any difficulty. Maybe they were shooting for a younger audience, but I think some of the graphics might scare the kids it was intended for. The stop-motion animated Ice Giant and creepy Rat King even unnerved me a little bit, so I imagine they may be a bit much for young gamers.
To break up the adventure aspect, there are a few levels that use a mini-game instead – such as piloting a hot-air balloon through a cave, driving a 4-wheeler through the mountains, or sailing a boat downstream. These are decent diversions, I suppose, but none of them were particularly memorable. Each of these mini-games can be played on it’s own from the main menu, but I can’t really imagine why I’d want to do so.
While getting from one side of the screen to the other is the main goal, there are also collectables scattered throughout each level. Tubes of paint can be collected, Pixel can dig up bones, and Axel will whip out his easel and do a sketch if he finds a particularly nice vista. Tracking down these items can adds some replayability to the game, but once you’ve solved the main puzzle for each level, playing through them again – this time pixel-hunting to find triggers for the hidden items – isn’t terribly appealing.
Probably the biggest issue most gamers will have with Axel and Pixel is its length. I started it at 6:00, and was finished with the entire game by 9:30 – and that included a 30 minute break for dinner. It’s all of 3 hours long, give or take, without a huge amount of replay value. The price tag is pretty low at 800 points, but even that isn’t much gaming value for the dollar.
Axel and Pixel gets full credit for attempting to make a creative, artistic game, but the low difficulty and short length cause it to unfortunately fall short of the mark. That said, I’d certainly be interested to see what Silver Wish can do with a sequel. They created a truly beautiful game world, and the addition of more challenging puzzles could possibly make for a great title. As it stands, however, I’d classify it as an ambitious but ultimately flawed entry in the “games as art” category.