Let’s just say it: Axel & Pixel is a Samorost clone.
There’s no point beating around the bush, as comparisons of Silver Wish’s lite adventure puzzler with Amanita’s classic are obvious and inevitable: both are wordless, one-screen-at-a-time journeys through photorealistic natural environments populated by surreal hand-drawn characters, requiring you to piece together the correct sequence of clicks and tasks in order to advance. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but when done right, it really works. Axel & Pixel manages to follow the pattern successfully more often than not, though there are a few splotches on this lovely paint-by-numbers recreation that tarnish the final result, including a few clumsy attempts to draw outside its inspiration’s lines.
The (ahem) “story” behind Axel & Pixel is extremely basic. A painter named Axel and his dog Pixel fall asleep together, only to find themselves trapped in a dream world. Unfortunately, a dastardly rat has made off with the key they need to return to the real world, and so the chase is on. That premise is really all there is. There are plenty of creatures to encounter along the way, some an unintentional help and others a very intentional hindrance, but there are no characters to interact with, no actual plot developments of any kind, no backstory to uncover. Instead, in what is really just an elaborate escape-the-room adventure, you’ll traverse 24 distinct levels with various obstacles to overcome in the most incredibly bizarre ways.
But what a world it is! As much as the protagonists want to escape, I’d really like to live there, or at least visit. The backdrop is a collection of gorgeous photographic scenery of mountains, streams, and lush vegetation, yet it’s all constructed in such a way that you’ll feel about two inches tall. A snail shell towers over Axel’s head, while tree stumps are too high to climb, and dandelion seeds are large enough to float on. The fauna is just as large as the flora, which poses some inherent dangers: a dragonfly absconds with poor Pixel in its clutches, and a slithering snake could easily swallow a hundred Axels whole. Not all animals are foes, however, like the penguin in a derby hat, an oil-guzzling ape-like thing, and a pipe-smoking… porcupine? Unlike the natural backgrounds, most creatures and man-made inventions are hand-drawn in a simple cartoon style. It’s a jarring contrast, yet strangely suitable. Rather than feeling like a dream world you’re passing through, here it feels like the world is real, and everything else (including you) is what you’ve dreamed up.
It’s a world sprinkled with activity as well, the diverse environments nicely animated with rippling, reflective water, rolling clouds in the crystal blue sky, and falling icicles as you pass through all four seasons in your travels. Better yet, all living things in Axel & Pixel are richly animated too, with their own idle gestures and active routines. This is true of the protagonists as well. Since you’re usually controlling Axel, Pixel will run around and entertain himself as dogs do, and the painter carries out all your commands with impressive detail, whether it’s pole-vaulting a gap or firing a makeshift catapult at a dam. With the lone exception of controlling Pixel briefly, no “magic hands” are used or shortcuts taken in this traditionally weak area for adventures. The only downside is that when Axel is unable to perform an action yet, he’ll walk all the way over to the desired hotspot and simply shrug and grunt his confusion or disapproval, offering absolutely nothing in the way of constructive feedback. As so much of this dream world and its inhabitants behave unpredictably, it can be difficult to determine why something doesn’t work.
Although he never speaks (except occasionally in a garbled, non-language gibberish), Axel’s constant stream of emotional moans, groans, and audible sighs continue in the background, quickly becoming tiresome and distracting. I’m all for non-speaking parts in games like this, but over-compensating with other verbal utterances doesn’t help when it’s simply gratuitous noise. Other than that, though, the soundscape is very pleasant, with cheery, often folksy music playing unobtrusively in the background and a nice array of ambient sounds and effects, from the scribbles of Axel’s sketches to the squeaky resistance of rusty machinery to the ominous growls of an imposing ice giant warning you away.
Amidst all these wondrous sights and sounds, of course, are many challenges to overcome. At times you’ll have to bypass ornery, territorial animals or cross seemingly impassable chasms, but occasionally you’ll need to rescue your wayward buddy or find a second path for both of you to proceed. To accomplish this, you’ll pretty much just be looking for hotspots. Some are fairly obvious, but expect to sweep many screens looking for unintuitive triggers on quite a few occasions. On the rare occasion you just can’t find that lone stubborn hotspot or aren’t sure what to do next, a hint system offers three clues per level, highlighting the next interactive object required. You shouldn’t need it often, if ever, as each level consists of just a single screen that can be scrolled around only slightly, so everything you need is always right there in front of you.Continued on the next page...