Axel & Pixel review
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.
You never actually move Axel, as he’ll remain stationary until you click on an interactive object. There’s no real reason to move otherwise, yet this still felt like an uncomfortable restriction to me. The cursor is a cluster of swirling orbs that change colour over hotspots, and all you need to do is click, though a couple of times you’ll need to time your actions carefully. Often your command will be carried out by Axel (or Pixel in his few moments of lead dog glory), but occasionally you’ll have a godlike effect on the environment, causing flowers to bloom or cavernous rocks to fall. I hit one bug where Axel didn’t perform the required action and I was forced to restart the chapter, but otherwise this interface is about as clean and straightforward as it gets. Even the inventory is streamlined, as any object you collect is used automatically in the appropriate place.
Although most of the game consists of environmental sequencing puzzles, Axel & Pixel does offer a few changes of pace – quite literally in some cases. First up are the traditional puzzles. Although rare, you’ll have to solve a simple code lock, direct light beams, follow a musical pattern (with visible cues), and complete a couple of jigsaws of various types. These feel a little contrived, especially as it’s clearly “you” solving them, not Axel, punching telephone buttons yourself or rotating over-sized pipes and tiles directly. But they’re relatively easy and harmless diversions for a few minutes here and there. More notable are the QuickTime Events and side-scrolling minigames peppered throughout, each of them a combination of frustration and fun.
The QTE’s require you to hit buttons quickly in response to onscreen button prompts. Such tasks are quite short and completely forgiving here, as failure simply means starting the sequence over. But though they do succeed at spicing things up a bit, there’s no attempt to match the prompts with onscreen actions, and the annoyance comes from their frequency and random sudden appearance. Out of nowhere, the game will flash a prompt onscreen – sometimes just a single one – that catches you completely unaware. The prompts are also fairly small, and against such richly-designed backgrounds with the camera sometimes moving to follow the action, they can be difficult to see even when you’re looking for them. The abrupt nature of these sequences is more manageable with a gamepad (not surprising, as Axel & Pixel began as an Xbox 360 exclusive), but they’ve ported to PC awkwardly. The vast majority of the game is pure point-and-click, but the QTEs send you scrambling madly for your keyboard to mash buttons on cue. With no permanent repercussions, this isn’t really a problem, but it’s clumsy nevertheless.
You’ll need the keyboard for the minigames as well, but these are self-contained, full-level features. At predetermined points, Axel will “paint” a hot air balloon, 4X4 buggy, and a sailboat that you’ll need to navigate across side-scrolling terrain. Each craft can be destroyed if it takes too much damage, which is easy to do, and every vehicle has its own unique challenge. The balloon needs gas, the car has a limited but rechargeable accelerator, and the boat needs to be steered by directing air gusts into its sails. These levels are actually quite entertaining at first, but they are far too long to not have a checkpoint along the way. They can be skipped entirely if you fail, but if you do that you’ll miss out on some of the collectibles.
Along with just getting through the levels, you’ll also be on the prowl for hidden bones for Pixel and painting items for Axel. These have no impact at all on the outcome of the game, but they contribute to the quality of the artwork depicting your adventure at game’s end. As rewards go, it’s not entirely satisfying, but it’s a clever incentive, as a painting with blank spaces feels like unfinished business. You can’t spend too long dilly-dallying in pursuit of bonus items, though, as each level is timed. I’m no fan of timers in principle, and you’ll have to start the chapter over from the start if it runs out, but the clock remains hidden from view unless purposely called up, and I didn’t exceed the limit a single time during my initial playthrough, so it’s really not an issue.
It shouldn’t take too long to get through, either, as Axel & Pixel can easily be finished in under four hours, even if it takes a while to get through the vehicle levels. It’s pretty fun while it lasts, however, if you like the Samorost style of hotspot-sequence gameplay. The game never really rises above its limited ambitions, as its standalone puzzles and minigames are rather arbitrarily inserted, the lack of feedback makes some scenes feel excessively vague, and you’ll undoubtedly want to smack Axel’s red beret off his head if he opens his mouth one more time, but there’s a fantastic dream world to explore, and it’s always enjoyable to click unknown objects and see what happens, sometimes just for kicks. Those who value story above all or prefer their puzzles strenuous won’t find that here, but anyone up for a jaw-dropping excursion through a surreal land full of strange creatures and environmental obstacles will have a pleasant, picturesque time.