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Game Review: A Pixel Story

The quintessential indie puzzle-platformer.

Developer: Lamplight Studios
Publisher: Channel 4
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Disclaimer: Copy provided by the developer/publisher

Imagine if the developers of FEZ, Braid and Super Meat Boy had an orgy and invited the guys who did Portal as well as the dude who created the Flashgame The Company Of Myself and the guys who did The Swapper were spying on them through the window. If they all had conceived a baby that night, it would be A Pixel Story.

Never mind that fact though, because the game wears its influences on its sleeve and isn’t ashamed by that in the slightest. As you might infer from the line-up above consisting mostly of puzzle-platformers, A Pixel Story is obviously in the same genre as those.

You start your life as a pixel. But not just as any old pixel. You are in fact the ball from the legendary arcade classic Pong. But something is afoot in your system and you are violently ripped out of the game and through inter-dimensional portals you catch glimpses of other worlds you are about to visit. In a darkened room, shadowy figures initiate a sequence that gives you a humanoid body and you’re let loose into the first world.

As is typical for modern puzzle-platformers made by people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, A Pixel Story boasts a retro-aesthetic. Or so I thought initially, because similar to Evoland, the art-style changes over the course of the game. You start out in an 8-bit inspired world and after you beat that, you enter a higher resolution 16-bit world. After a third transition, bits don’t matter anymore and the art-style has changed to one that is heavily inspired by Braids watercolor aesthetic. Similar to that, the music evolves as well, changing from simple chiptunes to more modern arrangements.

What doesn’t really change – except during the final level – is the gameplay. Early on in the game, you are awarded with a hat (Gomez from FEZ sends his greetings). This hat has a special power. It let’s you use the hat as a teleporter. Meaning you can drop it anywhere in the level and with the push of a button teleport back to where the hat is. And that’s basically it. That’s your main mechanic outside of pulling levers, using jump-pads or just jumping from platform to platform.

Though as with any good game with a deceptively simple mechanic, A Pixel Story manages to pull out a lot of depth from it, and with that a certain maliciousness. The puzzles increase steadily in complexity and by the end there are a couple of brain twisters in there that don’t make life easy for you. Or at least for me. If you are a better man than I am, you can also enter certain challenge rooms, though that name has to be the understatement of the year. Again, drawing from my pool of comparisons at the top, these challenge rooms take the Super Meat Boy approach at game design, just throwing everything at you simultaneously, only it’s even more sadistic than the adventures of Meat Boy the skinless one.

With all that talk about gameplay and aesthetic, I almost forgot to talk about the story part of A Pixel Story. Or better the lack thereof. Now there is a story that’s being told, you’re the chosen pixel to bring down the Operator of the System and set all the programs in it free. And over the course of the game you meet all sorts of different characters inspired by computers. Such as the Kernel, a rich philanthropist, or Search, your trusty partner and exposition dump. And he really is that, so very little is shown, most is told through lengthy dialogue or some background information from memory crystals you need to collect. But there’s really not much to this world beyond that. We never see how or why the old Operator has been challenged by the new one, we never know the motivation of the current Operator. We’re just the chosen one set to bring him down. We never learn who these shadowy figures at the start were that transformed your pixelly shape into a person. Or at least I never did. I assume to get the real ending, you’d have to beat all the challenge rooms and acquire all the memory crystals in order to unlock the final ending. So I at the very least will never find out, because the game is just too difficult for me to invest so much more time into it, and I would’ve liked it better if I’d have been give a bit more closure for just finishing the game and beating the final boss.

Outside of that, the game is chock-full of pop-culture references. You’ll find a caricature program of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator and even a side-quest about a sleeping princess that turns out to be inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Though one that definitely put a smile on my face was a party where the band plays a chiptune rendition of Haddaways classic “What is Love”.

If it sounds like I’m down on the game because of the lacking narrative, don’t fret. Because all the other elements are fantastic. It’s got a simple, easily understandable central mechanic and the puzzles are designed cleverly enough to provide plenty entertainment and challenge for a player and then some. Even though it lacks a unified aesthetic – given the fact that it changes with every new area – all the styles it employs are executed competently and the music that accompanies you on your adventures is really good. Since the game takes a lot of inspiration from a variety of different sources, as mentioned in this review, I can’t call it innovative, but sometimes a game just doesn’t have to be innovative to be good. Even an indie game. It’s a really fun game and I can wholeheartedly recommend A Pixel Story to fans of puzzle-platformers that aren’t stingy with presenting challenging obstacles for players to overcome.

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