by Brian D. Wegener
What is Love?
A review of A Pixel Story
A Pixel Story is a love letter to the video games of yore. Its aesthetics span from 8-bit to present. It’s a platformer that looks to the past and wants to capture all of the magic that its inspirations oozed. It wants to evoke a feeling in you of youth, of having a whole day with nothing to do but plays games, and while it succeeds most of the time it also reminds you that games have come a long way.
A Pixel Story developed by Lamplight Studios has all the trappings of something that five to ten-year-old me would have loved. It’s a platforming game with a quest system, quirky side characters, and an evolving art style, what young me (and twenty-nine-year-old me, for that matter) would not have loved, is its punishingly difficult platforming. Before I go into great lengths about what I like and dislike about A Pixel Story, I want to be upfront, I did not finish the game. I played for about 6 hours, cleared the first five levels and saw three generations (out of four). With that out of the way let’s get to the meat. Games can largely be boiled down to three chunks*: Story, Gameplay, and Art (which encompasses art design, music, and overall tone).
* – Obviously games can be more than those three parts, and most games are much harder to quantify than the sum of those three parts, however I felt that for this specific game it can easily be broken down.
STORY – Some (Mild) Spoilers Ahead
A Pixel Story starts out with a cinematic of Pong (yes, the Pong from 1972), and from there… it gets weird. Without spoiling the whole intro I’ll just say your character is the pong ball (I just spoiled most of the intro). After some weird machine, cyber-shit, you, the pong ball, become an anthropomorphic pong ball with overalls, a scarf, disconnected hands (ala Rayman), and a hat, and now you, and the world, are 8-bit. After waking up on a beach, you meet search, a search function, who sends you on a quest to retrieve your hat, which a seagull stole while you were unconscious. How or why you have a hat, I can’t tell you, not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t remember (I started it four days ago, so obviously it was both important and meaningful). As you journey to get your hat from the dastardly seagull you learn the basic platforming mechanics: jumping, walking, and interacting with the world (pulling levers, talking to people, etc).
Very early on you start meeting the colorful and interesting characters from the world. At first I thought all the characters were going to be as dull and uninteresting as our lead, which I’ll dub, Pongy (which I consider better than the name they gave him, Program), and his annoying sidekick, Search. However, within 5 minutes you’ll meet a weird green crab guy and his bird, who are both hilarious and interesting. I was originally thinking of posting a picture of him, because I thought, oh this must be a fluke, I must have stumbled on the only two interesting character design in the game because the leads are so uninspired, however, nearly every character you meet in the game (save for a few guards) are both interesting and regularly hilarious. I don’t want to ruin any of the jokes, but they are plentiful, and, in rare video game occasion, they actually made me laugh. There is more to the story because (**SPOILERS**) you get the hat at the end of the first level, but what the actual point of the game is, I do not know.
Now where I got more and more excited to meet the interesting characters with their silly pop culture references and fun design, I felt the exact opposite about the gameplay. Let me break it down here: you walk around collecting coins, which you use to unlock challenge rooms (more on that later); you try to find gems (memory, to keep in tone with the programming aesthetic of the game), which help unlock the games generations; and you do side quests (which generally give you gems) and main quests. There is a hub, The Bedroom, where you can revisit levels you have already been to, to collect gems or coins, finish side quests, or even travel directly to the challenge rooms.
There is a level of exploration that A Pixel Story offers that you would generally find in a Metroidvania (2D exploration based platformer) style of game, however I found it to be mostly shallow as it would normally lead to more gems or side quests… to obtain more gems. You need to keep collecting gems to unlock generations in the game, however you only move generations after completing two levels and in that time you’ll stumble across more than enough gems, so you’ll rarely need to go out of your way to find them. Each level introduces a new mechanic and these mechanics layer, for example in the first level you learn to jump and to use jump-pads to jump higher/farther, after retrieving the hat, which allows you to set it somewhere then warp to that location, you will use the jump-pads with the hat to do Portal-style jumping.
While the platforming is serviceable, the game demands precise platforming but delivers imprecise controls. Unlike Super Mario Bros, a game with very little input lag, A Pixel Story either has a lot of input lag, the controls are too floaty, or something else is wrong. In my six or so hours playing I could never get a real handle on what felt off, but something definitely felt off. This feeling of imprecision is magnified when you enter the challenge rooms. Now I love Super Meat Boy, many people do, after trying several challenge rooms I assume the creators of A Pixel Story really love it. I played each challenge room for about 20 to 30 minutes, however they were far too difficult*. Thankfully the main game is filled with a pretty forgiving checkpoint system (that also doubles as fast travel) and it is rare to have to do more than two difficult jumps in a row, that being said a single difficult jump can take upwards of 10 minutes as the game demands a precision that is very difficult to execute on.
* – To explain my skill level to anyone who is wondering if I just suck at precision-based games, I did finish Hyper Light Drifter, fairly quickly, in about two days, and completed a considerable number of levels in Super Meat Boy, I am not the best l33tzor gamer who noscopes on the reg, however I feel confident in my skill in most games.
This is the toughest section for me to touch on, and in all honesty, I don’t have a lot to say. The art is uninspired in some spots (the valley), adequate in most (the temple and the volcano), and beautiful in others (I’m looking at you Bayou level). Whenever you delve into the historicity of games and trying to evoke nostalgia it becomes hard to really feel fresh or innovative, with that being said I felt that the tone did stay consistent. As I was unable to make it to the fourth generation I can’t say if the art evolves and becomes magnificent or masterful in the fourth generation, however I am very doubtful as I disliked the third generation, which looked like Nintendo 64 or Dreamcast era. The character design is a mixed bag, and I know I stated this earlier, but I want to reiterate that the character design for the side characters is vastly more interesting than the two leads. I wanted to stay in the world and hangout with those funny-looking, quirky bean or potato-shaped people.
As a musician, I am very particular about sound design in games, and sadly I disliked nearly everything I heard in the first generation (8-bit era). From the sound fx to the score, everything was way too boring and repetitive, it did get significantly better during the 16-bit levels (The Bayou and The Volcano). Was that a choice by the composer? Maybe, but if so I think it was a bad choice to start the game with the least interesting cuts from the soundtrack, even if 8-bit game soundtracks were way more constricted. With all the negativity that I just wrote, I want to comment on a standout moment for the music, where I remember thinking, this is fun and catchy, it’s the freefall section before the Volcano stage, which was an excellent stage for gameplay as well.
A Pixel Story is a very solid entry in the platformer genre. It’s not great, but it’s also a fairly reasonably priced indie game ($12). While there are better games of its type that have been made recently (Ori and the Blind Forest, is one of my faves) which are better, it still might scratch your itch if you really want an old-school platforming game. Or if you want a game that tries to cover games history and evoke nostalgia by traversing aesthetic evolution while playing, you could do worse, however I think Evoland 2 might be the better choice. After six hours I found that I don’t really want or need to return to it, the repetition and difficulty mixed with the controls feeling imprecise and slightly off just keep me from feeling anything other than that it was just good, not great. There were moments in the game where I fell in love with it, but as the game continually kept asking me, “What is Love?”
A NOTE FROM THE REVIEWER
(Please note that for this review Game Source did receive a review model for the game from the Public Relations Firm, Developer and/or Publisher responsible for distribution to the press.)
About the developer — after some research it seems that A Pixel Story is the developers, Lamplight Studios, first game, and with that it is an admirable first effort. At times the game exudes a real warmth and love; also, the writing is excellent, it’s one of the few games I have ever experienced laugh out loud moments in, it’s what pushed it from three stars to three-and-a-half stars.
About my review – I was given about one week to play the game and write a review, however because of my time frame and the difficulty of the game I was unable to finish it and did not see the fourth generation.
Finally, this is my first review and as such I decided to take a very informal approach to writing, if you have any comments, criticisms, or just want to chat, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at me: @BrianDWegener.