Axel & Pixel for Xbox Live Arcade is a point and click adventure where the pace is gentle and easy going, with a story that is whimsical to match. Axel is an artist who, along with his dog Pixel, lives in a twee cottage set in an idyllic location. But one day, an odious rat carrying out the bidding of a tree monster comes along and traps them in a dream like state which they must work together across twenty four seasonal levels (spring, summer, autumn and winter) in order to break the spell. At the end of each season, there is a change of pace that sees our protagonists jump into a vehicle ranging from a car to a hot air balloon or finally a boat.
The puzzles encountered are varied and start off on a gently rising difficulty curve, looking to hook players into its web by being engaging and off-beat in their execution. By providing almost mute protagonists, it allows the player to impose their own personality on events. The lilting musical accompaniment soothes and cajoles any frustrations and if it really does all get too much and a brick wall is hit, a press of the Y button brings up a hint to aid progress. The logical and literal solutions soon become apparent but never does the player feel patronised, empowering them as they solve the puzzle and click on the bright red arrow to move onto the next area.
While most will be used to controlling such adventures on a mouse and keyboard, Axel & Pixel is perfectly accessible here on the control pad, feeling perfect with no issues or apparent compromises. If an item can be interacted with it will be highlighted in bright Yellow which will indicate whether it can be used, walked upon, etc.
If there’s anything that makes Axel & Pixel stand out it’s the unique animation style employed throughout. The cut out style is eerily reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python, with what appears to be elements crudely cut out and pasted into backgrounds in a hap-hazard fashion. It’s all rather charming and the urge to bellow “DINSDALE!” at specific points is overwhelming.
By also splitting the levels into seasons, it gives the game free reign to thematically change but it doesn’t wallow in them. Instead it uses them in much more subtle ways. The buds of spring make way for the lushness of summer and so on.
For all the exuberance elsewhere, the real chinks in the armour are the vehicle sections. Adopting a physics model that is very reminiscent of the sublime Trials HD, its execution does nothing to emulate that peerless title in any way, shape or form. The end result is flawed to say the least. The way the car floats with no weight to it means it has a tendency to flip over on a steep incline, causing massive headaches. But this is by far the least offensive of these inclusions; the balloon and boat will cause furious gnashing of teeth as they continue to indulge this pseudo-physics approach. What makes it worse is there are no checkpoints in these levels meaning that if too much damage is taken, it’s right back to the beginning even if the finishing line is in sight.
It really rubs up against the easy-going nature elsewhere in the game, as if dumped in there from another release or a pet project from someone on the team, completely at odds with the general tone and causing unnecessary frustration.
Once finished, there isn’t a whole lot to come back to, unless the player is looking to punish themselves further with the vehicle sections, which bizarrely make up a selection of mini-games to help grind more enamel from your teeth as you attempt to gather high scores.
These problems aside, as a puzzle experience Axel & Pixel is superb. That it has been saddled with some questionable additions that detract from this is perplexing to say the least. Ignore them and you’ll find a fun and irreverent title which will engage young and old alike.