Don’t be fooled by A Pixel Story‘s bright and happy pixel aesthetic – this is not a nice game. It’s a fun game, but it’s a game that will make you question your sanity, your abilities with a controller in your hands, and your worth as a human being. It carries a personal tagline of a “devious 2D platformer” and more than lives up to this moniker with countless difficult puzzles and even separate challenge rooms meant to drop you into the most unfair scenarios possible and watch you squirm your way out. Is the reward worth the challenge? Find out in our A Pixel Story review.
Being that A Pixel Story is a gameplay-focused puzzle platformer, its story is relatively simple: you are a program in a computer system that has gone haywire. A war between the system operator and “The Tyrant” erupts and throws your world into chaos. From this chaos, you are meant to travel through several “generations,” which more or less span the length of video game history. You start in an 8-bit looking world as a heavily pixelated hero surrounded by chiptunes and loud pinging noises, eventually emerging in a more modern world.
That world created within A Pixel Story is generally pretty interesting, but how it’s told is less so. Throughout your time playing the game, you will run into dozens of NPCs. Almost all of them have some kind of task for you to complete so you can amass the game’s main collectible, Memories, or they provide some kind of background information. Unfortunately, you don’t really spend enough time with any of them, and they all come off as the same exact characters. It all leads to an experience that bleeds together and a missed opportunity when it comes to crafting a memorable world to explore. Where a great story and characters could mask the fact that their missions are just “go here, collect that,” their lack of personality fails to do so.
The more interesting parts of the story are told through static menus and a codex-type system where the memories you collect help you remember the world you are in. They tell a story of war, destruction, and rebuilding all through the lens of being inside a computer. Like I said previously, it’s an interesting enough world that exists, just the way the world is laid out isn’t in the most engaging way imaginable.
The one constant character on your adventures, CHANGEME, starts as a vehicle to explain tutorials to you, but eventually becomes a one-liner quip machine as he remarks about your current situations, offers not-so-helpful advice, and gives some world-building details. While he serves his purpose at first and can be fun to have around, I eventually found myself just skipping or skimming most of his dialogue for the important bits. Gameplay undoubtedly takes center stage in A Pixel Story, and for good reason.
In a way, A Pixel Story is split into two games. If you want to just romp through a story and solve some fairly difficult puzzles and snag some collectibles, you’re welcome to do so. But if you want a real challenge, scattered around every level are doors that can be opened by spending a certain amount of coins you collect around every map. Behind these doors are the pits of platforming hell where you often times use skills and abilities you recently acquired to complete devilishly difficult puzzles and platforming segments. A lot of them look simple on the surface, but when you start to die repeteadly after the first jump their difficulty all begins to click. If these segments were mandatory, it would be easy to call them just plain unfair and a hinderance to the game. But, seeing as they are almost entirely optional, they are a great side-challenge for anyone wanting to take the game to the next level. Completing each challenge room is a matter of memorizing the correct set of steps and then performing those steps flawlessly as there are no checkpoints within each room. They are honestly a lot of fun to complete and give a massive rush of adrenaline when you finally do it and exit the door.
I sadly had to skip over quite a few of them just because of time constraints, but I will definitely be going back from time to time to try and complete as many as I can. Luckily, the game accounts for this and gives you easy access to all the challenge rooms from the main menu.
The majority of the game’s puzzles, both in these challenge rooms and out, revolve around your hat. In the main chunk of the game, after a quick tutorial, you are given a hat that gives you the ability to drop it, then teleport to it. You can’t actually throw the hat (although later on there are platforms that can move it for you) so for the most part you need to be in the exact location that you want to drop the hat, forcing you to memorize patterns of obstacles and mentally cycling through a bunch of moving parts at once. A Pixel Story does a very clever job using this simple mechanic for dozens of puzzles. You’d think with such a simplistic hook that puzzles could get repeated often, but they really don’t, especially thanks in part to some wrinkles thrown in along the way.
For one, the hat follows the Portal school of physics, meaning that you maintain your momentum when you fall or jump then teleport to it. When you take this little change and combine it with jumping from various heights, springs, spikes, types of flooring that change your jump velocity, and all the other things sprinkled around A Pixel Story‘s levels and you get a wide variety of puzzles that you can complete.
A lot of the puzzles end up being about timing with these jumps and anticipating when an obstacle is going to be in your way (and more importantly, when it isn’t). These are not puzzles that you can fly through and hope for the best: you’ll frequently be stopping to think them out. For me anyway, this is a sign of good puzzle design and it actually makes you think, which is something that a lot of puzzle platformers miss out on.
Visuals are a strange thing to judge in A Pixel Story because they change several times throughout the course of the game. As mentioned previously, you are travelling through generations, which are represented by the the main character being upgraded as he goes through each console generation. Oddly enough, the further along you get, the worse the game starts to look.
In the early stages it has a great pixel art look. Especially the second generation, where you are closer to 16-bit graphics, the game looks great and full of originality. But, unfortunately, past that point when the graphics start to get closer to current day standards things start to look a lot more bland and uninspired; closer to a Flash game than anything. Where the little Chosen One was once a nice homage to the 8-bit era, when he’s transformed to a more modern-day look they don’t have much personality, nor does anything else.
It may not sound like a compliment, but the best way I can describe A Pixel Art‘s soundtrack is it’s efficient. When they need to be, each of the tracks do an excellent job keeping you focused and going forward, which in a game such as this, is more than you can ask for. It also helps that nearly every tune is downright catchy and enjoyable to listen to. This is especially important when you’re in the hellish challenge levels and hearing them on repeat as you miss a jump into a spike pit for the 80th time. Each of the overworld tracks help set the mood effectively as well, ranging from jaunty upbeat tunes to dark and brooding sounds meant to show the various personalities of the game’s levels. I found myself humming more than one of them long after putting the game down.
Sound effects evolve much better than their graphical counterparts throughout the generations in the game. They start as the usual 8-bit pings, but eventually evolve to more updated sound effects. Nothing overall too memorable with the sound design, but it doesn’t get too much in the way.
The UI does feature a great series of sounds, however. It’s such a strange thing to be attached to, but I absolutely loved the light, and weirdly high-tech sounds of the game’s pause menu navigation.
Conceptually, there is a lot of originality packed into A Pixel Story. A lot of that originality is buried beneath some standard platforming, but the puzzles that do shine, shine extremely brightly and make the experience a unique adventure. The story leaves quite a bit to be desired, at least how it is told, but I have to give credit for the overall concept of travelling through a computer and many console generations in the process.Buy A Pixel Story on Steam