STAFF REVIEW of A Pixel Story (Xbox One)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

A Pixel Story Box art My gaming habits have changed within the past few years. I used to be able to play for hours upon hours a day without worry, but times have changed. I don’t have as much free time as I used to, so I enjoy the smaller indie games to fill my limited time as they don’t usually require a huge time commitment. A Pixel Story, developed by Lamplight Studios, fits this bill perfectly. It's a game that takes me back to my childhood, growing up in the 8-bit era and progressing to modern day gaming with its unique visuals. It's this aspect that truly impressed me. Bit there is more to this game then just the looks.

In most people’s eyes Pong is generally known as the first widely recognized videogame, and that ties into A Pixel Story, as your character’s life starts out as the iconic ball from Pong. Something goes awry and the ball, which is you, smashes through dimensions, causing a headache for people and damage elsewhere. You crash on a beachfront where you receive help from a small robot named Search, as you are inside of a computer after all. You are given a body, legs and arms, like a real ‘boy’, and so you set off on your adventure, but not before a pesky seagull steals the magic hat Search was about to bestow upon you to fulfill your destiny and destroy the evil operating system (OS).

This trope may have been used thousands of times before, as you need to fight the evil that lies ahead, but the narrative is told in an interesting way, allowing you to progress through many different eras of gaming, and this is where A Pixel Story truly shows its charm and heart. While you don’t speak, as you are simply a Pong ball, you’ll meet a large cast of characters along your journey, each with a distinct personality, some being very memorable.

Your beginnings may start out in classic 8-bit fashion, but you’ll eventually work your way to 16-bit graphics, and even up to modern day standards, as you progress through the worlds. The world is completely filled with humor and numerous pop culture references that will surely put a big smile on your face if you recognize the source material. While a platformer at its heart, A Pixel Story will surely resonate with gamers who grew up the era with the classic NES and Genesis, though it’s done well enough that even younger gamers will enjoy it as well. Seeing your character, and the world around you, change throughout the gaming eras, is awesome with its beautiful and colorful pixel landscape.

What I didn’t expect was that there is absolutely no combat in A Pixel Story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this allows you to focus simply on the platforming gameplay, which you’ll need to do if you want any hope of progressing to the end. Once you get your hat back, from the pesky seagull who stole it, during a brief tutorial of basic mechanics, this is when the game really starts to open up and show you what it has in store for you.

Your hat essentially allows you to teleport back to it whenever you feel like, and the majority A Pixel Story’s puzzles will play into this aspect, even some that are physics based. It may sound simple, and at first it’s not too challenging, but that will change as you progress, believe me. When you teleport (cache, as it’s called in computer terms in the game world) back to your hat, you regain any momentum you began with, so you may get a small vibe of Portal gameplay here and there, which is never a bad thing. Your hat can also float anywhere you drop it in the 2D landscape, and you’ll need to use that to your advantage as you progress.

So, say there’s a platform just above you that you can’t quite reach. You jump up high as you can, place your hat, then jump once again and cache at the same time, allowing you to reach the higher platform, as you keep your inertia from the jump before teleporting back to your hat (which happens to resemble a certain plumber’s iconic headpiece).

Eventually you’ll have to combine this mechanic with bumpers, moving platforms, platforms that can move your hat, bouncing walls, and more. The new mechanics are introduced slowly, allowing you to become accustomed to them during that specific level, adding those skills to your repertoire. Flipping switches and perfect timing will become commonplace and you’re going to need to react with near perfect accuracy if you want to progress in some sections. What A Pixel Story does well is never become unfairly difficult, as almost every section you know you can do, you just have yet to figure out the proper way to do so.

That’s not to say it will be easy, anything but, especially the final stages. Prepare to die, a lot here. The good news is that checkpoints are plentiful, as you’re almost always placed nearby where you died without having to backtrack too far. If I had to do a large section over and again after each death, I would have given up, so Lamplight Studios got this part just right in my opinion. You learn from your mistakes, and you will still most likely die another dozen times or so before making that jump you need, but man does it feel satisfying once you figure out what you need to do and executing it flawlessly.

While the platforming aspect is what you’ll be focusing on for the most part, the game is filled with quests, and even sidequests, that will challenge and reward you. The main story missions will progress you through the story, allowing you to move onto the next generation (era’s), but sidequests will net you a bunch of coins and other collectible rewards that give you more backstory (and achievements). The majority of these sidequests are simply finding someone or retrieving an item they need, but it’s always entertaining with some of the more unique personalities, like 'Not Batman' (trust me).

Normally when I die repeatedly in games I tend to become frustrated, especially when it’s not entirely my fault, but somehow A Pixel Story keeps pushing you forward, wanting you to try ‘just one more time’. Once you make it to generation 2 and see the graphics improve, that pushes you to want to make it to generation 3 and further. While certain sections will leave you dumbfounded for a while, the inclusion of humor and numerous hilarious pop culture references will make you forget all the frustration you previously had once you start laughing. Seriously, there’s nothing quite like playing a dancing minigame to “What Is Love?” or watching the iconic lava scene from Terminator 2.

While the main game is difficult enough as it is, for those truly wanting a challenge you can spend your gathered coins on special locked doors that open up Challenge Rooms. Now I know in most games a special ‘challenge room’ may not be a big deal, but man, they are no joke here. Seriously, I was unable to complete a single one for each one I’ve unlocked thus far. While they are technically passable, as I know what I need to do to reach the goal, doing so with perfect precision and timing is a completely different matter, one that I’ll leave to completionists and those much better than I.

Some will find A Pixel Story a little too difficult, especially in the the later stages, but it never crosses the border to unfair. A majority of the time it’s your fault from such things as poor timing or improper hat placement, though there are times where the controls do feel a tad too ‘slippery’, which can cause a little frustration when you need absolute perfection and timing. The plentiful checkpoint system, and mechanic that allows you to warp to any previously unlocked checkpoint, is basically a saving grace for those not wanting to backtrack constantly.

While it probably resonates with me more so simply because I grew up in the classic era of gaming, it’s a real delight to see your hero evolve from 8-bit to 16-bit and beyond with each world completed. The inclusion of many pop culture references and easter eggs only adds to the charm which, for me personally, constantly brought a smile to my face, making me forget the frustration I previously had from dying a dozen times in a row. A Pixel Story is well worth the purchase as the time and enjoyment is fairly high, and I truly adored my time with the unnamed Pong ball hero from start to finish. If you enjoy platforming games of any kind, A Pixel Story needs to be the next one you experience, even more so if you grew up in the 8 and 16-bit eras or appreciate those classic games.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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