Version tested: Xbox 360
Fanged tadpoles, giant turtles with tank-treads for back legs, obese juggling beetles and magpies wearing pink toupees: Axel & Pixel's rolling countryside is a colouring-in book representation of Dante's milder cheese dreams. Settled in an esoteric circle somewhere between divine comedy and inferno, the scrapbook aesthetic combines photographic backgrounds with Terry Gilliam-esque creature animations to create something at once soothing and unsettling.
The effect is heightened by one of gaming's most exquisite ambient soundtracks, one that teeters between twee heartbreak and raw menace. This would also be an appropriate way to describe the game's premise, which has you directing Axel, a red bereted painter, and his chubby hound Pixel in pursuit of a rat that has stolen the keys to their house. Fail to catch him before winter sets in and Axel and Pixel freeze to death, a menacing fairytale chaser worthy of Grimm himself.
As in Samorost and other mute, ponderous adventure games of this ilk, your interactions with the gameworld flow through a magic pointer, used to prod the scenery and inhabitants to trigger micro-events. Poke a berry on a tree branch and it comes to life, swelling and ripening before your eyes. Click on it again and it drops to the ground for Axel to collect. Click on the upturned acorn-holder nearby and Axel will crush the fruit inside it. The resulting mulchy liquid can then be used on another item in the environment as you follow the elaborate puzzle sequence to its conclusion.
Much of the core game is spent investigating the four or five objects in the environment that are clickable at any one time, working out the order in which you must trigger their events in order to remove whatever obstacle is preventing Axel and Pixel from progressing through the current screen to the next.
Sometimes the logic of what you do in a situation is clear. The water wheel that powers the windmill required to blow your sailboat across a lake is broken - find a way to fix it. In these cases the challenge consists of feeling out the footholds of interaction that will take you to your objective. However, a great deal of the time you'll be clicking on objects at random, stuffing seeds into holes, blowing at dandelions, trying anything and everything in search of a clear short-term goal.
That's par for the course with this style of adventure game, in which finding the shape and contour of each puzzle is as important as solving it. But nonetheless, the payoffs are most rewarding when you work out where a logic sequence is headed before you arrive at its conclusion, rather than merely tracing the screen in search of another trigger point and hoping for the best.
Almost all of the game's puzzles can be solved with patience. Unlike the orthodox brainteasers found in Professor Layton's oeuvre, you can blather through the game just by persevering with different combinations of interaction. Nonetheless, the designers have incorporated a hint system with three clues available for every stage of the game should you find yourself at a loss for what to do next.
This approach is preferable to resorting to an online walkthrough. As with Braid, there's just one solution to every problem and, as soon as you've been told it, the game's forever ruined for all but the forgetful. To counterbalance the temptation to race through the game using hints, there are rewards for using fewer clues in the form of Achievements and free access to the game's mini-game tasks.
These mini-games are inserted into the ponderous game flow to provide action relief from the otherwise pedestrian tasks. At the lowest level, the game employs that most divisive of devices, the quick-time event, and control-pad button prompts flash onto screen as you, for example, scale a wall. Miss or perform an incorrect input and you need to start over.
The QTEs are incongruous to a game that's otherwise rich in metaphors, but it's as if the developer acknowledges their incongruity. In one tense moment, you have to enter a series of prompted button-presses to help Axel leap from pillar to post while being chased by a giant rolling boulder. For a moment, the ambient soundtrack gives way to Indiana Jones timpani, before, the set-piece complete, everything slows once again to its natural ponderous rhythms.
Even so, acknowledging that a reaction-based QTE sits awkwardly with the rest of your game doesn't excuse it, and these moments, while implemented to introduce some urgency, add little and threaten much to the overall ambiance.
More structured interstitial mini-games also break up the puzzle-solving. In one you must navigate a hot-air balloon through a network of tunnels, balancing the use of fuel with the balloon's health bar. It's a long sequence with no checkpoints to provide a shifting safety net and the high difficulty merely extends the length of the experience through the use of repetitious restarts, rather than doing anything to deepen it.
More successful are the other meta-game tasks that are a lot more in-keeping with the core game's ideology. Some scenes can be arranged in such a way that they inspire Axel to take out his easel and paintbrush and sketch the vista. With seven sketches to find, each contributing to a lager mural, this collectible is engaging and consistent with the game's premise. Tubes of paint and dog bones an also be found in the environments, with bonus rewards for collecting each set, and these smaller objectives help to break up the otherwise-unflinching goal of moving from left to right through the game.
Axel & Pixel is the sort of game that will infuriate as many as it enthralls. It is, in a sense, a slow-motion celebration of gaming's first principles. You observe, play with the tools on offer in any scene and, click by click, work out the correct sequence of interactions that will lead you to your broader goal. This is all that any videogame asks of its player, and yet, the drawn-out sequencing of these events will bore players who prefer their game lessons to be taught in the whistle of a headshot or the blur of a hairpin corner.
But for those willing to sit back and savour the unhurriedness, the experience can be both enlightening and rewarding, revealing as it does truths about this world even as it paints a vivid picture of another. Axel should be proud: that surely is the highest calling of any artist.
7 / 10