TL; DR(eview) - A Pixel Story manages to expertly recreate the feel of the games of a bygone era. A puzzle platformer that often requires incredibly precise movement, the game can be controller-throwingly frustrating one moment and fist-pumpingly wonderful the next. The game also features a ton of little nods to gaming history.
A Pixel Story, from Lamplight Studios, original released on PC in March 2015. Nearly two years later, it has made its way to consoles with this week’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One releases. The game centers around your character, a stray pixel deemed the chosen one in a quest to defeat the evil program trying to destroy the System. Throughout your journey, you’ll travel through increasingly complex worlds, ranging from the 8-bit era to modern day, with the help of your guide - a program named Search - and a magical hat that allows you to teleport around the world.
The game’s aesthetic immediately reminded me of Adventures of Pip (which actually came out a few months after A Pixel Story’s original release). As you progress through the story, your character and the world around you evolve through the “generations” from simple Nintendo-era graphics up through 16-bit and into 3D models. You’ll have to progress through various quests and collect enough Memory in order to upgrade into each new generation but there are side quests aplenty to help you collect enough. By the time I reached the key to unlock the next area and progress through the story, I had also naturally collected enough shards of Memory around the area to move forward naturally, without needing to backtrack. But if you don’t stray from the main path, you might need to seek out a few more of these collectibles before progressing.
The game’s central mechanic is its puzzle platforming. It eases you into the game with a series of simple jumping puzzles to give you a feel for how the game handles. Search has you trying to hunt down an artifact that will become the central hook of the game: a hat that can be used to teleport around the map. Once you’ve finally retrieved it from some particularly irksome birds, the puzzle platforming difficulty starts ramping up.
With this new hat in hand, you can move to a point, and with the push of a button leave the hat. The hat, hovering in place where you left it, now acts as a beacon that you can instantaneously transport back to with the push of a button. Want to collect a string of coins by falling down a pit but don’t want to die by the spikes at the bottom? Leave the hat up on the ledge before you jump and then teleport at the last second before the spikes to wind up right back where you were. Those coins, by the way, can be collected to unlock special challenge rooms throughout each area.
The puzzles start out relatively simple: jump to a platform, leave the hat, jump back down and pull a switch that changes the environment, teleport back to the hat, and proceed now that your path has cleared. But as new elements like bouncing light beams (that effectively act as trampolines), saw blades and deadly laser beams, and even programmable clones are thrown into the mix, these puzzles start to resemble the brutality of something like Super Meat Boy (or perhaps more appropriate for the era of games that inspired this one: Battletoads).
One sequence, in particular, has you outrunning the System as it empties the “Recycle Bin” by carefully, but quickly, climbing ever upwards in a scrolling level reminiscent of the Ginso Tree in Ori and the Blind Forest. In stress-inducing moments like this one, long stretches of incredibly precise jumps and teleportation is required just to make it to the next checkpoint. Even when I had solved the puzzle and knew the exact path I needed to take, it still might take upwards of twenty attempts to get the physics and the timing just right. I often found myself needing to walk away from the game entirely and these points so I didn’t throw the controller through my television. But I can admit on multiple occasions breathing a huge sigh of relief or screaming “fucking FINALLY!” when I would at last get through an especially troublesome area.
Helping keep the tensions low in this otherwise stressful game were a frequent tongue in cheek nods to iconic franchises in gaming and pop culture in general (I’m looking at you Rezzy in the yellow hazard suit who screamed “GLITCH” like a certain Breaking Bad character). From the start menu’s Pong tie-in to an out-of-shape plumber turning up as something that had been clogging pipes, the game manages to find a lot of fresh humor in its references, despite some of them being very well-worn territory. My favorite might have been the lab coat and glasses-wearing side character Freeware. Not only does his side quest involve finding and delivering a crowbar to him, but I also still laugh when I think about an obscure line where he mentions a past exploit where he fought a baby (in a nod to the final boss of the original Half-Life).
The humor scattered throughout the game in the form of dialogue between characters, the text descriptions of various items or the descriptions of the collectible memories all went a long way toward making A Pixel Story’s often brutal platforming a little bit more palatable. It took the better part of a week to play through the game’s six main levels (without scratching the surface in terms of additional side quests, collectibles, or the challenge rooms) but the charm and style kept me coming back even when I found myself just wanting to play anything else that wouldn’t brutally kill me time after time.
A Pixel Story is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
A PlayStation 4 review code was provided to Trevor Trove.