It wasn't until Braid was released that indie games really made their mark on consoles. Since then, it has felt like the industry has held its collective breath, waiting for the next hit out of nowhere. So far, it hasn't arrived. The Xbox Indie portal, with few exceptions, is a mess of unfinished shovelware and massage applications that would make even the iPhone App Store shudder, and it's obvious that anyone with a substantial title is pitching it to publishers instead of putting them on Xbox Live. 2K Games' Axel & Pixel is an example of that idea, and bring a stylish point-and-click adventure to the Xbox Live Arcade. Silver Wish Games have created something magnificently unique on the Xbox Live Arcade, bursting onto the scene with a whimsical, imaginative adventure.
Axel is a French painter, Pixel is his loyal dog. After falling asleep to a mysterious record played by a creepy rat, the duo are whisked away into a dream world, and must find a key to escape. It's not a metaphorical journey, there's no character development or plot twists, it's just a straightforward adventure. The only change as the game goes on is the scenery, which cycles through the four seasons during the 24 levels. Each board is less of a "stage" and more of an "interactive painting." Characters and backgrounds are a blend of stunning photorealism and simple cartoons, creating a contrast that is nothing if not awe-inspiring. Technically, the gameplay can be most easily categorized as a point-and-click adventure, but it doesn't play like most of its contemporaries. Additional elements, like quick-time events and traditional puzzles, help create more diverse portions.
In general, the actual game itself works like a modified point-and-click adventure optimized for consoles. Instead of needing to pick up an assortment of objects and use them to solve puzzles, the game does much of the footwork on its own. While some items are dropped into an inventory, it's never for longer than necessary, and Axel will use the correct tool for the job before tossing it aside. If he can't use an object, or it doesn't have any purpose besides populating the screen, the cursor remains white, signaling the player that the answer to the puzzle lies elsewhere. This makes it easier to discern objects from each other, but still means that much of the game is spent swiping back and forth, looking for the white cursor to glow yellow.
The reason this becomes necessary is because the puzzles aren't always straightforward, which isn't really that big of a deal. The game takes place in a dream world much different from our own; things shouldn't be what they seem at first. Silver Wish compensates for this with an extremely forgiving hint system. If things become too difficult, holding down the Y button will zoom to the next object needed, making even the more difficult puzzles much simpler. While it's limited to three times per level, each stage is usually only comprised of seven or eight moves, so it's more than enough. From the beginning to the end, Axel & Pixel never lets go of the players' hand. The only thing the game won't lead the players to is sketch spots, paint tubes, and bones, all of which can be grabbed for the sake of collection and achievements. The paint tubes and sketch spots, in particular, are used to create a painting at the end of the game, though it isn't necessary to finish the story.
The greatest fault in Axel & Pixel is that there simply isn't enough of it. That's not just a complaint on the game's length, but on the pacing. When it ends, which is after only a few short hours, it feels as though the mechanics haven't fully been realized yet. It all takes place within the mind of a painter, and while it nails the presentation, the idea of Axel "painting" objects into the world is never fully realized, and could have helped expand the story. The final few puzzles aren't much more difficult than the introductory ones, and this leaves a lack of satiation, leaving the feeling that the game is simply incomplete, not just short. It honestly feels like the end of the game is actually just the beginning, and when the credits begin to roll it's a disappointment.
Half-baked vehicle levels try to cut up the monotony of repeatedly pointing and clicking, but the game is so short that they feel like constant interruptions. There's a driving level that feels like a stripped down version of Trials HD, a flying level that plays out like Lunar Lander, and a boat level in which Axel controls the direction of the wind. After completing the game they're opened up on their own as minigames, and are much more entertaining when they're not part of the direct story, though they still feel out of place, and like they were slapped in to stretch a few more minutes out of the adventure.
While it isn't without its faults, Axel & Pixel is a fun adventure that should be a great introductory to gaming for a younger audience. The different elements might seem like they would detract from the focus of the game, but both the quick-time events and puzzle mechanics blend well with the point-and-click style, and are a welcome addition to the game. Sadly, as is the case with most games in the genre, replayability is nearly nonexistent, which is a mark against the title due to its short length. Once it's completed there's really no reason to go back beyond trying to collect all of the objects, which isn't enough incentive to load it up again. For $10, there's plenty more on the Xbox Live Arcade worth getting, most of which is longer and gives more reasons to replay. Hopefully Silver Wish Games' first foray into this generation is successful enough to garner a sequel. The potential is there, and it would be a shame if this is the last time Axel & Pixel take the stage.