I’m a big advocate of striking that perfect balance between accessibility and challenge, especially when it comes to the platforming genre. When I come across a lovingly crafted world filled with wonders, I want to be able to explore every nook and cranny to my heart’s content, and it breaks that heart when I can’t because I’m stopped cold by my inability to execute the pixel perfect jumps required, or I can’t quite make sense of a mechanic that may have been explained better. Lamplight Studios’ A Pixel Story (now available on PS4 and XBox One – I played the PS4 version) is an amazing work that 12-year-old me with better reflexes would have loved to pieces, but current aged me just can’t handle the challenge.
A Pixel Story is lovely. It’s colorful, vibrant, well-animated, and simply a delight to watch in action. The sprites are detailed, and I really like watching the characters “evolve” as they make their way through the game’s 4 generations of gaming history. The backgrounds do wonders to heighten the atmosphere, and Lamplight has done a tremendous job creating a true universe rather than a series of unconnected levels. Enemies are varied, and the obstacles are true to the part of the level they reside in, even when they’re controller-throwingly hard to get past. It’s extraordinary work, and I’d love to be able to see more of it. The music and sound effects are pitch-perfect, making the game a treat to listen to as well as watch. What surprises me most is how well written the dialogue is. It’s not surprising that the team at Lamplight is capable of making me laugh out loud while creating memorable and enjoyable characters for me to interact with. It’s more that story is is usually considered an afterthought for platformers, so it’s very impressive to see that just as much thought went into crafting the narrative as it did in building the world. A very funny scene involving a very poor disguise and some befuddled guards left me in stitches, and will stay with me for quite some time.
Cards on the table time: I can’t tell if the controls for A Pixel Story are a bit off, or if I’ve lost a step in my advanced age. There are times when I think the jumping is too floaty and that my character just doesn’t respond quickly enough to my inputs, but I am willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps my timing is off, and that I’m just not up to the challenge this game throws your way from almost the opening moments. For instance, I was trying to cross a broken bridge (which I’d done successfully previously) when suddenly I’m not longer able to make the same jumps I’d just handled with something resembling grace a few moments before. It’s as if the wind has shifted, now causing me to miss every landing. I noticed that the background had changed (day became twilight), so does that suddenly add to the challenge? If so, shouldn’t the game warn me? Also, how do I handle this new wrinkle since my timing is now thrown off? I found myself having to resort to save spamming in order to get past this and move on to even more difficult obstacles. Yes, save points are fairly liberally scattered throughout the worlds, but I wish they didn’t require quite so much backtracking in order to simply get killed at the same point I couldn’t get past moments before.
There are some wonderful innovations in A Pixel Story that would be game changers for me if I could understand and apply them more regularly than I’m able. Your character’s magic hat is one such marvel. The hat allows you to instantly warp back to it with the touch of a button wherever you placed it. This is incredibly handy for preventing you from repeating long platforming sections by placing the hat down before the challenge and then warping back after getting through. It also incredibly cleverly allows you to conserve momentum and speed if you warp during a long fall or when bouncing off of a spring, which lets you access points you wouldn’t think were possible. It’s brilliant, but I would very much like the game to spend more time training you how to use it versus simply giving it to you and basically making you figure it out on your own with a little flavor text to serve as a tutorial. Since the hat is an integral part of the game, it would make sense to really help players with less spatial awareness (ahem) learn to make use of it in a more controlled environment. When you DO occasionally figure it out, there’s no greater feeling, however.
In order to get the most out of A Pixel Story, you also need to master all of the “Challenge Rooms” designed to test your platforming skills like nothing else. Even accessing these rooms is difficult, so suffice it to say I didn’t complete nearly as many of these as I’d like. It’s a shame because the game basically requires you to complete them in order to collect the orbs you need, but this Guacamelee level of challenge is well beyond my meager abilities. At the end of the day, I think A Pixel Story is brilliantly designed, and well executed, but I just REALLY wish it had an easy mode.