Axel & Pixel may be an adventure, but it's a real stretch calling it an adventure game. This freshman effort for Xbox Live Arcade from Silver Wish Games is a pixel hunt masquerading as a point-and-click adventure, with virtually no challenge to any of the levels. Cute protagonists, quirky art, and surreal settings provide humor for a little while, but your smile vanishes when you realize that all you ever need to do is find onscreen hot spots and activate them in the correct order.
What most impresses you right away about Axel & Pixel is that it is weird. The story begins in a cabin deep in a snowy mountain range where artist Axel lives with his dog Pixel. They're sharing a warm and fuzzy moment in front of the fire when an evil red rat cranks up an old Victrola. This is apparently some kind of magic record player, however, as the tune it blasts out sends the duo to a surreal dreamland based on the seasons. In order to get back home, Axel and his canine pal have to chase this dastardly rat through a couple of dozen levels that progress from spring to winter. As usual in adventures, progress is constantly halted by various barricades, forcing you to use your noggin to clear the way forward.
Or not. Each scene is incredibly simple to figure out because all you need to do is move a sparkly cursor around in search of objects that can be manipulated. As this cursor lights up and changes into various icons whenever you roll over something interesting, you'll find that this isn't exactly difficult. Each level consists of just a single screen whereby you hunt around for a few minutes, figure out the order in which you need to activate everything, and then push on to the next screen in search of a showdown with that annoying rat. Three tips are available on demand in each level as well, if you happen to get stuck (you won't). It can be kind of interesting to see what Axel and his four-legged friend need to do to clear the way forward, although you never feel involved in the action. You're more of a spectator than a player, sitting back and hitting buttons to yank the characters around like digital marionettes. So even though the game is clearly geared for the younger set, it has a hands-off quality that kids will likely find off-putting.
It's actually a good thing that the puzzles are so easy because there isn't any logic to be found here. Axel and Pixel themselves are odd caricatures, like something out of an indie comic. There is a compelling innocence about the pair, though, with Axel looking like a bohemian Harry Potter who doesn't have a clue what he's gotten himself into. He communicates through odd grunts and groans, too, which highlights his helplessness and gives him a lovable idiot personality. The backgrounds have their charm as well, consisting of detailed terrain that runs from lush green summer valleys to snowy winter wonderlands. But they are all so surreal that it's impossible to reason your way through them. Levels are so unrelentingly strange that they defy description, being populated with giant bugs and birds, alien fauna, and impossible creatures. Even the rat turns into some sort of grinning demon. All of this craziness, of course, takes its toll on the actual problems that have to be solved because you generally can't make heads or tails of any of them. How on earth could anyone sane rationalize that you need to hit a bird to get it to drop an egg that you will then crush and water to grow the beanstalk necessary to climb onto the back of the creepy turtle/tank thing?
A handful of more action-oriented gimmicks are tossed in to liven things up a bit. Whenever you need to climb a tall structure, throw a rock, or evade a boulder that the rat has tossed your way, you're hit with onscreen icons denoting Xbox gamepad buttons. If you hit them quickly and in the right order, you survive. If you mess up the timing or hit the wrong button, you fail and fall to the ground. At first, these little interludes are kind of engaging. They're different, and the button-push pattern changes with each attempt to keep them fresh. But then they start popping up unexpectedly. What you can climb automatically in one level suddenly becomes a button-pushing challenge in another. They also begin with no warning, so you typically wind up dead the first go-round. And when the required button speed ramps up, the timing feels off. Sometimes you die even when you seem to nail every button push perfectly. Occasional levels feature set piece brain twisters, such as having to reconstruct a pyramid that the rat just blew up. Collectibles like bones for Pixel and paints for Axel can also be gathered. These aren't the slightest bit demanding-- just time consuming. A few minigames also pop up as wannabe boss challenges and can then be played on their own for high-score bragging rights over Live leaderboards. All are pretty boring, though. You rely on simple button presses to pilot a balloon through a cavern, race a buggy over hilly terrain, and guide a little sailboat on rough waters. After a couple of run-throughs of each, you'll have seen all that you ever need to see.
If it were a 400-point trifle, you could almost forgive Axel & Pixel for all that it lacks. But for the full Xbox Live price tag of 800 points, you expect a little more than the couple of hours of diversion that this romp through dreamland has to offer. That said, the quirky lead characters, unique art style, and bizarro settings offer great fodder for a sequel…as long as the developer makes better use of these assets and turns them into a real game.