by Jonathan Fortin
reviewed on PC
No middle ground
While it feels like a minimal reward, it's important to get as much XP and cash as possible, because when you die in Pixel Boy, you will lose all of the power-ups in your inventory, as well as all of the XP you gathered since your last visit to town. You'll be left weak and have no weapon other than the practically useless default pea-shooter. This is no problem early on, but from Area 2 onwards, whenever you start a dungeon, you are mobbed by tons of enemies, which run at you from several directions at once. It is extremely difficult to kill so many high-level enemies without any power-ups, especially in such cramped corridors. You can try buying some power-ups or armor in town first, but only if you have the money. And of course, to get money, you need to kill the beasties.
So, to recap: No money to buy-power ups? Go kill beasties to get money. Can't kill the beasties because you need power-ups? Buy power-ups from town. It can become a vicious, stagnant cycle. As a result, the difficulty of the game veers wildly and can change at the drop of a hat. You either feel completely overpowered, or vulnerable to the point of unfairness.
It's not like a change of playstyle will help you either, because there's really only one way to play Pixel Boy: run around and shoot everything in sight. There is a small element of strategy involved in regards to how you spend your limited cash and how much you conserve your ammunition, but the combat itself is almost completely mindless.
I can enjoy challenging games. For example, I adore the punishing difficulty of Dark Souls, but when you die in Dark Souls, you keep your equipment, which is necessary to retain a fighting chance. No matter how many times the game punishes you for your mistakes (and they are usually your mistakes), there's always a loophole that will help you out of a potentially impossible situation. It could be a rare ring that boosts your fire defense, helping you defeat that damn flame demon; it could be resorting to changing your stats; it could be simple cowardice, or grinding. Dark Souls kills you over and over again, but it also gives you every incentive to get back up on your feet. It puts you in a wheelchair, but teaches you how to walk again.
When Pixel Boy kills you, it puts you in a wheel chair, then cuts off your legs just to be extra sure you can't be rehabilitated. If you try buying some cybernetic legs, it cuts those off too, and now you're broke as well as legless. The game absolutely cripples you when you die, making it increasingly difficult to keep playing. And because the combat is so mindless, and the events are randomly generated, dying doesn't always feel like your fault.
This aspect of the game is perhaps best epitomized by the mushrooms, which randomly either raise or lower one of your stats. Usually this is just by a few points, but it sometimes has a severe effect. At one point in my playthrough, a mushroom (or a bug, I'm honestly not sure which) inexplicably brought my maximum health down from 20...to 5. Early on this may not have been a problem, but by this point in the game I was fighting hoards of enemies that could chew through 5 health points with a single hit, meaning that I died instantly every time I tried to continue. And so, due to a random occurrence that seemed to in no way be my fault, the game became basically impossible and I had to start all over again. Not fun. Not fun at all.
The Ear-Splitting Narrator of Doom
Other, smaller problems plague the game from the start. The UI for switching power-ups is needlessly confusing. Sometimes the graphics make it hard to see enemies standing in doorways. And then there's that dastardly narrator.
Right as the game begins, an over-the-top narrator whose voice acting sounds in no way professional proclaims that he will provide witty humor during your quest. He proceeds to provide everything but humor, talking in a silly voice, making all-too-obvious jokes, and even occasionally drawing attention to the game's shortcomings. It isn't until a bit later that the narrator reveals you can mute him in the options screen. Thank goodness the option is there. If it wasn't, I would rate this game a whole point lower. But it shouldn't have to be there. The narrator should either be genuinely funny, or not in the game at all.
The colorful graphics do their job but aren't particularly attractive or artistic. The game uses 3D models even though the gameplay is entirely 2D, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one can't help but feel that the game would be better served by 2D graphics. It would fit the game's title and given how many stunning 2D indie titles I've reviewed in the past year, it seems to be much easier to create gorgeous 2D graphics on a budget. Graphics are certainly not everything, but given Pixel Boy's other problems, the lackluster visuals don't help matters.
Not all bad
The soundtrack fares much better. French artist Pyramid provides an excellent score, which is atmospheric, ambient, and oddly catchy. It combines elements of ambient, chiptunes, and electronic, and it fits the game quite well.
I will also reiterate that the combat itself is fun, mindless though it is. It's great to mix the power-ups together, and there are times when the game really takes this concept and soars. But the game as a whole just doesn't come together well. At least you can mute the narrator.
Mixing power-ups is a blast; solid soundtrack
Annoying narrator; randomly-generated dungeons all end up feeling the same; inconsistent difficulty