Adventure games have this magical way of capturing the surreal, and harnessing it into a living, breathing on- screen entity that is difficult forget. They're not quite like platformers, hardly the same as RPG's, and the complete antithesis of first person shooters. Anyone who has played The Secret of Monkey Island,Day of the Tentacle, The Neverhood or the King's Quest games has a bond with the idiosyncratic, story driven worlds they experienced without time's shadow lurking over their shoulders. Fast forward to 2016, and it's scarce to find a gripping graphic adventure in the same frequency that blessed the nineties. So when I dived into Paul Pixel: The Awakening, its pretty pixel art wasn't enough to convince me it would be similarly fantastic. Nor did the overused zombie apocalypse theme. But when music that sounds like it sprang forth straight from Stranger Things began pumping, and Paul, the main character began doing squats and melted into a skeleton, I was sold.
Paul lives in a typical house, in a typical city, but with one major difference. Feeling drowsy, he nods off and experiences a horrid dream in which zombies are chasing him. Upon breaking out of his slumber, the TV confirms his nightmare is real: an alien space ship has landed and hordes of ravenous zombies are sweeping the streets infecting any homo sapien who dares to cross their path. Things are simple to start with: You manoeuvre Paul around his house, trying to find any pertinent clues. They're easy to find, but Paul's witty commentary and the tense atmosphere set a good pace for the gameplay, not to mention the deliciously oddball humour. Just outside Paul's residence is a suspicious hipster van, and a hot dog vendor in full swing in the midst of the zombie apocalypse with an air of total indifference towards the impending crisis, because people need to eat, and capitalism is very much alive and well.
Traditional point and click enthusiasts who grew up on a steady diet of monitor and mouse will be happy to know the interface is a natural fit for the touch screens of smartphones; items appear on a tab on the bottom of the screen and can be toggled on and off using a hand symbol. Due to the nature of the puzzle designs, there isn't any option to combine items. But even so, figuring out how to use them in the correct way-whether it be using pipes to break things open, or zombie masks to conceal your humanity-provides a good amount of challenge. Most solutions are quirky and hilarious in their departure from realism. A particular favourite that comes to mind is when Paul jacks up a car and slides a skateboard of all things underneath the front wheel in order to get it operating. If there are any parents reading this review, please don't let this man give your kids driving lessons…
BRAINNNS OVER BRAWN
One of the most likeable things about Paul Pixel: The Awakening is the characterisation of its cool, calm and collected protagonist and the way he propels the story along. Ron Gilbert, creator of The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion and upcoming murder mystery Thimbleweed Park, recently shared his views on the evolution of narrative in point and click titles, arguing that "Adventure games from the '80s and '90s were more puzzle focused", and indeed, this observation is reflected in titles like Life is Strange, Adam's Venture: Origins, and Heavy Rain, which have a much bigger emphasis on story than puzzles. Despite the trend, Paul Pixel: The Awakening sticks to a classic recipe and never sets a foot wrong. Whether Paul is trying to make his way past a growling dog or dislodge tenacious zombies from helicopter landing skids mid flight, the puzzle work is a key ingredient that keeps players glued to the game, without a single shiv in sight. Never overly taxing to the mind, the light difficulty level is well suited to casual gamers, or anyone keen on a portable point and click experience.
Naturally, as Paul entangles himself deeper and deeper inside the apocalyptic zombie web, the puzzles become more complex and demanding but consistently cling to their satirical framework: a doctor at the local hospital is bitten and requires saving, factory employees are forced to camp in the forest until they find the treasure their boss has hidden, and world leaders are more concerned with "multilateral agreements, frameworks, discussions and concrete visions for the future" than actually addressing the problem at hand, so the task of saving the world falls on Paul's shoulders.
day of the undead
Like zombies, pixel art graphics seem to be a popular choice in many independent games and run the risk of becoming overused. The aesthetics of Paul Pixel: The Awakening are simple, with 8-bit characters, items, and pretty backgrounds that capture the nostalgia of days gone past and help preserve it; retro gamers (such as myself) will likely appreciate the meticulous handiwork behind the finished product, but there's one more benefit to restricted palettes in pixel art: many games, take The Secret of Monkey Island as an example, are able to mask and delay the revelation of character emotions for maximum humour. When the pirates pause and suddenly break out into laughter, there's a bubble of tension that bursts and we know Guybrush isn't being taken seriously. The same quality exists in Paul Pixel: The Awakening. A lovely harmony flows between the art style and chiptune, techno OST, although I confess the selection of music genre seemed unusually upbeat for such a morbid situation. At least at first. The more I played and grew to know Paul's cheeky sense of humour, the more I understood the strange, yet perfect chemistry between the art and music.
Like the many adventure games that precede it, Paul Pixel: The Awakening thrives on subtle, nuanced humour and successfully avoids delivering a trite narrative through its novel perspective on the zombie apocalypse. While gameplay is simplified to suit a more casual game audience, the puzzles feel fresh and contrast nicely with the pretty pixel art illustrations that allow for nostalgic reminiscence. Paul Pixel: The Awakening is without a doubt, a graveyard smash.
|+ Infectious sense of humour||– Unskippable dialogue|
|+ Well balanced difficulty||– Story quite short|
|+ Simple, effective pixel art|
|+ Entertaining gameplay|
|+ Ingenious menu design|