A Pixel Story kept me smiling and thinking about it long after I had settled down my controller. Originally developed for the Dare to be Digital initiative by the University of Abertay, the video game developmental competition got Lamplight Studio’s debut game awarded by BAFTA as “one to watch” and it was more than deserved. The Manchester based studio has a gem in its hands and with this first game under their belt, have instantly made me look forward to whatever they’ve got planned next, that said, my time with A Pixel Story is still far from over.

There are a lot of cliché’s in A Pixel Story but they feel less like a lack of creativity on the part of Lamplight Studio and more like an ode to video games. Take for example the premise of the game, you star as a voiceless character often simply referred to as “Program”, and with the help of a talkative guide, you undertake a journey to save the world, or in this case “The System” – the inside of a sort of fantastical computer – from an evil tyrant called “The Operator” who forcefully took over from the previous benevolent leader now recognized as “The Old Operator”. These simple titles make it easy to understand the story without having to pay much attention to it, but if you are interested in the tale spun, then there’s heaps of lore ready for you to devour. Beyond that lore, the story is definitely enticing and believe it or not, you may genuinely shed a tear both in laughter and sadness throughout your adventure – I did.

Your voiceless character is the chosen one, and you emerge from the simple life of being a ball in a game of pong. A Pixel Story is a puzzle platformer in the truest sense of the world, there aren’t any physical enemies, and instead you’re more so dealing with navigating through the environment, well, other than the end game sequence itself. The puzzles themselves are a challenge, even if you find yourself well-versed in puzzle platformers, you’ll definitely come across puzzles that will force you to pause and think critically. The puzzles are generally divided into two steps, the trial and error period of figuring out what exactly it is you’re supposed to do and then the trial and error period of actual accomplish that task. A lot of things come down to perfect timing and great reflex. There were a great deal of puzzles where I felt my solution to it was so far out there, it couldn’t possibly be the way through but it was. Lamplight Studios forces you to think out of the box, you might be surprised by what actually works.

Ordinarily, this sort of trial and error mechanic, whilst isn’t bad, can draw a great deal of frustration in most games, but the developers have nearly mastered the way to toss that frustration aside. You can only save at certain checkpoints but these checkpoints are generally so close to each other, you’ll never go long without passing across them, furthermore, each checkpoint allows you to fast travel to other ones, so you’re never encumbered with the hassle of having to navigate through a puzzle you already completed to go back across the map, which is all good considering how often you’ll be traveling back to places you’ve been to. Another thing that you’ll be doing often is dying due to the instant-death system, it’s a part of the game, there’s no avoiding it – if you do manage to survive this game without ever dying, then I bow down to your ingenuity and skills. Fortunately, you’re never graced with a game over, nor do you have to spend a quarter of a minute going through a loading screen, it takes literally half-a-second and you’re back to undertaking the puzzle. I can’t tell you how much that stilled any frustration that might have built up. There was never any fear of dying due to an interminable in-between screen and in turn the fun was never curbed. While trial-and-error and instant-deaths might often come across as things we tend to dislike in a game, it’s done so well you can’t complain about it.

The variety of puzzles keeps you on your toes and ensures you’re never greeted with boredom, there’s always an added element to make that new world’s puzzles take on a new facet, and often these new elements combine with old ones to make increasingly challenging puzzles. Most of these center around a powerful hat that allows you to teleport, bringing to mind the sort of puzzles you’d find in a game like Portal.

Earlier I mentioned Lamplight Studios nearly mastering how to steer that frustration aside, allow me to elaborate why they didn’t quite succeed. There were often smaller, more insignificant puzzles in between checkpoints and the larger puzzle at hand. It’s a minor gripe, but having to go through these smaller puzzles to get back to the one you were struggling with felt a tad tedious with how well they’d paced the game beyond that. It simply felt like they could further avoid any frustration by avoiding that insignificant puzzle or ensuring it preceded the checkpoint. In my frustration, sometimes I’d end up even failing that one while rushing back to the one I was looking forward to completing.

Earlier on I mentioned the game feeling like an ode to video games, whereas in the story it’s less clear, it’s far more evident in the art style and the soundtrack. The game spans across four generations and four world’s demonstrating the evolution of platformers and games in general. From the pixelated first generation that brings back to memory the likes of Mario and Megaman, to the picture-esque third generation word not unlike the recent beauty of Child of Light and Rayman Legends. The game demonstrates this evolutionary art style in more ways than one, it’s not simply a gimmick, and it’s incorporated into the story. The third generation is an industrial mess brought forth by The Operator in order to advance the computer at a great cost, the fourth generation is a futuristic Tron-like world. The soundtrack accompanying you through the game evolves along with the environment, and will definitely get nostalgia running through.

You could also say the puzzle mechanics tend to match that evolutionary ladder we see throughout the generations. Particularly the last sequence brought to mind something incredibly prevalent in modern games, you’ll either hate it or love it, and I’ll leave that for you to decide. I felt it worked perfectly with the theme behind the game and simply made me fall deeper in love.

For the most part, the game is extremely polished, while I came upon one glitch, Lamplight Studios were quick to solve that particular issue and I was right back into my adventure. It took me a total of 10 hours to complete the main campaign of A Pixel Story and I felt like I only scratched the surface. I focused on seeing the story through and this was far from a completionist’s run. There are collectible items shown as diamonds you can get from accomplishing some of the puzzles spread throughout the world’s that give you information on the lore that I still need to recover. There are also challenge rooms aside from the main story that themselves carry a special sort of diamond, these challenge rooms will make you sweat, trust me. Your companion throughout the game introduces you to these dungeons of sorts before claiming he wouldn’t blame you if you walked away (in a far more vulgar fashion), I shamelessly walked away. After several failed attempts, I’d stopped and analyzed the entire puzzle, it was definitely doable, but I sincerely felt it would take me a minimum of an hour if not hours to beat that sole room. The “Prepare to Die” motto attributed to the Dark Souls series would not be out of place in these rooms.

A Pixel Story is already garnering attention as an “Indie Game of the Year” candidate among those who’ve gotten their hands on it from its earlier origins or its latest iteration, I’d like to beg to differ. A quarter into 2015 and A Pixel Story is the best game I’ve gotten my hands on period, it hits on all the right notes and definitely deserves to be up there with the bigger titles, there are so many more good things to say about Lamplight Studios debut but at the risk of rambling, I’ll let you see that for yourself. It’s unfortunate it’s only limited to PC for now, I’d really love to see A Pixel Story brought forth to all consoles, the more people can get their hands on this masterpiece, the better.