November 3, 2014 3 Comments
Before Pix the Cat, the biggest surprise I’ve had at Indie Gamer Chick was OMG Zombies! by Laughing Jackal. Usually, when a game catches me by surprise by being a higher-quality title, it still doesn’t end up ranking extraordinarily high on my Leaderboard. OMG landed in the top 20, and held on for a while. In fact, it was today’s title that finally bumped it down to #21. The thing about Pix the Cat is, I think it’s an even bigger shocker. Laughing Jackal at least had a track record. The addictive and quirky Qix tribute Cubixx came from them as well. With Pix the Cat, their previous titles didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Notably mediocre was their XBLIG title Arkedo Series #3: Pixel! Pretty game for sure, but awful play control and boring, bland platforming. They also did a couple uninspired endless runners for mobile devices, including one featuring Rayman. I think I was perfectly justified in assuming Pix the Cat would be more mediocrity.
And it was. If you play the PlayStation 4 version. However, the Vita version? Whoa.
That’s what makes Pix the Cat so bizarre. On PS4, I found the controls so sloppy and unresponsive that it was practically unplayable. Whereas, on the Vita, I never felt like I wasn’t in full control, even as the game reached insane levels of speed. I actually wondered if it was in my head, but no, Cyril of Defunct Games (who clued me into Pix in the first place) experienced the same issues. Hold on though, because it gets weirder. You can use the Vita as a controller for the PS4 port, and when you do, suddenly the controls are good again. It certainly has given me pause to wonder if I was wrong about how good the PS4 controller is. And really, I think Pix controls bad enough on PS4 that it’s not even worth looking at until they fix it. So, when you see Pix’s shiny Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval, note that it’s for the Vita port. The PS4 version seems to be a tad bit tipsy, so the rest of this review will focus on the port that’s on Vita.
The formula for Pix the Cat is as follows: mix the movement mechanics of Pac-Man (and the timer of Pac-Man Championship Edition) with the puzzle mechanics of Chu Chu Rocket. Then, allow those two to breathe new life into the antiquated play mechanics of Snake (immortalized by the Light Cycle sequence in Tron). The end result? The biggest surprise of the year, at least from my point of view. As a cat, you must walk over eggs. The eggs hatch and become chicks (as in baby chickens, not mouthy indie critics). Then, for some reason, the object is to drop those chicks into bottomless holes. I have no idea why. Maybe Pix’s family is standing under the holes with their mouths open. Maybe the game is trying to soften up people to the idea of culling. Maybe I’ve put far too much thought into this. Anyway, the catch is that you never stop moving (like Pac-Man) and the chicks always follow you in a single-file line that you can trap yourself in (like Snake). You speed up and score bonuses by grabbing all the chicks before dropping any off in a hole. Once you drop off all the chicks, a door opens taking you deeper in the game. The object is to get as deep as you can and score as many points as possible before the time runs out. It sounds simple, and really, it is. Since stages aren’t randomized, you’ll need to rely on multiple replays, memory, and pattern recognition to post to the online leaderboard.
It really says something that the most rewarding part of Pix the Cat is just getting better at it. It feels like an accomplishment. Sometimes I would play for extended stretches of time and barely make any progress at all. But during those runs where everything clicked right, and I would make it just one level deeper than I ever had been? Exhilarating. It’s not just having a good run, but knowing you’re having run and overcoming the nerves, the sweaty palms, and an overly twitchy thumb that’s in charge of everything. I *loved* this game. Not since Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX has a scoring-based game utterly sucked me in on this level, and worked in so many ways.
Is it perfect? Nope. Even though the Vita version controls significantly better than the PS4 version, if you’re on a really good run and the speed is kicked up, there were times where I felt even the most steady-handed gamer would have difficulties making the types of turns and precision movement some of the levels required. I also felt that some of the special effects get in the way of the gameplay more than they make it exciting. Various filters are used to signify how well you’re doing. It reminds me of some NBA games I’ve watched, where they blast the most obnoxious music over the PA system. Songs meant to rally the home team, where I’ve thought “jeez, it must be hard to concentrate with that shit blaring.” In the same vein, all the filters used to make the game seem lively really just distract from an otherwise brilliant game, and I wish you could turn them off.
Oh, and those load times. Pix the Cat has some of the worst in 2014. With games like this, fast-paced, twitchy, and score-driven, immediately dumping into another run right after you finish the previous one is imperative. That “just one more go” mentality I think is the reason Spelunky has excelled to the degree it has. It’s really tough to maintain that strangle-hold on a player’s attention if load times are as excessive as they are in Pix. When you’re rolling really good, you don’t want to wait thirty seconds to begin the next round. Fuck that. My heart is racing RIGHT NOW, and if Spelunky can have me being impaled by a stalagmite one second and beginning my next run in two to three seconds, why can’t Pix? I mean, it’s not like this is Grand Theft Auto V in scale, here.
And those secondary modes, while a nice free addition, really just don’t stack up to the arcade mode. Laboratory is a decent but dull puzzler with similar play mechanics (and graphics) to a variety of iPhone games. Nostalgia is much more interesting. You have to pick up a set number of eggs, which is different for each stage. However, each stage has its own unique style, many of which are fresh and unexpected. What makes it really stand out is the beautiful late 1920s animation style (think Steamboat Willy). Both these modes would be good enough to earn my Seal of Quality if they were sold separately (as of this writing, I’ll say #134 out of 213 listed games for Nostalgia and #190 for Laboratory). What I hate is that you have to unlock them at all. Sometimes, if you’re especially off, you might want to switch modes while playing Pix. The duller Lab mode unlocks relatively quickly. Meanwhile, you need a million points to unlock Nostalgia. For the less skilled among us (cough), this can take a lot of time and practice. Since this mode offers a totally different experience from the main game, and in fact, I’ve met some people who prefer it to the arcade mode (weirdos), it really should be open from the beginning. I wish developers, indie or otherwise, would quit doing this.
Nostalgia Mode’s Trailer. Yeah, they made a trailer just for it, but it takes one million fucking points to unlock. Ugh!
Pix the Cat. What else can I say? I expected nothing, and instead I’ve given up many hours to it, and have been telling anyone who will listen to grab it while it’s still free on PS+. But if you miss it there, I promise you, it’s worth putting up money for. Like Pac-Man Championship Edition or another indie favorite of mine, Orbitron, it feels like the natural evolution of classic arcade style gaming. Where high-scores and prestige ruled the day, and where every minute spent with the title is a minute you spent getting better at it. Pix has a lot going for it. Yeah, I wish the PS4 version didn’t have that input lag, and I wish the game in general toned down some of the special effects a bit, but otherwise, this is a game that will sneak time away from you. And you won’t mind. Even the load times, annoying as they are, seem somehow fitting. It’s a game about a cat, and cats do things at their own pace. Whether you like it or not.
Pix the Cat on Vita is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. The PS4 version needs a little work first.