Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon – What We Think:
Reviewing a game like Giant Box’s Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon is sort of like reviewing limbo. There’s nothing all that bad about it, but there’s nothing all that remarkable, either.
A top-down shooter dressed up as a dungeon crawler with RPG progression, Pixel Boy is an admirably workmanlike attempt at a well-worn genre. Dungeons and monsters are randomly generated, though the selection palette is limited so they all end up looking and feeling the same regardless.
Disconnect the Dots
The gameplay core is otherwise exceedingly competent, ensuring that Pixel Boy remains fun in the broad strokes. You shoot enemies while strafing to avoid return fire, and you keep doing that until everything else is dead. It may not be an original formula, but it is an effective one.
Novelty comes from the pixilated artwork and the game’s RPG elements. You can craft different armor and weapon combinations to generate unique effects and the power-ups scale appropriately as the game progresses. Some stages will likely have to be repeated until you level up enough to defeat the boss, but the grind is relatively painless and is also kind of intrinsic to the genre. The more you play, the more you’ll understand the game, and the more rapidly you’ll progress through familiar territory.
Square Peg, Round Hole
Unfortunately, Pixel Boy stumbles with many of the smaller details, most notably the claustrophobic level design that makes it tough to navigate tight rooms and corridors with a mouse and keyboard. There are similar issues with the user interface, where the inventory relies almost exclusively on single-letter abbreviations. If you want to know what an item does, you have to leave the dungeon and visit the town shop unless you’re willing to experiment and hope you get lucky. It’s less of an issue later in the game, but it can still be frustrating when the burden of education rests solely with the player.
And yet, the flaws never interfere with the reliable the shoot-and-strafe gameplay and that’s all Pixel Boy needs to be engaging. That’s also why I can’t muster any strong emotions either way. Giant Box has delivered an adequate dungeon crawler and done everything that could reasonably be expected of a young studio.
Some Assembly Suggested?
Most of the shortcomings ultimately seem to stem from inexperience rather than incompetence. For instance, the crafting system is perfectly serviceable, but the game seldom bothers to explain what will happen when you combine two given items. There’s nothing terribly complicated about those interactions, but a lot of the features can only be ascertained through guesswork that often fosters confusion.
The game’s biggest fault is therefore lack of clarity. Giant Box addresses many of the more pressing design questions. It just doesn’t do a good job of communicating that information to the player outside of the first brief tutorial.
The end result is a game that feels like it might be a sign of better things to come. The team at Giant Box knows what it’s doing – all of the pieces are in roughly the right places – but the edges don’t line up evenly and the disconnect is taxing. Pixel Boy doesn’t have a compelling hook to differentiate it from the competition, and without that extra polish it has the taste of a game you’ve probably played before.
So while Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon consistently exudes a respectable pluck, it does so in a world that already has Diablo and the clones of its associated clones. That’s not necessarily the studio’s fault (or responsibility) given the strong display of fundamentals, but it is a reminder that critics and developers can approach the same game with wildly different frames of reference. Giant Box may have created something new, but their painstaking efforts won’t have the same impact on an audience familiar with convention.
Watch the trailer for Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon (2014):