Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon is a long title for what seems to be a quintessential indie game: It’s an “Action-RPG shoot- em-up,” as its Steam page describes, wrapped in a retro graphics style, and thrown in with crafting and randomization.
A nerdy-sounding narrator greets the player in the beginning, doing a quick introduction to the game and its movements. The main structure of the game revolves around dungeon crawling in randomly-generated levels, thriving with blocky, pixelated enemies, often resembling real-world animals. The goal in each level is to gather the RGB key, made up of red, green, and blue parts. Assembling it leads to an elevator that takes you back to a quaint little town with inhabitants complete with their own one-liners.
Pixel Boy doesn’t have any melee attacks, but he’s easily-controlled with WASD keys and aimed with the mouse. His main weapons are the titular pixels, an ammo system fleshed out by drops found in the world that can be crafted into crazier and crazier combinations. Starting out with just a plain shot, he can equip up to three modifiers, in the upper right corner. There are a plenitude of ammo variations: Pixels can grow bigger, track enemies, burn them, return back to Pixel Boy, come out from both sides simultaneously, spread out, or give buffs. This doesn’t end here, though: All the various modifiers can be crafted together into a single slot, with up to 15 possible tiers. From there, three of these crafted weapons can be further fused together, with all of the combined effects then working in unison.
The development team at Giant Box Games really got the meat of the game ironed out, and the more effects are piled up, the more show off-y and spectacular the attacks are. My Pixel Boy was more like a Pixel Lord, surrounded by floating, damaging pixels, shooting off circular waves of colorful lights. The game comes complete with a leveling system, stats, and armor, and those compose the RPG aspect of the game. The only thing with crafted weapons is that they’re ammunition based, and players can only hold 250 pixels per weapon. As long as I remembered to go back to town and spend money to refill it, I was fine. Without those weapons, though, later parts of the game aren’t doable. There are some drawbacks to this system. For one, death is particularly punishing. You don’t lose your progress and level, but you lose all your crafted items, leaving the player about as weak as they were at the very start of the game. Spending all the ammo also means you won’t have the blueprints for the weapons you created, as they just evaporate; you can only refill them as long as you have one pixel of ammo left.
However, the dungeons aren’t all that they’re shaping up to be. Although they are randomized, as are the monsters dropped in, they will quickly turn out to be the same, staple configurations. It’s a handful of square rooms, occasionally bigger, including some hallways, with a bunch of the same variation of rooms scattered about. There’s always the same treasure room with exactly four chests (you have to acquire keys on your own), a room with a button that unlocks two additional doors at the entrance, a vendor by the exit, and a few more. Other than that, it’s a random layout of the same rooms with forgettable furniture, reminiscent of a wizard’s dungeon — chairs, bookcases, lamps. Some rooms are much larger, but when I got spread shot pixels with lots of range, I realized how problematic all the tiny hallways and the objects placed around are, as the majority of my attacks dissipated into the walls.
I’m not entirely sure, but the game’s theme seems to be a throwback to the past, a retro trip for the gamer who wants something more old-school. The graphics, instead of favoring a pixelated art style, seem more like PSOne renderings. They don’t really have charm or personality, and they fall in an awkward spot of neither being old-school enough or stylized enough to stand on their own. The narrator, with his “I’m speaking directly to you, the gamer, about the game’s mechanics that you probably already know since you’re a gamer” humor also seems to indicate a more laid back, old-school type. But neither the graphics nor the music mesh well with that theme, and the music done by Pyramid, an electronic music artist, probably wasn’t the best choice for Pixel Boy. The tracks give more of a thoughtful, serious vibe, instead of something quirky and humorous. Chiptune or 8-bit might have made more sense. From the artistic standpoint, Pixel Boy didn’t achieve a uniform theme that works, instead staying dull and forgettable.
Even more problematic about the graphics are the use of basic colors. There are many lamps, lights, and pools using those basic colors, and the worst problem with them is that they can cover up the parts of the RGB key Pixel Boy is supposed to find. The key pieces have been somewhat easy for me to miss, requiring tedious backtracking. There is a map, but other than room layout, it’s not very helpful. It does have popup icons for things like the character’s location, exits, and treasure chests, but otherwise it looks like a an eagle-eye screenshot, rather than a map with markings. You can’t tell where rooms have doors that you didn’t take, and parts of the RGB key aren’t highlighted. With the lamps glowing in the same colors, good luck with key hunting. For the most part, it wasn’t a big issue, but it’s surprising that the map is not more useful. The monsters really should be outlined, because they always surprised me when they were hidden inside the doorways, due to the top down view. Neither can you modify any of your key bindings, even though there’s a “Controls” button on the menu.
Coming back to the crafting system, it’s akin to looking at a period table, with symbols to describe each effect. It gets a little out of hand when you have packed a ton of them, forgetting what you originally put in. Tooltips have been added in recently, but there isn’t a nice info list that displays all the effects of those weapons, and tooltips aren’t visible in the crafting menu. Once your inventory is filled with “Growing Pixels,” the most common type, you can’t drop them in favor of other, rarer ones (or if you can drop it, I was not able to figure out).
Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon is full of small issues like that, mainly with repetitive, unexciting dungeons. It has heart, and good RPG systems, but the trimmings are unpolished and don’t entirely match with the rest of the experience. The result is a game that leaves you with mixed feelings, because there’s still fun to be had. It may not be particularly thrilling, but I did enjoy many parts of it, like armor crafting, although the armor needs to be repaired really often (they all have awesome effects when enemies hit you, but at the same time that breaks it down). As long as I meticulously kept track of my pixel inventory, made sure I didn’t run out of ammo, and didn’t die, the game kept up a fun flow of increasingly awesome crafting. However, dying or running out of ammo is particularly punishing, and combined with some dungeons that really dragged on, it’s easy to get frustrated.
Overall, I would look at other, more polished dungeon crawlers, because although Pixel Boy has been released, there are still many kinks to work out. It’s hard to justify spending money on this title, which swings between an alright amount of entertainment, and duller times. The little technical trip ups pile up, dampening the fun aspects; perhaps the game wasn’t tested enough or the release was rushed. That’s not to say patches won’t help, but nevertheless, it doesn’t make an impactful impression.